Talking science

Watched last week’s Media7 special on science and the media with mounting frustration as Russell introduced expert after expert to discuss the challenges involved in communicating science through the media. He and his researchers seemed to cover every part of the equation except the very people tasked day in and day out with actually helping scientists communicate.  Come on, Russell – where was your PR expert?

Admittedly top-slot guest Peter Griffin, manager of the Science Media Centre, falls firmly into that category. But from him we heard only about the dangers of pseudo-science and the success his organisation is having in bringing forward a new generation of people who are comfortable with discussing scientific issues in public. And we saw some great clips, including that hilarious Carl Sagan apple pie number, of really good communicators of science.  But where was the person flagging up the everyday pitfalls? Outlining the difficulties involved in easing scientists into the limelight? Or throwing in a few hints and tips about how to do it well at a basic level?

Don’t get me wrong.  It was a great programme.  And if you haven’t seen it, make it your business to settle down with the beverage of your choice, click on the link above and watch it.  In full. Today. Now.

Apart from one or two half-hearted nods towards media training [BTW – check out this super little dig at bad media training by a mate of mine], the importance of using professional communicators to help scientists communicate science was raised only once. Right at the end. By the University of Otago’s Dr Rebecca McLeod. Despite her protestations to the contrary Rebecca delivered a bravura performance, telling of how the media liaison officer at the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology played a vital role in helping her communicate the science she had been working on. This communication professional had not only made the exercise painless but had also ensured the science was communicated accurately.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have gone so wrong if he’d had a brief chat with Rebecca’s advisor, or someone like her, beforehand.

Contrast with scientist and broadcaster Dr David Haywood, who complained about being misunderstood and misquoted by a journalist.  “It was humiliating”, he said. “They were claiming that I was doing things that were breaking the laws of physics.  In fact, if I’d been able to do what they claimed, time would have run backwards…” Perhaps it wouldn’t have gone so wrong if he’d had a brief chat with Rebecca’s advisor, or someone like her, beforehand.

We heard veteran science journo and Massey University lecturer Alan Samson say that “the skill of a journalist is to be able to translate into lay language”.  Well, the skill of a proper PR professional is to ensure that the scientist’s message doesn’t need translation. Because, as David and countless other scientists will testify, quite frequently the journalistic translation service is, not to put too fine a point on it, knackered.

That’s because journalists aren’t scientists.  And shouldn’t be expected to be.

So – pretend for a moment that the Media7 team had cast their net in our direction. What advice and guidance, beyond that already covered in the show, might we have contributed to a scientist contemplating a day in headlines?  Well, here’s a taster.  Doubtless you’ll be able to add to this rather meagre effort…

  • Give it some scale that the guy in the bar will be able to imagine.
  • Use local examples and imagery that your average Tom, Dick or Harry Hemi can relate to.
  • If you’re going to be talking to a journo about it, write it all down beforehand in language that your neighbour will understand.  In fact, give it to your neighbour to see if she does understand.
  • Ditch the verbal fine-print. If your findings are conditional, say so at the start and at the end of your interview, and tell the journo or the listener where to find all the provisos.  Then give your core proposition heaps and take no prisoners.
  • Don’t run from conflict. Embrace it.  We humans are combative beasts at our core – if you don’t like the pseudo-science being pushed out by someone, say so, say so loudly, and then say why. Prove that the pseudo-scientist over there is talking nonsense and I’m yours for life.  Ignore him and I’ll probably wander across to listen to him once you’ve packed up and gone home.    
  • Keep the language real. Even on the show, inventor-boffin-chappie Vinny Kumar told us that his award-winning “solution” was about to be “deployed” somewhere.  Come off it – who in the real world actually speaks like that? Your job is to make science real.  Bring it to the people. Let us smell it, feel it, visualise it. You’re not going to get there if you keep “deploying” your “solutions”. So sin-bin the corporate-speak, burn the TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) and strangle the clever community jargon.
  • Use word pictures.  I want you to be able to make me literally see what your science means to me, my family, my friends and our ordinary little lives. 
  • Get yourself a decent sound-bite or two that really capture your core proposition. It’s a hackneyed old piece of advice, to be sure, but it’s hackneyed for a reason. Vinny Kumar again – this time with an A* for effort: “No matter how advanced we get, we should always remember the power we’ve already created” (referring to the fact that his state-of-the-art tech gizmo is enabled by a good, old-fashioned AM/FM transistor radio).
  • Finally – get over yourself. Peter Griffin confessed that “scientists in general (believe) scientific discussion … should be held in peer-review journals … not really in the media…”. Now, Peter himself came across really well and seems like a salt-of-the-earth kinda guy, and he obviously sees a benefit in communicating science in media other than specialist journals. But if you’re a scientist and you’re talking to the general media it’s because you need to. So sniffy comments about scientific discussion being the sole preserve of peer-review journals are going to get you precisely where you currently are.  Nowhere.

Anyway, as the programme highlighted, openings are appearing for a greater degree of scientific discussion in mainstream media. So I guess we’ll be busier than ever, working away in the background to help science explain itself. Can’t wait…

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