Standing up for science: “Be brave, but not foolish”

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a Standing up for Science media workshop organised by Voice of Young Science (VOYS), a network of early career researchers who are committed to taking an active role in public discussions about science.  Their work is part of Sense about Science, an organisation which exists to challenge misrepresentation of science and evidence within public fora.  For instance, one of their current projects, Ask for Evidence, is a public campaign that helps people ask for and make sense of the scientific evidence behind claims that they’ve seen in the news, marketing campaigns or public policies.

This workshop aimed to help early career researchers make their voices heard in public debates about science by hosting panel discussions with scientists and science journalists who talked about how to effectively engage with the media about science and research.

I heart evidence
I was very excited to finally get myself an “I ❤ evidence” badge!

In this post, I report on the first panel, Science and the media. This panel featured three researchers who have experience of engaging with the media and the public:  Deirdre Hollingsworth (@deirdreholl), professor of infectious disease epidemiology (University of Warwick); Nataliya Tkachenko (@FloodSmartCity), PhD researcher (Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities); and Franco Cappuccio, professor of cardiovascular medicine and epidemiology (University of Warwick).  The panellists opened by introducing themselves and giving a bit of a background about their experience of engagement with the media and what they had learned, before opening up to questions from the audience.

Deirdre began by emphasising the need for very clear notes when engaging with journalists either face-to-face or over the phone.  She said that anything you say can be quoted, so it is important to use calm, sensible language that cannot be misconstrued; the journalist writing the article usually doesn’t get to choose the headline, so be careful how you say things as it will be another person choosing the headline based on what you said.  She also said that researchers shouldn’t be surprised by personal questions – journalists will often ask how you feel about the research you’re discussing.

Nataliya then went on to say that you should be prepared for any eventuality, particularly if you’re being interviewed on live television or radio.  Although journalists may provide you with a list of questions that they’re likely to ask, these may change (especially if there are tech issues), so you should be prepared to go off-script.

Franco then highlighted that there are different types of media engagement; written press releases, being asked to comment on your research (or someone else’s) in writing, recorded television or radio (where you may get the opportunity to revise what you said, but you may not!) and live television or radio appearances.  He said that scientists are generally well-received by the media and are usually respected, not attacked.  However, he also advised that when discussing controversial topics, there is the danger of getting drawn into polarised debates.  He said that you shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing a telephone interview off the cuff – if a journalist calls, ask them to call back in a couple of hours as this will give you time to prepare.  If you miss your slot, so be it, but don’t just give an interview that you’ve not prepared for.

Panel 1
Researchers from the University of Warwick discuss their experience of engaging with the media (Photo credit: Sense about Science)

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

Is media communication for everyone?

All the panellists agreed that it is – but said that it is important to make sure that you’ve had the right training.  Franco also acknowledged that not everyone may like speaking on live television, and it is important to recognise that there are different levels of media engagement – just because you don’t want to speak on live TV doesn’t mean that you can’t engage the media through other fora.  He also said that there is no disgrace in saying that you don’t know the answer to a question – that actually, it can build credibility! Nataliya said that for PhD students, media appearances can be looked at like a mini-viva; they are helpful for building confidence for public speaking, they help you to think about your research in different ways and they raise new questions that you may not have thought of.

When is the best time to get training?

The panellists all felt that it should be taken as early as possible – or whenever you can get it for free! Members of the audience noted that some universities offer a certificate of transferable skills as part of their PhD programme, and that media training – including camera work – can be undertaken as part of that.  It was also felt that having media training gives your work more power; scientists are taught to speak and write in scientific language, but they also need to be able to translate that into “human”!

Is how you are responded to by the media based on your field of expertise?

BraveThe panellists agreed that often, media appearances were as a result of global issues related to their field.  Deirdre warned that, when this is the case, researchers may be pushed into answering questions that they don’t want to.  She gave an example of a radio appearance during the swine flu epidemic where she was asked by a listener whether or not they should have the swine flu vaccination (which at the time was still in its early stages where a lot was still unknown).  She said that for difficult questions like this, you need to have answers pre-prepared – e.g. “I’m part of a larger body of work and wouldn’t want to comment”.  She said that researchers need to be brave, but not foolish.  Franco also said that when discussing complex issues, you need to put yourself into the shoes of the person you’re talking to – streamline your message. You need to be able to justify your research to those who are funding you (which is often the public purse) – what changes have you made?

How do we help universities to prioritise engagement?

The panellists gave examples of routes to public engagement that can be useful when the university is not necessarily making it a priority.  For example, Nataliya said that individuals can create their own platforms via blogs and social media to promote their own research, and Deirdre said that learned societies are another good way of getting support with public engagement, and can often offer opportunities or media training. Franco said that charities are another good platform for engagement.

In terms of getting universities more involved, the panellists noted that it is possible to find out (via the internet) the market value of various types of media engagement, and that this can be sold to the university as the monetary value of exposure as well as the academic value. Nataliya also noted that the Research Fish research impact database requests that media engagement is included in submissions.

Panellists were then asked to sum up their advice for researchers who want to engage with the media.

Deirdre:

  • It’s a good idea to communicate science – but learn how to do it well
  • You have a choice as to how much you engage
  • When you write a paper, sum it up in 5 sentences and put it on your website
  • If you’re really uncomfortable, don’t do it!
  • You’re in a fortunate position – share it.

Nataliya:

  • Take as many media training opportunities as you can
  • Recognise that there are different modes of media engagement – try to identify what yours is (e.g. blogger, public speaker)

Franco:

  • Engage at a level you feel comfortable with
  • Be proactive – don’t wait for the media to come to you
  • Rehearse for public speaking
  • Remember that media appearances are part of long-term science engagement – the media won’t forget you!

This post is part of a three-part series.  Part Two focuses on a discussion with journalists about what they are looking for from researchers 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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