Lost in translation? Science in the media

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2009

Nuclear power, packaging, climate change and transport are just some of the areas that are receiving more column inches and airtime in the mainstream media. Scientists’ input to the debate is vital, but often they feel misrepresented or ignored. Rupal Mehta explores the relationship between science and the media, the challenges, and why it is a three-way street.

‘Be prepared’ may well be the motto of the Scouts and Girl Guides, but the slogan could aid scientists in dealing with the media.

Companies would never consider bringing a product to market without doing their homework and establishing good links with the rest of the supply chain. Communicating with the media is no different – every link in the chain, be it scientists, press officers or journalists, has its role to play. When one element is ‘faulty’ or does not do its job properly, the quality of the output is affected.

This was never more apparent then when scare stories surfaced about the alleged dangers of autism in children injected with the triple measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

‘It was the biggest science PR disaster of all time,’ says Tom Sheldon, Engineering Press Officer at the Science Media Centre, based in London, UK. ‘And the effects are still being felt today.’ The UK’s Health Protection Agency has reported that 2008 saw the highest number of measles cases (1,348) since monitoring began in 1995.

The ‘majority of these cases could have been prevented, as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR,’ says Dr Mary Ramsey at the Health Protection Agency.

The powerful and pervasive influence of the media is clear. ‘The blame for MMR rests squarely at the feet of the media,’ adds Sheldon. ‘There’s no getting away from the fact. But the people who were covering MMR were not, in many cases, science journalists. They were general news correspondents [with a different agenda]’.

Staying silent?

Examples such as these raise alarm bells among scientists, creating a vicious circle of mis- (and often no) communication, and breed a ‘why should we bother?’ attitude.

Sheldon points out, however, that public suspicion or misunderstanding can stem from silence on key issues. He notes that coverage of research into fuel-efficient and quieter aircraft engines has been lacking or overpowered in the recent furore over the local and environmental implications of a new runway at UK’s Heathrow Airport.

He says, ‘We phone the press officers for the big companies, and are often told there is no-one available, or are issued with a statement. I understand there is a confidentiality issue, but if you don’t put the record straight, then you only have yourselves to blame’.

While communicating with the media is not for everyone, if those that can, choose not to, ‘it leaves a vacuum that is filled by the views of the ignorant’, says Norman Waterman, Chairman of the IOM3 External Affairs Group.

Waterman says, ‘I [too] was becoming increasingly frustrated with how science was being portrayed. It was always scare stories. The media don’t question the pressure groups with the same severity. But scientists need to put across the facts, the positives, while acknowledging the negatives. If you don’t take them on, you can’t complain’.

Making the link

Knowing how to get your voice heard, however, requires an understanding of how
the mainstream media work. This is different to technical and specialist media.
Waterman says, ‘The [mainstream] media are concerned with a short time scale and
simple messages. Scientists [however] work on a longer time scale and like to give
a balanced view’.

The Science Media Centre aims to bridge this gap. Its goal is to make sure that science reporting in the national news is ‘accurate, responsible and evidence-based’ by helping journalists locate experts to comment on a story and supporting scientists to respond to these queries effectively and promptly.

The main point for academics and industry is to try to understand the mindset of the news journalist by respecting deadlines and filtering their research down to two or three key messages (see below for top tips for preparation). ‘Don’t expect to be able to read your academic paper and leave it to the journalist to decipher the key points – they might get it wrong,’ says Sheldon. ‘Also, pick your favourite bits of misinformation and deal with them directly. Try to meet the possibility of sensationalism head on and pre-empt the question.’

Irene Mallis, Managing Director of Communicate Media Consultancy in London, echoes this view. ‘In dealing with print, radio and TV, be sure about what you want to get across,’ she says. ‘Often people tend to be reactive, but they need to be more proactive. You must respond to the questions but also think of it as an opportunity to get your message across.’

For a general news outlet, scientific jargon, complicated formulae and abbreviations are a no-go area. ‘You need to think about how you would get it across to your neighbour, friend or partner,’ adds Mallis. Make it tangible to them, or it may be ‘spiked’ for something more interesting.

For example, in addressing fears that nanoparticles could penetrate the nucleus of the human cell, also explain that research is ongoing to use this in drug delivery for cancer patients. Address the positive and the negative.

Taking a stand

Essentially, the science story is competing for space with politics, sports and entertainment, and can be dropped at the last minute in an ever-changing news agenda. By putting specialist science correspondents in touch with researchers, ‘you empower them with the knowledge to get the go-ahead from their news editors to write or broadcast that piece’, insists Sheldon.

In the same way, you enable them to explain to their superiors why a potentially sensationalist scare story should not be run. Sheldon explains, ‘There is internal tension in all these media organisations. Journalists don’t always have the final say in what their article looks like. The first paragraph and headline can get chopped up by sub-editors to be more appealing. But the more clearly a piece of research is explained, the better equipped the journalist is to fight the case for the story to be accurately presented’.

‘Managing expectations is [therefore] a real challenge,’ notes Craig Brierley, a committee member of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine Public Relations Association for press officers. ‘Scientists don’t understand that the work they have been doing for years needs to be written up in 250 words or presented in 60 seconds airtime. Likewise, journalists are not sensitive to the fact that scientists will not have a definite yes or no answer.’

Public relations

Good science press officers can therefore act as the vital third link in the chain. The relationship between the scientist and the press officer is key – ‘bad’ science journalism can sometimes be down to miscommunication between these two elements.

As much as the public, and often journalists themselves, may argue that it is the reporter’s job to go out and investigate, the reality is that while some are lazy, for others time is a limiting factor in a 24/7 news cycle.

Brierley says, ‘The science media landscape is changing. Science newsdesks are getting busier and they are relying more on information given to them. If we get it wrong in the press release, that will make it into the paper. You cannot get coverage by exaggerating the findings – it’s damaging to the scientist’s reputation and public trust of science. There is a fine line between making a journalist interested and making sure you don’t overstate your findings’. Phrases such as ‘medical breakthrough’ and ‘cure’ should be used sparingly, he adds.

The press officer could therefore be a useful contact for the inexperienced. Telling them about your research, a media request, or a contribution you want to make to an ongoing debate ensures that you get the best advice.

‘Press officers should get out there, talk to scientists at meetings, go to the lab and build that relationship. Likewise, we rely on scientists to let us know when they are publishing an important research paper,’ explains Brierley. ‘It is up to the two of us to discuss the potential issues – could there be a negative slant taken on the research? It develops trust.’

For smaller universities that do not have a dedicated science press officer or PR agent, or where resources are tight, Brierley suggests looking to other research partners. Often multiple companies, universities or funding bodies are involved, and they may have more resources. Getting the information out there might have to outweigh a desire to promote a specific partner.

Taking the bull by the horns

Ultimately, though, scientists cannot micro-manage everyone in the supply chain, but they can control their own approach.

The British Science Association runs a Media Fellowship, which involves a placement of three to eight weeks with a national media organisation.

‘You can only learn so much from training courses,’ says Nigel Eady of the Association. ‘It helps to experience the pressure. Writing a 500-word story in a couple of hours about a subject you know nothing about, and trying to make it engaging, is difficult.’

Matt Rooney, a Mechanical Engineer at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, in Didcot, UK, spent some time working in the Times Higher Education office last summer. His decision to apply for the scheme characterises his belief that science communication ‘is very important. I wanted to learn about writing for a general audience’. He is also a science and engineering ambassador to schools and on the communication committee for the UK Science Technology Facilities Council.

He adds, ‘What I also gained [from the Fellowship] was good contacts. I introduced a couple of my colleagues to a contact at the BBC, and that led to a story on its website’. He is positive about the recent coverage on the large Hadron Collider, which in some media was based on exaggerated doomsday stories about a black hole. ‘People did not take the black hole story seriously. It might have been a blessing in disguise. Friends asked me about particle physics!’

Rooney believes the public have a right to know about state-funded research. Waterman supports this stance. He says, ‘It is in the small print [of project funding], but it’s not paid much attention. I would say if a year has passed since the project finished, and nothing has been put out for the wider public, there should be a stop on more grants until it’s done’.

Finding the time, however, is not easy. In a 2006 report on Science Communication by the UK’s Royal Society, 64% of those surveyed agreed that the need to spend more time on research was a major obstacle, while 20% said that scientists who do engage are less well regarded by their peers.

‘There isn’t enough emphasis in the Research Assessment Exercise [for universities],’ argues Waterman. ‘Some people say that it is technology transfer. It’s not. It’s proving that the money you had has produced something.’

And a pat on the back from your peers always helps.


Top tips for preparation

• Find out as much about the interview as you can – what is the deadline of the piece, who else is being interviewed (is it someone with an opposing view), do they need visuals, what is the angle of the article/bulletin, is it live or pre-recorded?
• Decide what your three key points are and explain them clearly. This is important as you cannot expect to see the article before it is published.
• Do not sensationalise your work to be heard. Be honest and direct.
• Get support from your press office and colleagues about how to communicate.
• Respect deadlines. If you cannot help, be pleasant and refer them to someone who can.
• If telephoned, don’t respond straight away. Take down their details and call them back, giving you a few minutes to collate your thoughts.
• Often a journalist will make a statement (a negative lead) as part of their question to you. if you assent to it or don’t address it, it could be said, or interpreted by viewers on television or radio, that you agree with the statement. If you don’t agree, refute the point immediately.
• E-mailing over a statement is no use to a radio or TV bulletin. E-mailing to recap your points after a press interview is acceptable, but do it within the deadline.
• Think about your target audience and don’t assume that the journalist or press officer has specialist knowledge.
• There is no point collaborating on a press release if the scientists concerned are not available or willing to speak to the media in the week after its release.


Further information: Science Media Centre, IOM3 Press Room, Communicate Media, British Science Association and Stempra

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