Standing Up for Science media workshop

How do scientists get their research into the media? How do journalists find the best science stories and report them accurately? What do you do when a companies or politicians make outlandish claims without evidence?

These were some of the questions asked in the Standing up for Science media workshop I attended this month. Run by Sense About Science, these workshops are a chance for early career scientists to come together and discuss science in the public eye.

The day was split into three sessions, all held at the prestigious Society for Chemical Industry in London. The first two sessions focused on the experiences of scientists and journalists working with each other. The final part gave us, as early career scientists, advice on how to get our voices heard and stand up for the science that we do.

The scientists’ view was that journalists are generally helpful and want to report science accurately and fairly. But sometimes, whether through journalists’ heavy workload, a lack of experts to explain research, or ‘hijacking’ of the press by campaign groups, science gets misrepresented.

One of the speakers was Gia Aradottir, a research entomologist at Rothamsted Research. Work she was part of found its way into the news when a planned field trial of wheat expressing aphid alarm pheromones was threatened by the campaign group Take the Flour Back. She had felt compelled to speak to the press because of the protesters’ unwillingness to speak to the scientists directly.

Aradottir’s main message was: prepare for the unexpected. She recalled a planned Today programme outside interview that, due to technical problems, turned into a last minute live phone interview with an unprepared James Naughtie. In a TV interview meant to last three minutes, she was cut off after 30 seconds, failing to get her points across. She advocated using a politician’s approach to interviews: have three main messages, get them across and don’t deviate.

But Aradottir and her fellow panellists, Mark Thomas and Malcolm Sperrin, didn’t want other people’s bad experiences to put scientists off talking to the media. They agreed that engagement is part of a scientist’s job and that there is a duty to explain research to journalists, particularly if you’re approached to discuss your own work. “If you don’t talk to them, someone else will,” said Aradottir – and that second choice might not have your expertise.

Another piece of advice from the day was to practise writing press releases and to get to know your institute’s press officers – advice shared by Mark Thomas and by Michael Stacey, a press officer at Nature Publishing Group. Such press releases are available on institutes’ and journals’ websites, and many are collated on the EurekAlert site, where they are sorted by discipline. They usually follow a specific structure: a summary of the research’s main message, followed by summaries of the key results, some context and quotes from the scientists who did the work – often from the principal investigator as well as the postdoc or student. Writing a press release yourself helps you think about your research in a wider context, and gives you experience writing for a nonscientific audience, according to Thomas.

One of the most fascinating parts of the day for me was the insights we got from Jane Symons, a freelance journalist who worked as the Sun’s health editor for five years. She spent her time at the paper championing good health research and criticising pseudoscientific claims. She described a newspaper office as a very combative place, where each section is competing for space in the paper.

Where does a science article come from, then? For specialist journalists such as Roz Pidcock from climate science news website Carbon Brief, a news story often starts with scans of press releases and journal abstracts. She then goes on to read a chosen paper and contacts its authors for quotes, before she writes the copy. Feature-type stories arise differently, often from conversations with scientists. Such pieces would feature not only the science, but the scientist too. Audiences like personal insights to complement research, according to the third panellist, the BBC Radio Science Unit’s editor, Deborah Cohen.

So what is it like standing up for science in the media and why are there not more-early career scientists doing it? In a group discussion, it became apparent that many of us simply felt we weren’t qualified enough. A common concern was that journalists and others in the media would have no interest in the opinion of a lowly PhD student. None of the panellists agreed that this was a valid concern, however. It seemed that it was merely a matter of confidence and that journalists are perfectly happy to hear from early-career scientists. Some of the panellists even felt that speaking to the people who did the research gave them a better insight into the work. One of the panellists, Amara Anyogu, had gained confidence in standing up for science through the Voice of Young Science (Voys) network, which anyone can join.

Finally, we heard from Chris Peters about Sense About Science’s Ask For Evidence campaign. This is a chance for anyone to challenge claims made by companies, politicians, pressure groups and the press without evidence to back them up. The campaign has had enormous success, including getting Marks & Spencer to withdraw their MRSA-resistant pyjamas that had yet to go through a trial; stopping a claim by a company called Wireless Armour that its silver-lined underwear could protect against ‘dangerous radiation’; and triggering an internal investigation at Vision Express when one customer asked for evidence to support sales staff’s claim that, without new glasses, her vision would deteriorate.

I had a fantastic day at the workshop, and it was great to carry on discussing with the other participants at the pub afterwards. I learned a lot about science in the media, and I also enjoyed learning about everyone else’s research, covering a huge range of science, engineering and medicine fields.

If you want to know more about Sense About Science’s campaigns, visit their website. While you’re there, you can join the Voys network, which helps encourage early-career researchers to engage people, whether through the media or otherwise. More workshops are held throughout the year and across the country. And, of course, if you see a dubious claim being made, simply ask for evidence.

By Mabon Elis, PhD student in Enrico Coen’s research group.

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