Friday, 23 November 2012

Scientists and journalists - friends or foes

Yesterday, I went to the Wellcome Trust for a media panel with 150 scientists organised by the Science Media Centre.

It was billed as an introduction to the news media and for most in the room they had little or no experience of dealing with journalists.

There is much talk nowadays of science engaging with the media and the Science Media Centre does an excellent job bridging the gap.

But it is clear many excellent researchers are, understandably, still nervous of engaging with media - despite having fantastic stories to tell about their research.

There's something of a generation gap, I suspect, as well. Young researchers are far more interested in communicating science - perhaps spurred on by the passionate writing of people like Ben Goldacre .

There's an army of young science qualified press offices to help scientists tell their story - although I worry sometimes that too few of them have any real experience at national level about how the media really works.

I have been doing these panels for several years and there has been a definite softening of attitudes in the audiences towards the press.

A few years ago there was far more prejudice and wild accusations about the press not being interested in checking facts and not understanding science.

Now there is much more interest in practical aspects - how can I do this?  What's the best way to present my research? How far to "dumb down" research for a general audience.

My main message yesterday was that, basically we are on the same side. Journalists want to tell good stories and science has many good stories to tell.

Journalists need scientists to be interesting, clear, accurate and most of all available. Few outside of news organisations understand the time pressures of the daily news agenda and the sheer volume of information which bombards specialist reporters.

But, of course, trying to explain detailed and long term research in a 300 word newspaper or online article or a 60 second television news broadcast is a bit absurd. But if you don't do it then either no-one will know about your research or someone else will do it and take the credit - and the research funds.

There are also tensions in the need for news to deal mainly in certainties and the natural inclination of scientists to be cautious and talk of possibilities and probabilities.

One of the main complaints, always, is about headlines. So often you hear: "Well the story was fine and gave a balanced view but the headline was far too strong."

At the end of the day it's all about stories. Science nowadays throws up good stories virtually every week, often several times a week. Science is becoming ever more vital to our survival at anything like current levels to feed us, keep us warm, understand climate change and power our world.

Science journalists are trying to find the most appealing and important of those stories and explain them in the best way they can.

For me, science does not have to be dumbed down. Just told like it is.

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