Last Friday I attended the Sense about Science (@SenseaboutSci) and Voice of Young Science (@Voiceofyoungsci) media workshop. Sense about Science is a charity that promotes good science and VoYS is their branch designed for people like you and I – Young Scientists, they want to teach us how to stand up and have a voice, they want those of us in the know to stand up and promote good science. Sense about science puts on a few of these workshops every year and the placements are limited, so to get a place was great! Thank you Sense about Science and VoYS for choosing me – I think I learnt a lot 🙂 .
The workshop was held at the Society of Chemical Industry, Belgrave Square, London and consisted of a couple of different sessions:
- A panel with scientists– this focused on their experience of working with the media
- A panel with journalists – this was probably the most insightful session!
- A panel all about Sense about science – Victoria and Chris from the charity, a VoYS member (Amara) and a press officer from the Nature publishing group (Michael Stacey).
The sessions were structured so that each speaker had a chance to introduce themselves and speak a little about their experiences, we were then free to ask a variety of questions either to the panel as a whole or to specific speakers. I thought I would give you a few of the key messages I took from each session:
The Scientists perspective
Overall the scientists on the panel had very positive experiences of working and engaging with the media, but they also had some lessons to teach us, the first of these was; have your key points (they recommend three) and keep going back to them, it’s ok to repeat yourself especially when the concept is new to people. Secondly they wanted to point out that while sometimes stories can be mis-represented, this is often not intentional – we as scientists need to make sure we provide a clear and full description of our work. Finally the “granny test” was put out there, this is simply explaining something in terms your gran would understand, if you don’t expect your gran to know something you should be explaining it.
The Journalists perspective
This session provided so much information – the most important being that science writers do actually read papers not just press releases. This immediately changed my perspective and the information given about time constraints really opened my eyes. Below is a little bit of what I learnt about each form of media:
Newspapers: The news desk is a competitive place – science writers are fighting hard to get their stories published, the competition ranges from economic to political to celebrity stories and turn around times are tiny – often less than a day, there isn’t time for a journalist to let you poof read what they write the majority of the time, and if you do get the chance you need to do that immediately – too slow and you lose your chance. In the context of the fast paced news room this is understandable. Finally we learnt that a story is not the sole product of a journalist, once it leaves the journalist it goes to a sub-editor, an editor, etc. etc. etc. there are many more steps to the process than we as scientists realise.
Bloggers: An interesting one for me as a blogger myself. It was pointed out that bloggers enjoy a lot more freedom and can often delve slightly deeper into a story, however they still face similar editorial and time pressures as newspaper journalists. Blogs offer the chance for something more specific, for example our speaker Dr Roz Pidcock is an editor at Carbon brief – a blog/website all about climate change issues. Importantly when the media does run slightly awry with a story a rebuttal or correction on a blog can often be a great way to get the information you want out there, blogs can be picked up quickly by the mainstream media, and therefore are a great platform for getting your research seen.
TV: Different TV shows take different approaches so prepare yourself, some ask questions in a more aggressive manner than others. Certain topics become popular for various reasons, “celebrity scientists” such as Prof. Brian Cox raise interest, the Nobel prize announcements come around or a celebrity story raises the profile of an area of research (we were given the example of Kylie Minogue and breast cancer).
During the Q&A we talked about abstracts, earlier in the session it’d been mentioned that journalists often begin by reading the first and last line of an abstract to get a feel for a piece of research (something to remember). So later on the question was asked should we as scientists change the way we write abstracts? Make them clearer? The panel gave a resounding YES! This is definitely something I will bear in mind in the future.
Sense about Science
This final panel was varied. We learnt about the role of a press officer from Michael Stacey, and how interacting with them is often the best method to ensure you get your information out there accurately. Building a relationship with your institutional press officer was recommended as they are often contacted when journalists are looking for scientists to discuss a particular story (at the moment it’s Ebola). Interestingly having 3 main points to discuss about your research was mentioned again in this panel – it’s clearly an effective strategy.
The rest of the session focused on VoYS and Sense about Science. I want to pass on a plug for their Ask for Evidence campaign – it is simply asking companies for evidence to back up the claims they make. If companies can provide evidence this is great – they can publicly promote this, if they can’t then we, the public, benefit by being aware of unsubstantiated claims. They can tell you all about it much more eloquently then I can so check out their website, you can also find out more information about VoYS.
Thank you once again to Sense about Science and VoYS for putting on this workshop and for giving me a place. Hopefully you can see I learnt (and am sharing) a lot. Going to events like this is such a great way to meet other scientists, I arrived on my own but quickly got chatting to several other people – something I don’t think I would’ve been able to do this time last year. I had a great day and hope I can get involved in some VoYS projects in the future.