Friday, September 12, 2008

Talking To The Media About Your Research

If you are ever in the position of getting popular publicity for your work, you will encounter the situation where you will have to talk and deal with the media. While not many scientists have to deal with this situation, there are certainly those who have been put through such an "ordeal", and many more will be.

This article in the Science Career section has many useful advice and tips on dealing with the media. However, what I found to be more useful is that this actually is how a scientist should also deal with the public when speaking about his/her research work. Many of the issues that surround the problem in dealing with the media appears to be the same problem that one would deal with in one's interactions with the public.

Indeed, scientists frequently complain about mistakes and inaccuracies. "Scientists regard different things as being incorrect: firstly, the fact that particular aspects are omitted; secondly, simplifications; and thirdly, actual errors," Scherzler says. Scientists need to understand that communicating science to the public is very different from communicating it to one's scientific peers. "Omissions are ... always necessary in journalism, because space or airtime is restricted. Simplifications are also inevitable so that the audience can follow the topic. Errors are, of course, annoying," she adds.

This should warn the public on the nature of the reporting that they are reading. It should give them some perspective on how things have been simplified for their consumption. So at no time should they be deluding themselves that they are getting the full picture. You'd be surprised how many people think that what they read about science in the newspaper is entirely accurate and complete.

And then, there's the issue of how and what are being reported.

There's a chance, of course, that journalists won't represent your research accurately, and this concerns many scientists. Nine out of 10 researchers Peters surveyed worried about being misquoted, and eight out of 10 thought journalists were unpredictable. In Crockett's experience, "popular press' takes on the paper [can be] quite far removed from what the research presented," she says. In her Science paper, Crockett and her colleagues found that healthy people are more prone to retaliate to unfairness when their brain serotonin levels are reduced through diet. In some accounts, the coverage "somehow inferred that we should eat more chocolate so we can be nicer to each other," Crockett says.

In other words, just because you said something with one particular meaning, doesn't mean that the receiver of that message understood it with the SAME meaning! Many scientists have been guilty of using "buzzwords", either to simplify something, or to catch the public's imagination (example: teleportation). Unfortunately, the public has a wide range of imagination that isn't necessarily based on reality or what was meant in the first place. We are then left with dealing with the misinterpretation and trying to correct it.

The other part of the article even re-emphasized this point.

If you're not careful, your expertise could be used for topics you'd rather not be associated with. Some time ago, "a tabloid journalist called an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute. He wanted to know when Venus, Mercury, and Saturn would be especially close to each other. ... The next morning, the name of the scientist could be found in the same breath as recommendations regarding the best time to have sex according to the planets," says Diane Scherzler , who gives media training courses for academics and is an editor in the online department of Suedwestrundfunk, a German public broadcasting company. Before agreeing to an interview, "it is very important to make clear with whom I am talking, what is this journalist working on, what kind of story, for which magazine or program," Peters adds.

That last part is what I have called the "bastardization of ..." so-and-so. I've listed several bastardizations of quantum mechanics in this blog. One should no longer be surprised that something in science is taking way beyond what it says and can do and gets bastardized into some crackpottery. That's a fact of life it seems nowadays.



Peter Morgan said...

Although the general tone of the (interesting) article you link to is somewhat cautious towards journalists, so that I wouldn't say that you have much misrepresented it in your quotations, nonetheless the last two paragraphs of the article take a rather different line, that is contrary to the pessimistic attitude to journalists that you present here (and which I think you generally take in blog posts on this subject):


When interacting with journalists, "there are a lot of things that can go wrong, but in the end it seems to work," says Peters. In his survey, 57% of the researchers said they were generally pleased about their latest media appearances, and only 6% were dissatisfied. "On the whole, it's good for young scientists to get your name out there," Crockett says. There are some risks, but Crockett puts them in perspective. "I think other scientists who have been through the process understand that something gets lost in translation, and if some journalist somewhere misquotes me or represents my research inaccurately, they won't hold me responsible because they know how it works," she says. Do everything you can so the journalist gets it right, but accept that some of it is out of your hands, she adds.

"In general, ... the scientist should not regard the journalist as an enemy. Such a distrustful attitude drains a lot of the scientist's energy that would better be spent on a good interview. Working with the mass media should be seen as an opportunity and not a hazard," Scherzler says.

ZapperZ said...

I don't think my intention was to show my "distrust" on the media. It is more of the message or the content that is being passed to the public, and how the public perceived the message. A lot of things get lost in translation, and it IS a translation of scientific content into consumable content.

My issue isn't with the media (although I have PLENTY of issues with certain parts of the media). My issue is whether the public is AWARE that there are many layers and filters that the story has been put through to bring them that piece of information. I know many do, but I also know many who don't. They read science news and articles in newspaper and popular magazines the same way they read political news. Some even managed to fool themselves into thinking that what they read is complete and accurate, rather than realizing that this is only a glimpse of what actually is going on. Physics articles, to me, suffers the most from such watering down. While most people can relate to science articles about medicine or climate etc., physics stories about particle colliders, dark matter, black holes, etc. are steep in intricate mathematical formulation and description that most people cannot even begin to comprehend. Thus, what they have to go by are the words being used to describe them. "Dark Matter" and "Black holes" are the only thing they get, and they will read that within the context of what they had already understand, not within the physics context of how those words were used. I see that problem very often.