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June 28, 2010

Getting help from the press

Blurring the lines of national coverage

For five days, esteemed scientists and elite journalists gathered on Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles, east of Aruba, to loll on the island's fine beaches, sip cocktails at the Tipsy Seagull and perhaps marvel at the flamingoes for which Bonaire is famous.

The official purpose of the October 2002 gathering of the Pew Charitable Trusts marine fellows was to train the scientists in the ways of the media, the better to market their message.

"Learn how to navigate the stormy waters of the media," read the description of one Bonaire workshop. "Packaging your message is a key to success — whether talking to the media, submitting a paper to Science or Nature (magazine), writing a grant proposal, or writing an op-ed for your local paper."

But it wasn't all business.

The workshops were followed by "barside discussions" as the sun-soaked setting blurred the line that usually separates reporters and those they cover. So, too, did it blur the line between trainers and trainees.

The scientists being trained on Bonaire had a ready pool of journalists on which to practice what they were learning about working the media. The list of reporters invited to Bonaire was a who's who of science journalism: Cornelia Dean of the New York Times, Natasha Loder of the Economist, Charles Alexander of Time magazine and Tom Hayden of U.S. News and World Report, among others.

Dean told the Gloucester Daily Times her trip to Bonaire was paid for by Pew, the powerful nonprofit that uses its multi-billion-dollar endowment to steer public policy on the environment and other issues.

While the New York Times has strict standards against junkets, Dean said, an exception is made for "teaching," and that's what she was doing in Bonaire.

"My goal was to help scientists to speak more clearly to the public," she said.

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