How to make friends in the media and help people

The key to good science communication is keeping the audience interested. This means anticipating the thoughts and questions of the audience, whether that’s a conference, the public, or your mum.

Anticipation is a good thing. It means you ‘should’ be prepared. And by resonable logic the earlier you start anticipating the more prepared you are going to be come question time. Yet question time is often a variable left undefined until the actual moment itself. What does my audience want.

The academic scenario is initially and recurrently daunting, putting your hard work and uncertain/forced decisions out in front of colleagues and peers for dissection. The bread and butter of scientific research. Through being important for individuals and the field of science as a whole, the regularity with which this takes place makes it very easy to anticipate what is needed. The entire procedure of creating science is shored up by knowing what dissection could take place and this benefits all aspects of the research. Aside from possibly the speed of completion.

The audience that some may feel is the toughest to interact with is actually the mother. Trying to explain why you are analysing a particular part of the brain whilst presenting “random pictures” is only made harder when you accidentaly over-speak and find yourself trying to boil down what a fast fourier transformation is. The whole situation is in fact an opportunity, not only for your family to understand better what you do but for you to understand better also. Elevator pitches. Boil down your research into a spiel that can be given and understood during the journey in an elevator. Finding analogies and simple language that can convey your research will help you see your research from a slightly different point of view, save you time and hassle in future conversations and also disseminate your research further and in a more meaningful way. Albeit on a small scale.

The final audience consists of everybody else. The fabled public. The reason for and facilitator of all scientific research. With such a large and quite often faceless audience, from a researcher’s point of view it is easy to feel that they are either too tricky to interact with or that it does not matter if you do. Having had experiences in science based public engagement I have always had greatly reduced levels of both opinions in my mind, yet I felt recently that I needed help in overcoming the barrier that reduces my interaction to specialised events. This would be getting my work and opinions out to the public somehow. An opportunity arose to participate in a Standing up for Science media workshop. Join other young scientists in speaking to senior scientists and journalists about science in the media, sounds good. My previous experiences at academic workshops unfortunately have often left me feeling like I am wasting my time, being told that since I am young I probably know more about the topic at hand than the chairperson for example. After this one however I left feeling much better about the format.

There are things to know. I left the session with several hints, tips and reaffirmations which seemed genuinely important. Some of these are based on the views of scientists trying to get their work out to the public as intact as possible, others are based on the journalists who are employed to sell.

As a scientist you want to publicise your work firstly for your own good. There’s no point in hiding that. People talking about your work is only ever a good thing and could even lead to more grants, jobs and research posibilities in the future. Science is a career at the end of the day. For this reason you want your work to be portrayed in the best light that it possibly can and seen by as many people as possible. Sometimes this means not wanting to give the elevator pitch and instead go into better detail to show off how impressive it is, identifying its exact impact and reach (this includes its limitations).

At the workshop we heard from three senior academics with varying levels of experience with the media, with one in particular even being asked to write a blog for a news site. This is clearly the jackpot for self promotion and dissemination, the kind that could lead, as he ‘joked’, to a nobel prize. (If you don’t think you can you never will). There is no issue on his side with getting the entire story across if he feels it is necessary, though he was a particular fan of the elevator pitch idea. This was less easy for others with more sacrifices needing to be made. But one thing that is immediately relevant was his assertation that scientists have a right to say what they want. This comes with the dislaimer that if you bad-mouth employers or colleagues then you will almost certainly be fired. Of course. But given that this line of conversation started due to my apprehension and frustration over writing things on social media platforms, it was a welcome relief. Free speech exists even when employed and your science can come home with you.

Discussing science in social media

The shift these days from newspapers onto the internet has lead many to hail the occasions when organisations and individuals have made huge errors online and posted embarrasing and damaging things, with jobs being lost as a result. This makes people scared and unwilling to use these frankly revolutionary platforms. Twitter, facebook and blog sites to name but a few have helped the work of thousands and allowed the public to know more about what they want to know about. It cuts out the middle man, the journalist.

Cutting out the journalist to many seems like the perfect scenario, all your own words and none of the lies and mistakes. Newspaper and TV were the platforms for the classic science communication horror stories of the past where the public, the researcher or the journalist, sometimes all three, has suffered due to very poor articles being published (think MMR jabs). This could not only be a career nightmare for a young scientist who may have done nothing wrong, but also impact on the second reason many people become scientists in the first place, to do good and help people. If the public suffers as a result of your science being misconstrued or misrepresented then it impacts far more than just your career. This can have emotional and physical ramifications for all involved.

Yet in the second panel session with the journalists at the workshop we all became rather aware of just how uncommon these mistakes and issues are. The odd decimal point error that went almost unnoticed and a failure to keep to an embargo is about as bad as it got. In fact it was stressed by all just how important journalists can be to science. It is all very well writing about science but you need someone to read it. That is why one of the key take home points was ‘If a journalist calls about your research, take the call’. You may be busy now, but tomorrow the newspaper may not want to talk about your work. Having someone hear about your work when you weren’t able to form the most perfect spiel is better than having nobody hear about it at all.

The remainder of the workshop revolved heavily around not being scared to write about science and demanding good science from others. The campaign ‘ask for evidence’ is an example of one group looking to challenge bad or poorly represented science in the media. This should not be a task specifically for more senior staff, but one that all should feel capable of and free to do. If people don’t trust the science of others in the media then they may not trust yours.

Then comes the common issue of having good research, wanting the world to know about it, but no press calling you up like they would a senior scientist. Making friends in the media comes with cooperation and time. Sometimes scientists will even just be a contact to better inform the journalist about the background to a scientific area, no quotes in sight. This can benefit the scientist when they are needing some column inches but is also sometimes an unselfish contribution to the field. When it comes to getting the attention of the press, think about what will make your audience interested, what is new and important about your work. What will make a journalist who is inundated with emails every day take notice of yours. And if in doubt, press and media officers are employed to help with these things!

When it comes to participating in science communication involving the wider public audience there are plenty of key messages, but the one which I will be taking on board more than any other will be this:

Write and talk about science as much as you can, enjoy your science with others, just don’t be stupid about it.