for scientists dealing with the media
7.35 If the media are not to be coerced,
what can the scientific community do to limit the damage and help
them to cover science issues more effectively? One way, as discussed
in the previous chapter, is to work on the audience while it is
still at school. Indeed, in the view of Sir David Attenborough,
this is the only way (Q 385). The authors of Beyond 2000
consider that it should be an explicit aim of the school science
curriculum to enable pupils "to understand, and respond critically
to, media reports of issues with a science component". But
there is also scope for working directly on the science-media
interface, from the side of science. Considerable progress has
been made in this area with the help of COPUS; there is further
to go, and much to be learned from best practice in the USA.
7.36 Some witnesses would like to see the
scientist turn journalist, and take the war into the enemy's camp.
Sir Robert May would like to see more people with a science background
move into journalism (Q 33). Dr Turney (Q 109) observes that there
are currently plenty of science postgraduates looking for work
outside science; some may become science correspondents, but few
will make it into news journalism.
7.37 If scientists are not to become journalists,
they can at least get better at dealing with journalists. As noted
in Chapter 3 above, universities and Research Councils offer media
training for research scientists. Written guidance is also available,
including a concise and helpful note issued by the Royal Society
as we finalised this report, which we reproduce in Box 4.
7.38 COPUS seeks to cultivate "an
open and positive communications culture in the academic community"
(Q 163). As noted above, the academic community's attitude to
public-understanding activities in general has improved, and what
Tim Radford called the "old high-table gulf" (Q 176)
is narrowing; but it has further to go. At present, we are told,
journalists wanting comment from a scientist are more likely to
dial a US university than one in the United Kingdom, because they
are more likely to receive a rapid and useful response (cp Connor
Q 233, Hanlon Q 715)though US journalists told us
that US scientists are becoming less helpful because of an increase
in commercial sponsorship of research. British scientists may
currently be more than usually wary of dealing with the media,
for fear of what Sara Ramsden, commissioning editor for science
programmes on Channel 4, referred to as "tabloid crucifixion"
7.39 As Dr Turney explained to us, journalists
like to work with contacts whom they know (Q 109, cp Connor Q
234). According to Mr Radford, the cadre of scientists with "media
savvy" is in fact expanding (Q 176). So too, however, are
the ranks of scientists with bad experiences of dealings with
the media, who may be fearful of engaging with them again. In
Sir Robert May's view (Q 33), and that of Dr Farmelo of the Science
Museum (Q 266), the media are too reliant on a small number of
highly articulate spokesmen for science. They would like the scientific
community to encourage a larger and more diverse range of scientists
to come forward and face the press. The Royal Society plans to
publish a directory of "media-friendly" scientists (see
7.40 COPUS sees a need for people or organisations
which have the skills to mediate between scientists and non-scientific
journalists (Q 130). This need has been very apparent in the controversy
over GM foods. Most universities and research institutes have
a press officer, but we gather that the quality of their service
is very variable (Hanlon Q 720). The BAAS would like academic
press officers to develop their "unfulfilled potential",
putting out much more information about research, and training
researchers in media skills (p 48). They might also aim for more
rapid identification of emerging issues, to avoid being put on
the defensive by better-prepared lobbyists (Q 161).
In these ways they would perform at local level some of the roles
envisaged for the new national institution discussed at the end
of Chapter 5.
7.41 COPUS arranges media fellowships, whereby
a scientist spends a few weeks shadowing a journalist. Sir Robert
May would like to see more of these (Q 33). Tim Radford agrees
(Q 233). On the other hand, Dr Turney (Q 109) believes that the
scope for expanding the scheme may be limited.
7.42 Improving their media interface will
cost universities money (Q 167). They will be encouraged to shift
resources into this field if their efforts are rewarded by the
HEFCs, as suggested in Chapter 3 above.
7.43 AlphaGalileo is an Internet site
providing resources for journalists interested in scientific research
around Europe. It is run by the BAAS, with support from the OST,
the French government, British and French Research Councils, Euroscience,
the Wellcome Trust, the Novartis Foundation and the European Science
Foundation. It was launched in 1998, and is currently still at
the pilot stage, but it aspires to rival the US EurekAlert! Site
established in 1996 and run by the AAAS. The site holds press
releases, event details, and an address book of researchers and
press officers. AlphaGalileo does not peer-review contributions,
but contributors (and journalists) are required to provide references.
7.44 The science editor of the Express
told us that he finds EurekAlert! "essential" (Q 725),
but that at present AlphaGalileo is less efficient. Cambridge
University Press describes AlphaGalileo as "a splendid United
Kingdom initiative which has been widely praised" (p 273).
The BAAS comments, "AlphaGalileohas been widely welcomed
by both providers and users of information in the United Kingdom
and other European countries. A problem that may have discouraged
universities from issuing press notices on research results and
science issues is the difficulty of maintaining well-targeted
distribution lists for a range of specialist subjects. AlphaGalileo
helps to tackle this" (p 49).
7.45 The BAAS adds, "Securing its long-term
future is an urgent priority." Unlike EurekAlert!, which
is maintained by fees from contributors, AlphaGalileo's services
are free to contributors and journalists. AlphaGalileo hopes for
support from the European Union (Briggs Q 804). We recommend
that the Government should do whatever they can to ensure that
this is forthcoming.
7.46 All the ideas and approaches noted
above, whereby the scientific community might help non-specialists
in the media to cover scientific stories more satisfactorily,
have value, and we commend them all. We agree with COPUS: the
culture of United Kingdom science needs a sea-change, in favour
of open and positive communication with the media. This will require
training and resources; above all it will require leadership,
which the members of the COPUS institutions are well placed to
provide. It will inevitably involve occasional embarrassment or
frustration. But, if it succeeds, it will pay for itself many
times over in renewed public trust.
Royal Society's guidelines for scientists
working with the media
|1||Perspective When journalists contact you, think carefully about who they represent and how this will affect the way in which they treat your work. For instance, a daily broadsheet newspaper will have a different perspective from a popular tabloid. A journalist from a glossy magazine may have the time to visit your workplace, but might expect you to spend half a day with a photographer. A zoo radio show may not give your ideas the same respect, or airing, as Radio Four's 'Today' programme.
|2||Deadlines Respect the very real deadlines to which journalists have to work. Try to respond promptly to media enquiriesif they say they need information in a couple of hours, they usually mean it. If you offer to find the necessary information for journalists, be sure that you can meet their deadlines.
|3||Competition News stories about science have to compete against the other stories that appear each day. A science correspondent or general news reporter must make a case to the news editor, who will make the final decision about whether a science story should receive coverage after the story has been written and filed, alongside dozens of others, by the deadline. To give your story the best chance of appearing, think about angles, photographs, graphics, colour and background that can help the reporter to win over the editor.
|4||Content Science stories often have to appeal to an intelligent audience or readership that may have little knowledge of science. Explain your work in simple, everyday language and avoid using jargonimagine you are trying to explain it to a friend over a drink, for example. If you have to use a technical term, explain what it means. Think imaginatively about the possible implications and applications of your work. When describing the results of your research, highlight what is novel or unexpected about the findings. Highlight other notable features of your project that might add personal interest or a sense of the bizarre, for example. Point out what impact your work might have on the audience or readership, and be prepared to talk about the wider implications, such as ethics or funding issues.
|5||Approach Many print and broadcast media have specialist staff who are very good at reporting science stories. In some cases, you may be contacted by other staff who do not have a background in science. However, even reporters who have a PhD in a science subject are unlikely to know much about your specific area, so you should assume that they are not acquainted with your field of work. Rather than giving them some references to consult in a library, it is much more helpful to offer a quick explanation. Think of a couple of sentences that provide a lucid and succinct overview of your work. Do not be patronising.
|6||Responsibility Scientists have a duty to act responsibly when dealing with the media. Avoid the temptation to exaggerate the significance of your work. Refer to similar work by your peers to put your research in context. Although a reporter may want a straightforward yes or no answer, don't be pressurised into making a response that you will later regret. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, say so. Never lie.
|7||Attribution Try to avoid saying "No comment". If a journalists sense that you are trying to hide some facts, they have a responsibility to find these out from another source. Be very careful about talking 'off the record'. If you have established a degree of trust with a particular journalist, he or she may use you as a sounding board for news events, or for an 'off the record' opinion about somebody else's work. But remember that even if such information is unattributed, it is often obvious who supplied it. The simple rule is: if you don't want it to be reported, don't mention it.
|8||Authenticity Scientists also have a responsibility to help journalists to establish the authenticity of a story. Let a journalist know if your work has been subject to peer review, for instance by submission to a journal, or some other quality control mechanism.
|9||Credibility Be honest about your competence and credibility when it comes to commenting on a particular issue. Although you may have opinions about a range of topics, you should make clear to a journalist what your direct area of expertise is, and whether your comments lie outside it. Also remember, however, that journalists work to tight deadlines, so you could still offer invaluable help even if your expertise is not exactly what is required, perhaps by suggesting the names of other scientists who work in a relevant field.
|10||Quotes In most cases, there will not be enough time for you to check a news or feature story before it is broadcast or printed. Most journalists will, however, respect a request to check quotes before they are used, but make sure that this is agreed from the outset. Remember that journalists working to a daily deadline will only have a narrow windowsometimes a few minutesto check quotes, so try to make sure that you are easy to contact. Don't be surprised if the outcome of a half-hour interview is often just one or two short quotes.
|11||Interviews If you are asked for an interview, advance preparation will improve your performance. Try to find out what angle the journalist will adopt and what sorts of questions you will be asked. For the broadcast media, find out if the interview will be taped or live and whether you will be participating in a panel discussion or just providing a short soundbite for the news.
|12||Collaboration If you are collaborating with other researchers, you should try to agree beforehand what to say if journalists contact you. But remember that unlike technical journals, there is no onus on journalists to mention every researcher and institution that is involved in a project. Be reasonable about requests to give appropriate creditremember the constraints on the availability of column inches or air time.
|13||Contacts Think laterally when dealing with the media. If a print journalist contacts you for a comment about a 'breaking' story, you could offer to write an opinion piece if time and space allow. If he or she agrees, be sure at the outset to agree on the terms and conditions, including copyright and fees. If journalists do approach you, make a note of their full contact detailsyou never know when you may have a story that you can take to them.
|14||Corrections If, when a story appears, you have been misquoted or there is a serious factual error, you should write to the journalist, setting out your concerns. For the printed media, you can also write to clarify matters and ask for it to be printed on a letters page, but make your contribution brief, punchy and entertaining. If you are unable to achieve a satisfactory resolution, then write to the editor to whom the journalist reports. Such action is usually sufficient to obtain corrections. If, however, you are still not satisfied with the outcome, you should contact the relevant media 'watchdog', such as the Press Complaints Commission or the Broadcasting Standards Commission.
65 The BBC has explained to us why it disbanded this
group, and its new approach to external advice and review (p 263). Back
There is an annual competition for the Glaxo Wellcome/Association
of British Science Writers Awards for Science Writers. Categories
include "Best feature on a science subject in a national
or regional newspaper", "Best news item on a science
subject", and "Best communication of science in a non-science
Scientific Advisory System: Genetically Modified Foods,
1st Report 1998-99, HC 286, para 29. Back
The launch of the Government's Public Consultation on the Biosciences
in December 1998 did not prevent the media storm around GM foods
which began in February 1999. Back