Sense About Science is a charity that works to ensure science is reported accurately in the media. They hold many workshops including the ‘Standing up for Science’ media workshop for early career scientists that I was lucky enough to attend.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about science reporting in the media? The MMR scandal? All the things that supposedly cause or protect you from cancer? If I were to ask my fellow scientists this question I’m sure I would get a whole range of examples about how science has been misrepresented in the media.
At the ‘Standing up for Science’ media workshop we heard from three scientists who were very experienced in media engagement. To my surprise the whole panel were fighting the journalists’ corner and had a lot of good things to say about science reporting. We heard from Professor Malcolm Sperrin who talked positively about his engagement with the media. He explained that journalists do not intentionally want to get things wrong; they need, and want, to talk to scientists but if they cannot then that is when bad science reporting occurs. Scientists need to get better at engaging with journalists if we want to see science reported accurately in the media.
Journalists also had a chance to have their say. Deborah Cohen, Editor of the BBC radio Science Unit painted a picture of what it is like to be a journalist. They work to extremely short deadlines and have to compete for column space with other areas (such as the dreaded showbiz section!). We need to remember that a significant section of the media is primarily there to entertain the public and we must to be aware that the journalist’s top priority is to get a good story and it is the scientist’s job to make sure that story contains the relevant science evidence. Communication can also be a problem – scientists tend to use very specialised language. Deborah gave a good piece of advice when she said to always try to explain your science so that a 6 year old could understand it!
Sense about Science is currently running a campaign called #AskForEvidence. It is an easy way for everyone to make a difference and aims to challenge dubious seemingly science-associated claims on products. For example did you know M&S were selling what they called MRSA-resistant PJs?! Thankfully they aren’t any more (not that they ever were…) and that is all down to one person asking for evidence.
One of the most important things I took away from the workshop was that it is the responsibility of the scientist to make sure science is reported accurately in the media and that it is based on evidence. There is no use just complaining about bad science reporting to friends and colleagues; instead it is essential that we take action and stand up for science!
Sense About Science will be running more ‘Standing up for Science’ media workshops soon where you can lean more about joining the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network.
In the meantime you can watch a film about their latest workshop.