Sense about Science workshop – Science meets the media

On the 14th June of this year (2013) I got up extra early and wandered on down to London for the day. I had received an email from the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) a few weeks before, asking if any of their student members (of which I am proudly one) would like to attend the free Voice of Young Science –  Standing up for Science media workshop for event. Having looked into I decided it looked fun, and as I have a somewhat significant interest in how science is communicated to the public, I deemed it very relevant and applied to SfAM for a space.

For those of you who have never heard of the organisation Sense about Science, they aim to provide people with the tools to make better judgement on scientific fact and evidence, or maybe more importantly, what is portrayed as scientific fact or evidence.  Science, and my area of interest, microbiology, is no stranger to misinformation of scientific evidence causing issues with greater society. Examples are numerous and ever increasing in numbers, from the wrongly popular unproven link between MMR vaccination and Autism to the more extreme view held by some that HIV does not cause AIDS, to the disbelief of the widely accepted theory of evolution. In all of these cases, science has been misrepresented, either by the media (MMR), by people who apparently refuse to acknowledge hard scientific evidence (HIV) to people who don’t seem to understand what evidence is, and how it should be used (evolution). Regardless of what personal views people hold, it is well acknowledged that the media have a great power in supplying science to the people, after all, how many non-scientists will read through scientific literature instead of watching BBC Breakfast for their fill of science?

The day was held at the Society of Biology, in the aptly named Charles Darwin House (the home of a few biological learned societies). The morning sessions were focusing on scientists experience with the media. A panel of four scientists gave their stories/experiences of working with the media to share their scientific knowledge or expertise. There were some interesting stories, examples of good journalism, examples of bad journalism, and a mix of thrill and fear. What I took away from the morning session, following a few questions from the floor, was that scientists want to share their stories, but can be wary of the big bad evil media.

Following some coffee (which I managed to spill everywhere – standard) and lunch, we began to debate what was important in terms of scientists communicating with the media. In our group, one man made the argument that journalists didn’t seem to care about the science, and were only after a soundbite. In a newspaper report on his work, the journalist would only talk to him for 5 minutes, giving his story 200-300 words. He felt this was unjust as it would take at least 15 minutes of explanation for anyone to understand his work. His thoughts were generally disagreed with our discussion group, and I explained that if his story took a 15 minute explanation to understand then it wasn’t really suitable for the media, but he could not understand how this was true, as he felt his research to be highly important. This highlights an interesting point, scientists must take a step back from their work and evaluate what is really important to the public? This conversation alone is evidence that science communication to non-scientists, in terms of current scientific research, is far from being understood.

The afternoon session turned the tables on the scientists. It was time for the panel of journalists. Of course these were all good, upstanding journalists, representing the BBC, Nature and a freelance health writer. They gave accounts of the pressures they are under from editors, and the requirements of scientists to be available when they  are needed. Suddenly the floor of scientists were quite on the ‘evil journalist’ front, as I believe they started to understand journalists were not out to destroy their scientific career, but instead wanted to tell the stories scientists had to offer, but themselves have a difficult job in being able to achieve this.

Overall the workshop was fascinating. It was quite an eye-opener into how science and the media work together. But the take home messages where simple, if you want your scientific research/story to make the press:

  • Make it as short and sweet as possible, include a hook
  • Be available to the media to answer questions
  • Don’t be afraid of silence as an answer, don’t let yourself be liable for anything potentially untrue
  • Be helpful, and ask for a copy to review before the piece goes to print

I would certainly recommend this workshop to anyone with an interest in talking about their research to the media, and in particular would like to draw attention to the other things Sense about Science does, including the ask for evidence campaign, which I hope to write about soon.