If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?

Someone sent me a blog posting news story a few days back, which was interesting but really depressing in some ways. You can read it for yourselves. What was upsetting was the idea that so many scientists still see the media as something that must be “beaten”. Likewise I am sure that the journalists out there get annoyed when the scientists don’t give them the headlines they need.

I heard a very interesting conversation on the radio between Dorothy Bishop (an academic who was so disgusted with how science is reported by the media that she has started a prize for it) and a journalist (sorry I cannot locate the journalist’s name but she was head of some journalistic association or similar; the programme was on Radio 4). The journalist seemed disgusted with the way that scientists (academics) she had spoken with could not justify in one sentence why tax-payers money was being spent on this research and what tax-payers would get from it.  

I spend my time writing about scientific breakthroughs and why they are important. I usually write about 300-400 words. Even then I write at a level at which the general public would not have a hope of understanding some of what I say; it is aimed at people already literate in science. To justify in one sentence would, I think, be pretty tricky. You could say what the research is ultimately leading towards, of course, but the listener/reader needs to understand that this may not happen any time soon, and not as a direct result of your particular piece of work today. You would need to understand not only the research inside out (which the researchers do) but also how to communicate that with people who fundamentally don’t care about science and don’t understand technical terms. Even with media training, which most academics don’t have much of (though this is on the increase down to places like the Science Media Centre) getting your message across would require some careful thought.

Some research has a direct appeal to the public – a good e.g. of that out in the press at the moment is the “invisibility cloak” stuff. That appeals because it links up with childhood dreams, Harry Potter, etc. You can also see a very direct use of it. However the current research will not enable you to hide underneath an invisibility cloak like Master Potter did. This story has been reported numerous times on the BBC (see Vicky Gill’s stories this year, last year, and another reporter four years ago when the theory was first put forward). Each time an advance has been made, but we are still a long way away from holding the cloak in our hands. But that is how science works.

Journalists have a job to do, to get their story in on time (with very short deadlines) and to sell newspapers, an ever more difficult job in an internet age.  Incremental advances do not headlines make. So they may sex it up, ignore the caveats and anyone who does not respond immediately to questioning. I’m not accusing anyone in particular here  -in fact I think that this is simply the kind of behaviour that the journalistic/editorial system encourages. Journalists are asked to provide entertainment, scientists are out to provide information. Information can be entertaining, but it is not always the fairy story with the happy end we might want it to be.

So you can see why the attitude arises that the one must beat the other, and why this prevails even though scientists do know, by and large, that they should spend more time and effort to communicate their research to the public and media. Changing the way that journalists work would be tricky. It has been suggested that better marketing of science is the answer – personally I think this is part of the solution but not the whole answer. I don’t know what that is, though. Answers on a postcard (or post below). Meanwhile I shall keep on doing my bit in my own little corner of the world.

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