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Science and the Media – Dos and Don’ts

Have you ever wondered how the media can write (often cringingly inaccurately) about a recently published scientific paper? Attending Standing up for Science media workshop organised by the Sense about Science charity shed a lot of light on this issue for me

There are times when the media are hungry for any news, mostly during the summer months or when they are having a ‘slow’ news week. We have all seen “a funny shaped vegetable” and “dog running after deers” stories in national newspapers and on television. So if you want to get a story about your work out there, you can, just be aware of the potential outcomes – from it sinking without a trace (not the worst case scenario) to a sudden media frenzy and misinterpretation.

On the basis of what I learned during the workshop, I have compiled a list of tips for approaching and managing science communication.

Think globally, do locally

Do tweet and blog about science, this gives you an exposure to a wider world and experience in communicating science. Your University or Faculty may also have a blog or a list of students and staff blogs, you can start there. If not offer to set up one to promote your institute’s activity or offer to assist in managing the content of an existing one.

Do put your story into human context. For example, start a story about a new sewage treatment method you developed with stating how many people die from drinking dirty water worldwide each day or each year.

Do talk to your boss about your intention to publicise your story. They are usually busy people, all too happy to leave a required but rarely liked part of their job, science communication, to other people. However, they may see a bigger picture or a flaw with your results interpretation.  They are most likely a named author on your work so its reporting is their business too and that of your co-authors which leads into my next point.

Don’t let your supervisor discover your contact with media while watching BBC Breakfast. Many if not all universities have a policy on media engagement and you may require permission to talk about your work. Cover yourself and ask first.

Do contact local media, they are hungry for news and interesting stories and stories reported in the local newspapers etc are often picked up by the national media.

Going national

Do talk to your University press-officer/media liaison officer. They are usually journalists by training, so they know how to sell the story and when the press need an expert opinion in time for a publishing deadline will contact them first. If the press officer knows of you as being willing to engage with the media they will be more likely to put you in touch with the journalist or agency. They can offer you much advice on how to engage with the media.

Don’t allow them to make grand conclusions from your data. If you see an increase in your mouse model survival after treating it with a drug, encourage them against saying that this is a “miracle cure”.

Don’t leave the final press-release completely in the hands of the press-officer hands, the contents are also your responsibility. Press-releases are going to special search engines, such as the European AlphaGalileo, where you can put “an embargo” (it will not be published until a certain date), but not much else. Make sure you get to read the press release and that you are happy with it before it is published.

Rules of the game

Remember that scientists and those in the media work using opposing principles, it’s like comparing marathon running to show jumping. Science requires planning, preparation, careful data accumulation and data analysis. Journalists work on tight deadlines and sudden changes of heart, and their reporting priorities can be affected by anything from the weather to a political party meltdown. Your story can be dropped at the 11th hour or unexpectedly picked up again it’s a fickle business.

Do be available to be contacted after your initial interview in case the journalist or press officer needs to clarify an important point.

Don’t be upset if something goes wrong – the media have very short attention span, all will be forgotten very soon. If you are concerned about something that was reported inaccurately seek advice it may be possible for it to be clarified.

What are your tips about science communication?

PS: The rather cool illustration in the header for this article was drawn by a multi-talented Manchester University Biochemistry student called Abid Javed.

Image Credit: Abid Javed

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