By Paul Richards, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology
No doubt many scientists, especially young researchers, would approach dealing with the media with at least a little apprehension and distrust. We’ve all come across news articles which appear to sensationalise, or misrepresent science; some of us may have heard about, or had, negative experiences with the press; and young researchers may feel they lack the necessary experience as scientists, or media training to proactively engage with the media.
However, as recent debates on issues such as GM foods and climate change highlight, it is vital for scientists to speak out to inform debate with the facts, so as to avoid misrepresentation and confusion. Moreover, there is genuine public interest in science and how it affects our lives; after all most science is funded by the public!
Recently I attended a Voice of Young Science media workshop at the Society of Biology, organised as part of the excellent work Sense about Science does to encourage and aid scientists to stand up for science. Over three panel discussions, young researchers heard from, and quizzed, established scientists, science journalists, and Sense about Science staff about the issues faced when engaging with the media, and tips and advice for doing this successfully.
Speaking from their own experience, a panel of scientists highlighted that while pitfalls can arise during interviews from being unprepared, or going beyond your area of expertise, media engagement can be fulfilling, create opportunities (e.g. funding), and in some cases is vital for getting the scientific facts out there to challenge policy or misconception.
Hearing from journalists was particularly interesting. They noted that scientists often don’t appreciate the short time spans journalists have to work to, and that scientists often misperceive stories as being ‘dumbed down’ when really journalists are just trying to get at the core finding and implications of piece of research, as this is what their readers are interested in knowing.
In the final session we heard about Sense about Science’s wider work, such as a database of researchers contactable to provide scientific advice, and their campaign to get people to ask for the evidence underpinning claims made in policy, news articles and adverts. They also have a range of useful publications to aid scientists with media engagement.
Supporting these campaigns, or simply promoting science through blogging or social media, can be a great first step in science and media engagement. I certainly came away from the workshop realising there is much more I could be doing to stand up for science!