Historically, scientists and journalists have never really got along. In general, scientists tend to be a little … mistrustful of the ability of a journalist to accurately portray their research to a wider audience. In return, journalists may find that scientists can be difficult to work with. The research the scientists present can also be a bit confusing or complicated. But they need each other. Scientists need journalists to get the message about their research across, and newspapers like to print science stories because their readers are interested in it.
Knowing that the science/media relationship can be somewhat antagonistic, the charity Sense About Science has set up a series of workshops as part of their “Voice of Young Science” section. The aim is to help foster a better relationship between early career scientists and the journalists that report scientific stories. These workshops encourage scientists to stand up for themselves and their subject by responding to misinformation or dubious claims in all kinds of media.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend the recent Voice of Young Science media workshop at The University of Manchester. The day was split into several panel discussions; the first involved scientists discussing their experiences with the media – both good and bad – and advising how to get the best out of their situation. Amongst the speakers was Professor Matthew Cobb, from the University of Manchester, one of the advisors on the BBC’s recent “Wonders of Life” series (this counted as one of his “good” experiences!). Professor Cobb’s main advice was to “Just say yes”, because nothing will happen if you say “No”. It may not turn out as well as you’d hoped, but the experience will still be valuable.
It’s easy for scientists to be scared about the way their results may be interpreted by the media. These fears are illustrated by a horror story from another panel member, the evolutionary biologist Dr Susanne Shultz. Dr Shultz had discovered an evolutionary link between social animals and increasing brain size over time, as opposed to solitary animals, whose brains had more or less remained the same size. A misunderstanding somewhere along the line meant it was reported that she had discovered that dogs (as a social animal) were more intelligent than cats (as a solitary one). These were not her results, meaning she had to repair quite a lot of damage. However, whilst Dr. Shultz had a horrible time dealing with misinterpretation of her research, she didn’t think it had done permanent damage to her scientific credentials, which was a relief to hear.
Another panel consisted of people on the media side of the equation, including the science journalist David Derbyshire, as well as Radio 5 Live producer Rebekah Erlam, and Morwenna Grills, the press officer for the Faculty of Life Sciences here in Manchester. There was a sharp intake of breath when Derbyshire admitted that he has written for certain tabloids which are not particularly well-regarded for their science reporting! However, he raised some very good points that I’ve never thought about before. The one that stuck with me was that the turnaround time for getting a story into a newspaper is incredibly short. You’ve got to investigate the story, track down those involved, write it and send it off, sometimes in the space of a few hours. This is not an ideal situation, as scientific stories in particular need proper research to make sure you thoroughly understand it, and this takes time. But what do you do if that time is not available to you? And if your piece is sub-edited into something different, is there a lot you can do about it?
The thing that struck me most about the workshop is that scientists and journalists really need to communicate with each other more effectively. Without journalists reporting on scientific matters, scientific research would never reach the public consciousness; and when you have an important message to get across that would be a very bad thing. Scientific breakthroughs are usually of great interest for the general public, whether it’s about a potential cure for cancer or horsemeat in our burgers. It should ideally be a trusting relationship for both sides to get the best out of the arrangement, and at the moment it is inherently the opposite. The good thing about workshops such as this one is that it helps each side see the situation from the other’s point of view; I certainly feel a bit more understanding towards science reporters. Hopefully the journalists on the panel feel more sympathy towards scientists and why they can be quite protective about their work. Perhaps more events like this can help to heal the rift between these two opposing factions.
For more information about the Voice of Young Science media workshops, please go to: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/workshops.html