Voice of Young Science media workshop

Image by alexandremarchand (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Until recently, I knew relatively little about the interaction between academic research and media exposure, being a first-year PhD student with almost no press coverage to date. My general impression was that it’s an abusive relationship neither end wants to quit, often fraught with misrepresentation, sensationalism, and general misconduct.

On the strength of this ignorance I decided to apply to attend the Standing Up for Science’s Media Workshop, a 1-day series of talks by high-ups on both sides of the equation complemented by group exercises, aimed at members of the Voice of Young Science branch of the London-based charity Sense about Science. I tried my hardest to make my CV look more “media”, whatever that means, and was fortunate enough to be given a place.

By the end of this informative, lively workshop, it’s fair to say my preconceptions were, for the most part, overturned.

Initially, I was shocked by the media-savviness of many of the attendees; most were mid-way through a PhD, but a minority were undergraduates, fresh-faced and surprisingly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of media exposure. Granted the workshop probably attracts this self-selecting group, I was nonetheless impressed that many were based at institutes where staff and students are given mandatory media outreach quotas to fill each year, and several had regular contact with their departmental press officer.

This was at odds with the impression of hostility and disregard imparted to me by some of the researchers I’d spoken to previously. On one particularly memorable occasion, a senior academic confessed that they pretend not to be there whenever a journalist rings their office. They also lamented that some of their colleagues seem to spend more time on the BBC than they do in the department.

A speech from Simon Levey, research media officer for the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College, made this modern, pro-media position all the more transparent, explaining that academics are now actively encouraged to essentially spam-email their departmental press officer.

A key refrain that was heard at many points throughout the day, and one that took me be surprise, is that journalists and academics want the same thing, i.e. to provide a balanced, engaging, accessible story that translates the fascinating but seemingly impenetrable work that scientists do. As Professor Patrick Regan, from the Department of Physics at University of Surrey, put it: “the journalists are rarely out to get you – they want good answers too”.

Image by fellowsisters (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is not to say that the brave new face of academia is all smiles and hugs when it comes to journalists, of course. Each panellist shared their negative experiences as well as their positive ones. The desire to be an academic “rock star” (the “Brian Cox effect” was mentioned on at least 5 occasions) can overshadow or plainly misrepresent the team you work with, the institute you belong to, or the field in general. Several of the panellists cautioned the audience to think carefully about what they are trying to get out of the exposure, as the initial exhilaration of simply being talked about can quickly give way to a sense of regret if you’re not careful with your interview responses.

Robert Dorey, Professor of Nanomaterials at Cranfield University, explained how one has to tread carefully to avoid being misquoted, as occasionally the desire to make your research “sexy” can supersede the need to remain balanced.  To this end, he said that talking about your research “as if you were in the pub with your friends is a great tactic”.

On the journo side, Richard Van Noorden, Assistant News Editor at Nature, said that tensions can arise when you print something an academic said “on record”, but which they then claim they hadn’t, resulting in acrimony and a sense of misplaced trust, at both ends. Additionally, several of the other journalists on the panel spoke of editorial pressures from above which occasionally curtail or outright suppress vital, evidence-based journalism in favour of more fashionable “5 ways to improve your brain power”-type articles.

All in all, the take-home message I got from the day was that gaining media exposure, far from a gauche exercise in self-aggrandisement at the expense of rigorous work, is an opportunity to raise the profile of your research, while contributing to a meaningful public discourse on a subject often poorly understood by the public at large. As one attendee pointed out, the general public are more aware of science than ever thanks largely to developments in media technology, but without necessarily having the depth and complexity of understanding that (purportedly) comes with being an academic.

Greater scientific literacy amongst non-academics is actually one of the main goals of Standing up for Science. This aspect of the workshop made the most sense to me; namely, dispelling public myths about science, not in order to create a technocracy where truth is solely the property of scientists, but rather a society of discerning consumers who make better choices, challenging companies and institutions to back up their claims with solid evidence.

Dara Ó Briain, promoting Ask for Evidence

Alas the disparity between academic and public knowledge can often result in awkward clashes at open talks, debates etc. On this note, several attendees spoke of unfortunate encounters; geneticists trying to quell hysteria surrounding GMOs, or neuroscientists trying to delicately discuss the nuanced ethics of animal testing to an audience of outraged protestors. One attendee gave a particularly poignant account of a friend who had abandoned chemotherapy in favour of alternative treatments, such as swallowing apricot stones (!), documenting their progress in a blog about holistic remedies. After leaving a message on their blog offering to help them evaluate the evidence with more scrutiny, she learned a few weeks later that her friend succumbed to their illness.

Overall, the workshop was an informative series of talks on an aspect of academia I now feel more competent dealing with. The day was broken up by team-based exercises centred around how best to communicate science to the public and what the principle obstacles are that might hinder a young academic from gaining media exposure. These sessions provoked lively discussions that spilled over into the breaks and post-workshop social drinks. The forced relocation from the main venue to a nearby pub due to an apparent sewage leak certainly didn’t hurt as far as lubricating said discussions.

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