Top tips for honest science messages in the media

13-kate-elliottScience is often misrepresented in the media. The BIR supports the charity Sense about Science in their call for all research to be openly and honestly reported. This year we supported one of their Voice of Young Science workshops called “Standing up for Science” held on 16 September 2016 in London.

Here, Kate Elliott, Medical Physicist at  Mount Vernon Cancer Centre was one of three lucky BIR members to attend the workshop which gave young researchers top tips and advice on how to get their scientific messages across as clearly and accurately as possible.

 

I hate speaking in public and even the thought of writing this article terrified me. Why then, you might ask, did I apply to go on the Standing up for Science media workshop?

I often get annoyed at the coverage of science in the media and the misuse of statistics and results. Recently, the Brexit “debate” has left me ranting at friends, and I often find myself defending junior doctors on social media. When I received the email from BIR advertising the media workshop, it struck me as an opportunity to learn what I could do to positively influence the public perception of science, and to hear first-hand from journalists about their involvement.

The first session consisted of a panel of three scientists who told us of personal experiences with the press and offered advice based on this. An example which stood out to me as a healthcare scientist was Professor Stephen Keevil’s use of the media to highlight a problem with a new EU directive on physical agents[1], which could  have caused problems for MRI. Politicians took heed of his criticism, and effected a change to the directive in Brussels. This was a great example of how the media can be used effectively to influence policy – something that is likely to become increasingly important in the next few years.

The second session was a panel of three journalists, who explained their daily process for13-standing-up-for-science-workshop-sept-2016selecting and pitching stories. Science stories are selected based on interest, accessibility, and importance. These are pitched to the editors, who decide which ones to take further. The journalists pointed out that their duty is to their audience, not to science. Unfortunately, science has to compete with news on David Beckham’s haircut. Time constraints are also a problem. They write multiple articles a day (I’m three weeks and counting on this one…), so it’s important for scientists to be available to discuss their research on the day it’s published.

The third panel was about the nuts and bolts of how to interact with the media, and recommended campaigns such as Sense about Science’s “Ask for Evidence” campaign.

I left the event with the following advice to keep in mind:

  • If you disagree with something: speak out. If the public only hears one side of the story, that’s the side they’ll believe.
  • Stick to a few key points. Get those across, even if it means having to ignore questions or turn them around in an infuriatingly politician-like way!
  • Be available. If you’ve put out a press release, you need to be able to respond quickly. Journalists work to very stringent time scales, so being available in a week’s time is going to be too late.
  • Talk to the public. Attend events such as Pint of Science, or become a STEM ambassador, because that will really help you learn to speak in layman’s terms and get you used to answering obscure questions.
  • Get training. If not full media training, a workshop like this is a really good way to be slightly more prepared – and you get to hear about all the interesting science other people are involved in!

Image: BIR members  Jim Zhong, Kate Elliott and Maureen Obioha Agwanihu who attended the workshop

[1] https://www.myesr.org/html/img/pool/MRI-Report-Stephen-Keevil.pdf

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