Sunday 25 October 2015

Should scientists talk to journalists?




In the spirit of full disclosure, I came to the conclusion that scientists should talk to journalists in 1980. The British Psychological Society, after deep thought and protracted prevarication, decided to let The Press know what topics they would be discussing at their annual conference. Many members grimly predicted that this strategy would come to no good. Duly encouraged, journalists picked up a paper I was presenting, and such was the novelty of a member of the society being interviewed that the newly appointed society Press Officer came with me to to watch the whole process in a provincial BBC radio studio, where I was interviewed “down the line” by John Dunn. Of course I remember my first ever interview. It felt as if it went well: the interviewer had been well prepared, in the best Reithian tradition, and guided me through a general exposition of the results before hitting me with one of the surprising findings, thus giving the impression he had read the entire paper and noticed an anomaly. It was a friendly and chatty item, to a good sized afternoon radio audience.

The back story is that the Society had deliberately contacted the press, providing them with press releases on several highlighted talks they though would be of general interest. To fit in with our new wish to encourage the public understanding of science I had changed my original departmental seminar title from something like “Methodological issues arising from a replication of a short training program in medical interviewing techniques” to “Patient preferences and the bedside manner”.

After my triumph, I settled back to bask in media attention, but had to wait several years for the next interview, in which I was talking about drug taking among nuclear weapons guards. Coming out from the TV studio I was mildly surprised that the journalists in the newsroom, who must have seen my astounding broadcast on their monitors, were calmly going about their business. I thus learned an important lesson: it is hard to get on the media, but when you do, no-one notices. Since then I have probably done over 500 TV interviews, simply out of a personal egotistical wish to talk about psychology, on the basis that if I have read something interesting or done some research I want to talk about it to as big an audience as possible. For example, if you do a 3 minute TV interview watched by 1 million viewers, instead of more usual one hour lecture to 30 students, your impact rises from 30 an hour to 50,000 an hour. You may worry that TV viewers pay less attention, but 3 minutes is the more digestible attention span, so work hard to gain their attention. Should all researchers talk to the press? Probably not. You must want to talk, be willing to prepare yourself carefully, and accept that what you say must be adapted to the medium and the audience.

So, it was with an air of weary snootiness that I looked at the video of Alice Dreger’s talk at ISIR 2015 in Albuquerque. “Teach me something” was my attitude. I soon started taking notes.

First, Dreger explains that the relatively well prepared interviewer is now something of a historical anomaly. Science journalists in particular are unlikely to be given much time to read up on any issue, and may have to submit their story in about 3 hours. (They may not actually know much science, or worse, have some basic knowledge which they over-value). They are low in the pecking order, and unless the research has obvious implications, particularly for health, the item may be truncated, given a misleading headline or simply dropped. Getting media training is a good idea, or at the very least get an understanding of how journalists work. For academia, the message is: take your time, but you must get it right. For journalists the message is: now or never, but it must get noticed. However, if you don’t talk to journalists the most plausible charlatan will have a field day, and that is not just the charlatans in your own university. It is an open microphone event, and if you want to be heard you have to approach the microphone.

Your published paper is totally inadequate for science journalists. (Most science papers have a very small readership, perhaps even smaller than that for adolescent poetry). Get yourself out of the required academic zombie detachment into friendly engagement. Be kind to journalists, as you would be to a student who is anxious to learn, but very muddled. Get an understanding of what they want to find out, and try to give the best explanation you can. If you help them then they will come back and may help you. (I have sometimes formed a team with one journalist when I felt misrepresented by another, and taken advice on the best pincer counter-attack). Get your media department to give you advice, training, and some practice with possible questions. If you get misrepresented, correct the errors immediately (within minutes) or the errors will reverberate across the internet endlessly. Get support and advice about how you keep up your defences (some universities have a media minder who does much of the job for you).

In the new media age readers expect the news to be free (rather like blogs). Science journalism is not a money spinner, more of a loss leader. Because of the internet, news travels further and faster. Crap gets First Mover Advantage. Corrections become mere toilet paper. Try to get the correct story out first. In ancient times journalists sent you a draft of what they were going to publish, so you could suggest corrections. In present times the best you can hope for is to ask them, towards the end of the interview, if they would please read out the main points they have written down (I never do this, but reckon it is worth a try). Journalists are rewarded by attention. Sneer if you wish, but I doubt that a headline has never caught your eye. Freddie Starr ate my hamster.

At the conclusion of her talk, Dreger goes off in an interesting direction. She points out that (though scientist was not coined till 1833) the American Founding Fathers were interested in science, as was so often the case in the Enlightenment, that age of wonder. Their championing of democracy and their attack on aristocracy was entirely consistent with their curiosity about the natural world and the consequent notion that discovery should be subject to peer review: governments were tested by collecting citizen opinion, findings were tested by getting peer opinion. Talking to the press is part of holding yourself accountable. If you don’t already do it, practice and participate.

By the way, the ISIR Albuquerque videos are very well made. Instead of the usual out of focus, distant projector screen, with a speaker floating about like a droning, fuzzy blob, they have integrated separately filmed close ups of speaker and screen, so as they switch from one to the other you can almost participate in the talk. But not ask questions. Do that, if you wish, in your comments.


  1. Did you mean procrastination? No hurry to reply.

    1. I may or may not have meant procrastination. On the one hand it was all a long time ago, and on the other hand you have to understand the context. I have always made my position absolutely clear.

  2. this addresses the problem of ignorance on behalf of science journalists fairly well, but it's less obvious what do about malice. As we've learned from the Tim Hunt affair, there seems to be a subset of science journalists with an activist agenda and a distinct lack of scruples. We now know who some of them are, and they should be avoided like the plague, but how deep does the rot go?

  3. Some journalists, usually a tiny minority, "stitch you up" and always will. Complaining and setting the record straight is essential, though often difficult. Exposing them takes time, but if reputation means anything, they eventually lose that.