Sense About Science media workshop

I have often found myself frustrated about the way in which science is represented in the media. I don’t think this is something just restricted to the usual suspects of the Daily Mail and Fox News but is something more prevalent in the way in which science is perceived by people in general. This was brought to my attention just a few weeks ago when searching for science books within Waterstones in Piccadilly, London. Despite being the flagship store in London and possessing eight and a half miles of shelving, I was surprised to find a science section comprising of just a few hundred books, many of which were actually abut DIY.

With a newfound resolve to somehow help right this perceived wrong, I recalled a presentation I attended that was given by a member of an organisation dedicated to achieving a better representation and understanding of science. This organisation (as I later found out) was Sense about Science and, after applying online, I was lucky enough to make it onto one of their quarter yearly media workshops.

Sense About Science media workshopThe day started at a leisurely 10.30am (for those of us living in London) with registration, a wide assortment of chocolate biscuits and a ‘goodie bag’ containing a rather futuristic looking mouse mat. The first discussion of the day began half an hour later, with the three invited panellists speaking about their experiences with the media. Robert Dorey talked about what he called “the good, the bad and the off-the-wall” of media interaction. In the ‘bad’ part of his talk, Robert Dorey explained that one of the biggest challenges associated with live radio interviews was that everything you say is broadcast. It is therefore important to be clear about what you are saying and also to be aware of the situation that you are entering into (since you may well be having to contend with sound effects and the like). Conversely, a pre-recorded interview can mean that much of what you say (often the very thing that you actually wanted to say) is mercilessly edited out of the final program.

Following a brief talk by each of the panellists, there was the opportunity for questions and discussion.  Questions asked included “How do you deal with questions from fundamentalists?” and “How do you get your core message across?”. The advice given was that you don’t always have to answer a question and, if you do, your answer should be well thought out beforehand. The discussion part of this first session involved dividing into four groups based upon the shapes printed on our name badges (which somewhat unfortunately included squares).  Within our groups we were asked to think about the good and bad aspects of media reporting of science. Perhaps the most pertinent point made by my group was that the agenda of the journalist is different to that of the scientist. Whilst this can help to make science stories more entertaining to the public, it can lead to misrepresentation and selective bias.

The next part of the session was a panel discussion on what journalists are looking for. One of the panellists was Claire Coleman, a freelance journalist who often reports on science stories for the Daily Mail. She said how her non-scientific background was of benefit to her since it made communication with readers (who generally also do not have a scientific background) easier. I contended this point later on, during the questions portion of the session, by arguing that a lack of training in the field that the journalist worked would not be seen as an obstacle in other disciplines, such a finance or sport. Midway through the talks from the panellists, the session was halted by an ominously sounding “sewage emergency”. Thankfully, following a timely relocation of everyone to the first floor of a nearby pub, the session was able to continue.

The final session of the day involved representatives from a university media office, Voice of Young Science and Sense About Science. In particular, I found the advice on the various ways in which we can communicate our research useful. One of the key points I think the panellists made was that it is vital to think about what it is that the journalist wants. By thinking from their perspective, we can think of our research in terms of a message that means something to the public. Indeed, we also have to realise that sometimes our work is simply not suitable for media reporting.

In summary, the workshop, my first foray into the other side of science reporting (the reporting side) was a great experience and one that I feel will better prepare me for any future encounters with the media. It has also (as workshops have a habit of doing) inspired me to be a bit more proactive in getting a better representation of science into the wider world.