Science and the media, advice for young researchers

Voice of Young Science is an initiative that aims to lay siege to the academic ‘ivory tower’, by giving young researchers the skills they need to engage with the media and public discourse. Led by the charity Sense about Science, and hosted at the uncharacteristically sunny University of Manchester, the media workshop promised a series of Q&A panels with perspectives from both sides of the academia-media relationship.

Up first, a panel of researchers who are more than familiar with the swings and roundabouts of media engagement: Dr Rachel Tilling, a UCL-based climate scientist whose research on sea-ice monitoring continues to hit headlines; Professor Matthew Cobb, a zoologist and media favourite with the home field advantage; and the University of Sheffield’s Professor Allan Pacey, a sperm and fertility researcher whose expertise are regularly sought-after.

All shared some experiences of good and bad engagement. Tilling expressed frustration at consistent messages from her research being warped into alternative stories, but seemed positive about having been dropped in at the deep end and coming out on top. Cobb spoke about a recent foray into the media storm surrounding de-extinction and the rebirth of mammoths, and how a small remark on Twitter snowballed into a generously-packed media schedule. Pacey meanwhile reminisced about shooting down a Heinz-funded press release which rather too conveniently overstated the benefits of baked beans for male fertility.

Advice for young researchers came thick and fast during the Q&A. We were encouraged to engage with science stories that we felt were misleading by contacting journalists directly, either through social media or email. By being professional in how we confront these stories, we can hope to avoid the majority of backlash from other researchers within our field. Pacey explained that whilst the scope of your knowledge and ‘comfort zone’ may start out small, with frequent engagement it can grow with your own confidence. Although, this does come with the caveat that you may find your limits by overstepping them. Tilling emphasised the importance of knowing your stuff, and engaging when your expertise is most relevant. On the topic of contentious research areas, such as animal testing, we were advised to emphasise the benefits and necessity of such work.

We were also given personal accounts regarding how to navigate the differences between media work recorded live, such as TV and radio, and that which is written or pre-recorded. When working live, unexpected questions can be dodged with some tricks of the trade, such as sticking to your guns and redirecting the topic back to what you know and answering the questions that you want to answer. Having a set of key points to put across can provide a scientist with the foundations of structure for a discussion or interview.

Personally, I was interested in how we can confront the image of science either as a definitive, infallible voice, or as a squabbling entity that fails to make its mind up. The reality I feel is somewhere in between, and the dichotomy as it stands does little to help our credibility as leaders of public discussion. We were advised to tread carefully when confronting other researchers in the media, and to agree where we can to avoid the ‘bickering scientists’ stereotype. Usually, scientists dispute minority issues within the field, and emphasising this is important. On the other side of the image problem, by stressing that uncertainty exists within science we can give ourselves some wiggle room when ideas and understanding inevitably change in some way.

Next up, we met the people whom we’d have to convince to work with us, the journalists. The panel was staffed by BBC Radio Manchester’s Pav Bhatti, science writer Peter Ranscombe, and former health editor of The Sun turned freelancer Jane Symons. It was interesting to hear how hectic their schedules are, and how much competition there is for attention. To stand out among the hundreds of daily emails, it can help to provide as much of the story as possible. Similarly, you may fail to even have your email opened without a tantalising email subject. Graphical abstracts can be a great way of quickly getting your message across to a journalist, but also provide a desirable visual accompaniment that can be copied directly into a media piece.

We also discussed bias in the media, and how good science can sometimes feel left behind by a media that seems uninterested. In Ranscombe’s own words, “we get the media we want”, and so to boost the theme and amount of science that gets reported, we as scientists can engage more with the public and society at large to generate the appetite.

Top tips from the panel included to keep your science simple, practise your pitch to non-science friends and to really make the effort to make contact in the first place; our research is important and exciting, but it’s our responsibility to make other people see that.

Our final panel focussed on ‘Standing up for Science’, and addressed everyday things we can do to immediately put ourselves out there. The usual social media outlets were emphasised, but putting articles together for websites such as The Conversation and The Node can deliver exposure and practise in equal measure. Likewise, we were advised to engage with media outlets that would provide a working relationship between writer and editor, as editorial input is an invaluable source of guidance as we develop the skills to turn our research into stories.

All publicity is good publicity as they say, and putting yourself out there and building confidence were the take homes of the day. What may seem intimidating and insurmountable at first can, in my opinion, become a rare and valued string to your bow. As I come to the end of my PhD and begin to appreciate the competitiveness of the research job market, it seems that being able to engage with the media is a skill that can boost the impact of your research and give you the edge when competing with peers for post-PhD work. Likewise, those same skills force you to take a step back from your research and gain some big-picture perspective, which becomes incredibly useful when generating questions for your own research and putting what you already have into context.

The workshop was informative and valuable and I’d recommend taking a look, getting involved and taking advantage of what Voice of Young Science has to offer.


Image Rights

By Sollok29 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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