A couple of weeks ago I went to the Standing Up for Science Media workshop at the Royal Society of Edinburgh organised by Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust. Their aim is to respond to the misrepresentation of science in the media and to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion. Approximately 50 PhD students and postdocs participated in discussions with experienced scientists and representatives of the media in addition to forming their own break out mini-discussion groups.
I have been to a few science communication workshops in the past but the style of this one stood out. The organisers really emphasised audience participation therefore encouraging a lively discussion. The panel for the first session consisted of three scientists David Reay (geosciences), Paul Hardaker (Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society) and Sergio Della Sala (neuroscientist). Each of them shared their experiences with the media, both good and bad. These ranged from being upgraded to a John Humphreys interrogation on the Today program at a moments notice to arguing about the minute difference and ‘significance’ between bar heights in a graph. One of the most difficult things to master seems to be getting to the point of your research and producing a memorable sound bite without over simplifying which can be difficult in a very short TV or radio interview. Sergio’s advice was to communicate with journalists via email as much as possible so that you were not misquoted and could include the relevant details.
This session was followed by lunch where the participants broke out into discussion groups. Our group focused the problems that journalists and scientists face in communicating science. For the journalists, I threw scientific publishing into the ring, pointing out that many journalists don’t have access to certain papers because they are sealed behind the journal pay walls, therefore they have problems verifying or delving further into the work unless the journal has deliberately sent them the paper. From the scientist’s side it seems that time constraints mean they don’t always have time to write press releases on their work. Another point raised by someone in our group struck me as quite elitist, the suggestion that the public don’t understand science due to a lack of education/intelligence, an opinion that I don’t subscribe to at all. If someone doesn’t follow a scientific piece then that would suggest the article is not written clearly enough. This is also why I hate the expression ‘dumbing down’ because it suggests a certain contempt for the audience.
When listening to the radio or reading an interview with a scientist I frequently hear the interviewer starting their question with, “Now not that I can possibly understand this but….” This attitude is also something I encounter with friends working in non-science disciplines occasionally. Why do they perceive science to be so much harder to understand than other subjects? Are the intricate details of economics, architecture or the law simple? Science still has this geeky stigma which people maybe don’t want to be associated with and I suppose that may have something to do with it. Anyway, this situation certainly does not apply to all journalists of course and we were fortunate enough to meet three at the workshop.
Three journalists were included on the panel for the afternoon session entitled, “What journalists are looking for.” My initial reaction was that they dealt really well with an audience that came with preconceived ideas about how science stories are handled in the media. No tabloid journalists were there, otherwise they might have been given a tougher time by some of the more vigorous members of the audience. Two of the panel were from newspapers (Lyndsay Moss from the Scotsman and Helen Puttick from the Herald) and one from TV (Eleanor Bradford from BBC Scotland). It was interesting to learn how different the research and reporting process could be between print and television media. Like scientists, for journalists time is always a factor but in contrast to the long drawn out scientific publishing process that lasts several months (or more) print journalists have one day to produce a concise, well researched story and have it approved by their editors before it becomes old news. Time is even more tight for Eleanor who often has less than an hour to put together a one minute and 45 second clip for BBC news. Their tip for scientists with an interesting story was to tell them as early as possible in the day to give them the maximum amount of time to put together a report. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to corner any of them for a chat because they all departed after their session, probably to meet deadlines!
Perhaps some of these time constraints could be overcome by scientists if they contact the journalists a few days in advance of their paper coming out? Indeed this does happen via the journals with the embargo system but this will only occur with a small proportion of papers. Many universities have a press office that is prepared to assist scientists with writing press releases or practicing for interviews and this is a useful resource for anyone thinking of communicating their work. Another issue to arise occasionally was that of trust. Several scientists are concerned that they might be misquoted and are therefore suspicious of journalists. I think it was Eleanor who pointed out that it was in her interest as well to ensure that the story was accurate and that the interviewee was comfortable with the final result so that she could maintain the relationship.
Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the post workshop chat in the pub because I had to go straight to Stirling for the a Girl Geeks weekend that I will blog about later. It was a really interesting day though and was really well organised and executed by Julia and Lindsay from Sense About Science. It was a good idea to put scientists and journalists together to discuss how to work together and I hope it will happen again. It benefits scientists to get out of the lab occasionally to meet with journalists and inform the public about what they do, most of us are publically funded after all.