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Science Communication

Communicate well with the media, or someone else will

Career | Opinion | Researchers
Communicate well with the media, or someone else will

The media can be a gateway to a wide audience. What can you do to make the most of such opportunities?


A 2013 study published in PNAS stated that “Most scientists consider visibility in the media important and responding to journalists a professional duty…”[1]. And rightly so. Nobody can replace a genuine expert in a given field. Hence, the media need people like you to help them get the facts right. If you don’t stand up for science, then who will? Potentially, people less qualified.


As a person who has worked across both web and TV, I am strongly of the opinion that if the media have sought you out for your expertise then their goal is not to trip you up. In a recent Sci Comm webinar for Science Magazine, Laura Helmuth, an editor at the Washington Post, said the same thing about the press. She stated that “Scientists sometimes think of journalists as snakes, dangerous and difficult to predict. But as with real snakes, they are more scared of you than you are of them.”[2]

When the media call, they are usually looking for insight, facts and a better understanding. You can get your message out to the world through them and you can also use the opportunity to ensure that the information they broadcast is accurate. All you have to do is share a few moments of your time and trust that good journalism will prevail.

Help your journalist 

A good journalist or production researcher should have done their bit by exploring their topic sufficiently before contacting you. You should not have to give them all the background info. However, to get the best out of interactions with the media, there are certain things that you can do to make the whole thing run smoother. As a media trainer I always give this advice: “Before meeting a journalist, anticipate or ask for their questions before speaking them.” [3] That way you can prepare your responses. Where possible, take a few minutes to jot down important info and chew over the topic at hand. 

Be ready to explain things simply. Science writer, Ed Yong warns to “bear in mind that if something is riddled with jargon, I can paraphrase it, but I can’t really quote it. [4] That’s a little riskier for you, because maybe I might inadvertently misinterpret something you say.” If you do some of the leg work, then you can meet in the middle with your media contact. And that’s the best place to be for everybody. 

Speak with certainty

As a respectable scientist, you probably believe that you should not talk in certainties. In research circles we all use terms like “our data suggest…”, “these results defend our hypothesis,” and so forth. And, yes, that is all well and good when you’re dealing with people from the scientific community. Unfortunately, however, this ambiguity can leave you open to be misunderstood because the outside world tends to work in a manner that is much more precise. Hence being clear and straightforward leaves less room for interpretation.

In the same way, flowery language doesn’t help people working in media translate your science easily into a story either. Science communicator Richard Berks even says not to use terms like “ground-breaking or game-changing”, [5] that don’t really mean anything. I agree. Instead, it is much better to say, “this medication will improve lives for many over 65’s” or “this technology will lead to better protection of personal data”. 

Assert your authority

You are an expert in your field, so you know what other experts in your field think too. People in the media don’t have the same comprehensive vision of the research landscape that you do. Media contacts may ask you about possible counterarguments and misconceptions. Put them straight. Make sure that your voice as an expert is heard and become a spokesperson for the scientific community. 

This was the message of a recent publication in Nature Communications, which called for climate change scientists to “exert their authority in scientific and public discourse”.[6] In their paper they state that an “overwhelming majority” of scientific experts agree that human activity is responsible for climate change. Yet, according to their recent analysis, a whopping 49% more media articles featured experts vouching against this theory. It appears that, somehow, the idea of a consensus is being diluted by a few voices with a disproportionate amount of coverage. Be assertive enough to pierce through. 

Conclusion

Media outlets are great ways to get research findings out to the wider world. By giving them a hand as an expert, you are contributing to the pool of true knowledge out there. Be a media pro: respond promptly, keeping your answers clear and concise. That way, the journalist will call you first again next time, which is great because if it’s not you they are talking to, then it could be someone else who is less rigorous - and nobody wants that. 

 

References and links

  1. ‘Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators’, Hans Peter Peters, PNAS, 2013 Aug 20; 110 (Suppl 3): 14102–14109. Published online 2013 Aug 12. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212745110

  2. https://www.sciencemag.org/custom-publishing/webinars/selling-without-selling-out-how-communicate-your-science. Accessed May 11, 2020.

  3. https://agentmajeur.com/science-communication/. Accessed May 1, 2020.

  4. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2013/05/22/a-guide-for-scientists-on-giving-comments-to-journalists/. Accessed April 29, 2020. 

  5. https://richardberks.co.uk/blog/how-to-write-a-quote-or-comment-on-research/. Accessed April 30, 2020. 

  6. Petersen, A.M., Vincent, E.M. & Westerling, A.L. Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians. Nat Commun 10, 3502 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09959-4


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