“Be excited about your work!”: What journalists are looking for from researchers

This post is the second part of a three-part series reporting on a media workshop organised by Voice of Young Science (VOYS), aiming to help early career researchers effectively engage with the media about science and research.

In this post, I report on the second panel of the day, What journalists are looking for. This panel featured three journalists: Danny Buckland (@DannyBuckland), freelance health journalist; Tulip Mazumdar (@TulipMazumdar), global health correspondent for the BBC; and Wendy Grossman (@WendyG), freelance journalist specialising in computers, freedom, and privacy.  The panellists opened by introducing themselves and their work, and talked about what they are looking for from researchers.

Panel 2

Danny began by saying that essentially, newspapers are unashamedly there to a) make headlines, and b) make money.  He said that there is a huge thirst for scientific and health stories but that if scientists want their story out there, they need to understand that the public may consume it differently to how it was meant.  He said that experts are in demand, so it’s important for researchers to work out how to build that bridge with the media.

Tulip then went on to say that when she is covering a story, she has a responsibility to cover it in a way that is informative and accurate.  She said that reporters are the ones to ultimately decide the content, and that the focus should be on why someone (globally) should care about the story.

Wendy then said that researchers should ask the journalist, “Who is the audience, and what do they want to know?”  This helps you to shape your material so that it is appropriate and engaging.  She said that journalists often have to cut a large amount of material and they won’t necessarily know what is most important, scientifically, so the researcher needs to identify what is most important to get right.  She also said that it is inevitable that there will be articles that make you furious – but don’t be too quick to fire off an angry email.  Journalists want to get things right and won’t usually have deliberately misconstrued what you were saying; if there are factual errors, contact the journalist as things can be changed.

Audience 1
Members of the audience ask questions of the panellists (Photo credit: Sense about Science)

The panel then went on to take questions from the audience – here’s a selection:

Who should researchers approach if they want to get their work into the media?

The panel agreed that local news outlets are a great place to start, as they are more likely to pick it up and will like reporting on research that is coming out of local institutions. They said that it would be a good idea to call the local radio station and ask for their news editor, and then ask whether they have a science and health specialist – and then take that person out for coffee!

Where do you (the journalist) find stories?

The panellists all agreed that if you want to get your research into the media, you should send your work to correspondents who are working in your field, and Tulip added that you should then email them multiple times if they don’t get back to you! Wendy said that journalists also attend academic conferences, so ask the conference organisers which journalists are in attendance and then make sure you make a connection with them. Danny said that journalists are bombarded with too many press releases; he looks at journals and other newspapers (which is why approaching your local newspaper first of all gives you collateral).  He also said that videos are much more compelling.  Tulip said that The Lancet’s press releases are good for this, as they are well formatted and also send pictures and footage that can be used.

How should researchers prepare for media engagement?

excitedPanellists said that you should know what you want to say, and that you should imagine that you need to explain it to a non-scientist friend.  Tulip agreed, and warned that if they are given something that is hard to make sense of, it will go to the bottom of the pile. You need to be able to state the impact of your research in human terms.

The panellists also said to remember that you are the expert – the journalist will only be meeting with you if they are genuinely interested in running with the story.    Tulip agreed, and went on to say that you should be yourself – talk like a normal person, and feel free to be excited about your work!  Wendy also said you should remember that you have been invited; be proud.

Panellists finished by summing up their advice for researchers:

Tulip:

  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
  • Get to know local reporters who are interested in your field

Danny:

  • Don’t be overly concerned – you’re the expert, and you have something that journalists want
  • Imagine you’ve been asked “So what?” and make sure you include your answer to that in your communication
  • See if you can get your research into a statement like “You’ll never guess what they’ve discovered now…”

Wendy:

  • Follow journalists who are working in your area

This post is the second part of a three-part series.  Part One focuses on a discussion with three researchers who have experience of engaging with the media and the public and Part Three focuses on the nuts and bolts of media engagement.  There is also a separate post listing some fantastic resources that have been provided by Sense about Science and the workshop’s panellists.

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