“I’m a firm believer in the truth and feel I have a duty to ensure a level of accuracy in the way my research is portrayed in the media.”
Voice of Young Science ‘Standing Up for Science’ media workshops are aimed at PhD students and postdocs, and encourage those at the beginning of their careers to feel more able to get their voice heard in public debates about science.
The workshops are structured around panel discussions, both with academics who have many years of experience in communicating to the press, and journalists representing a range of news outlets, from national newspapers and broadcasters to freelancers with subject specialist expertise.
We went to a recent workshop at the Francis Crick Institute in London and spoke with three early career researchers in attendance to find out more about their experience with the press and what they hoped to learn at the workshop.
Firstly, can you tell us about your research focus and why you’re attending the workshop?
Charlotte Jelleyman: I am researching the efficacy and practicality of high-intensity interval training in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle and chronic disease are topics that are constantly in the media. I wanted to take part to understand why such a clear message can 1) still make headlines and 2) ensure studies are reported according to their findings rather than tenuous soundbites.
Rosanne Verow: I am a paediatrician, although I’ve also recently taken a year out to do a masters, which has increased my interest in wider research. From the medical side I’m interested in communication with patients about what’s in the media, and from the research point of view I’m interested in how to portray my research findings to the media.
Stephanie Wright: My background is marine biology and my PhD focuses on the potential for microscopic pieces of plastic in the marine environment. My field of study is quite a new one but it’s growing exponentially with more and more papers publishing globally. I’m attending the workshop because I feel I have a duty to ensure that what’s being published about my field of research is accurate, and it’s something I enjoy doing too!
What experience do you have with communicating to the press?
CJ: I recently published my first paper, and while I worked closely with my university’s PR officer to write the press release, I was not prepared as to what to expect. It just so happened that my supervisor was away that week so all of a sudden I had emails and interview requests with both local and national newspapers, radio, and even TV. The first media contact I had was a TV interview, and I was keen to use the opportunity to promote my study findings, while the co-author was concerned that I would encourage people to do something (start doing intense physical activity) which could harm them if they had an underlying health condition. In the end only a small clip was used, and I think it was because what I was pressured into saying didn’t sound as good as the conclusion to my research. I also then did a live radio interview where I was lucky enough to talk through with the presenter about what I wanted to say and how to get my point across. Due to my experience in communicating in lay language, I was able to explain my research in an engaging and simple way, without saying anything that could put people at harm.
RV: I haven’t had a lot of experience with the media so far but working in medicine I can see the impact research has on the general public and how keen they are to know about issues with their health. In order to address that I feel I need to engage with the media to influence the root of the message being sent out publicly.
SW: I was very fortunate in that my first published paper caught attention. I went through the press release process with my university and we received a lot of interest with an article in The Guardian, articles online, radio interviews. My supervisor encouraged me to take part in the discussions and I was keen to gain experience so happy to do so. More recently the government environmental audit committee put a call out for evidence about microplastics and the environment. I submitted evidence which got published online and as a result I was invited to go to the hearing in parliament which in turn was picked up by the media. I had my first bad headline experience where a newspaper article focused on a point I’d included in the evidence about microplastics having potential to become airborne. The headline used was ‘city dwellers are inhaling plastic bags’. There was an obvious sensationalist angle being taken but that being said the actual content of the article was accurate, and nothing had been taken out of context.
What do you feel is the main obstacle in engaging the public with science? What do you feel could be done to overcome this?
CJ: I think that the public want short and snappy and science is often vague and surrounded by caveats. People lose interest when you say it depends, or it only affects a certain population. This is only getting worse with things such as Twitter being people’s main source of news. A lot of the time a conclusion makes no sense without a certain level of background knowledge, so this can be a barrier as well. I think that effort is required on both sides – scientists to present their research in a more accessible way; using lay language, technology etc., but equally for the expectation for us to do that in 140 to be reduced – at least to 140 words maybe!
RV: In my field of paediatrics there is a lot of confusion – medicine can be an emotive subject particularly when talking about children, and people don’t always fully understand the science behind the headlines. Lots of the arguments highlighted in the press might seem quite logical to someone who didn’t understand the research process – so in the case of the MMR vaccine as an example, I think a lot of people are quite confused by some of the conflicting messages and it leads to mistrust, over many years in this instance. One good outcome of this delay is that now people are seeing a knock on effect of the mistrust surrounding the MMR vaccine and the press are doing a good job of raising awareness that outbreaks are now occurring.
What’s the top tip you took away from the workshop?
CJ: Public engagement is a big part of my research due to my funding and I also work in an area that is easy to explain, so a lot of the tips that involved getting good at communication I already knew (if not mastered!). So for me, the most useful tip was to be contactable after a press release – if only for a couple of days!
RV: The workshop has reiterated to me that if you want to engage with the media, if you want to use it, you can’t just decide to ring up and offer to do an interview, I think you need to be well prepared with what you want to say. It’s a bit of a double edged sword, you need to be careful with how you use it. Getting training before you embark I think is a very good idea. The media can be a great tool that can be used but I think it can backtrack on you if you’re not wise in how to approach it.
SW: I was really interested in a comment made by the panel about keeping in mind two or three points you want to make when being interviewed. When I spoke on the radio I had perhaps 45 seconds of airtime and trying to get across four years of research in that timeframe was a challenge! I was also interested to hear from the journalist panel and how they are keen for researchers to come to them rather than the other way, that was definitely encouraging.
Sense about Science hold regular Standing Up for Science media workshops throughout the year in the UK. Find out how to apply to attend here.