When it comes to science, I have always been a great believer in the importance of public engagement, so when the opportunity arose to attend a media workshop entitled ‘Standing up for science”, I jumped at the chance – after all, what greater platform through which to communicate your research to the public than the media? Held by Sense about Science, in partnership with The Physiological Society, at the University of Glasgow on 20 November 2014, this workshop was specifically for early career researchers and split into three sessions, each detailing different aspects of science media.
The first session, ‘Science and the media’, led by Professor Lee Cronin (University of Glasgow), Dr Kirsty Park (University of Stirling) and Professor Richard Sharpe (University of Edinburgh, addressed issues often faced by scientists when engaging with the media. As all three panellists had experienced, the media often incorrectly report various aspects of scientific research, highlighting the importance of learning how to explain your work clearly and concisely without the use of scientific jargon. Nevertheless, many publications are often open to feedback and, as Kirsty Park explained, it can occasionally lead to publication of amendments or response articles. Lee Cronin then discussed the importance of preparing an ‘elevator pitch’ and furthermore suggested using analogies to make complicated scientific concepts more understandable to non-experts.
A session entitled ‘What journalists are looking for’ followed lunch. Eleanor Bradford (a BBC Scotland health correspondent) and Peter Ranscombe (a freelance Journalist) discussed their experiences as journalists, beginning by outlining a typical day. The immense time pressures were immediately clear, which led to an important point: if a journalist calls to talk about your research – take the call! When you do finally reach a stage where you feel ready to talk to the press chances are they will no longer be interested. Also discussed was the importance of a good press release; journalists receive hundreds each day, the majority of which they discard without even reading. Ensure an eye-catching title and emphasise why your work is important and interesting to stand out.
Another very interesting point that I took away from this session was that being involved in the media does not necessarily involve a quote or interview. The vast majority of journalists lack a science background and therefore often need scientist contacts to provide clarification of scientific concepts – in this way it is possible to contribute to improving the representation of science in the media without directly putting your face to a story.
The final session offered guidance for how early career researchers can get their voices heard. Victoria Murphy from Sense about Science gave information on their various projects, including one of their great success stories: the ‘Ask for Evidence’ campaign, which had resulted in the WHO condemning the use and promotion of homeopathic treatments for several serious diseases. Furthermore, Sense about Science has its own group specifically for early career researchers: ‘Voice of Young Science’ (VoYS). Lindsey Robinson, a PhD student and a VoYS member, gave her account of how VoYS had helped her to get involved in science media and highlighted the benefits of practising your writing through blogs or student newspapers. Finally we heard from Ross Barker, a media relations officer (MRO), who emphasised that if you don’t know where to start on your journey into media, MROs are always there to help and lend a guiding hand.
Overall, it was a fantastic workshop, which I found extremely informative. I think one of the greatest take home messages was that even though as early career researchers we may feel underqualified and inexperienced, there are platforms available at a variety of levels to begin engaging with the media. From Twitter and blogs, to Sense about Science’s ‘Ask for Evidence’ campaign, through small steps it is possible to make a big difference in how the media represents science.
Amy Warnock (This article was published in Physiology News 99)
Top tips on engaging with the media*
“The main thing is not to be scared of the media. A lot of early career scientists hear the scare stories and think it’s an ‘us and them’ situation when it isn’t.”
“Be prepared to say, “What’s the focus of your article going to be? What’s the slant?” and then be able to say, “Well actually, I don’t agree with that and I don’t feel I can give you that sort of information”.”
“A good interviewee is sparky, uses colourful language, and explains things in a simple fashion. If you work in a complicated area of science, it is splendid if you can use analogies from the outside world. These are the sort of things that will always make it into a quote.”
“Do a bit of homework, sit down and think, “What do I want to say here? What are the things that are fun, or interesting, or original, or novel, or useful about whatever it is that I’ve done?”…Ask yourself how would you tell your grandparents about what you’ve done at work today?”
From press officers:
“Press officers want to hear about your findings before they come out, so come and have a chat first.”
“Remember you are not addressing your peers but the public.”
“Unless it’s of interest to a wider audience the media won’t pick it up.”
“The first time you see yourself quoted you’ll think, “did I really say that?” but try not to worry.”