Learn to press for success

Matt Rooney, an engineer and Science Media Fellow, on news-savvy ways to convey your research message

August 7, 2008

Media coverage of research papers can dramatically increase academics' citation counts, and, it follows, their academic standing.

As far back as 1991, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that, over a ten-year period, research papers mentioned in The New York Times received 73 per cent more citations than control studies.

"Having a profile in the media helps fulfil your public engagement requirements and, although there is probably no direct link to funding, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that those who engage with the media achieve a good standing in their field," said Nancy Mendoza, a media officer at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Indeed, more scientists than ever are keen to engage with the public.

A survey carried out in 2006 by the Royal Society indicated that more than half of UK scientists would like to spend more time promoting their work to a wider audience. But what help is out there for the uninitiated? How do you know, as a scientist, what to say when a journalist rings up to ask for a comment?

For a start, research councils normally provide media training for their grant holders. The BBSRC, for example, runs both a general introductory course and a more advanced course that gives participants hands-on experience of being interviewed for print and radio. Both the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council use the Royal Society as their main provider of media training.

The aim of these courses is to give scientists more confidence in interviews. Often participants are filmed giving a mock interview and then learn from the "ordeal" of reviewing it on screen. Participants may also practise writing press releases that are free of jargon.

But there are also options outside the research councils.

The Science Media Centre (SMC), a London-based organisation that brings scientists and journalists together with the aim of helping scientists shape the news, runs one-day "Introduction to the News Media" sessions. Scientists who work in particular "hot topics" are invited to seminars where they are given a snapshot of a "day in the life of the media", with the SMC emphasising the importance of scientists "speaking up" for their research.

Private providers are also tapping into the growing market. Two years ago Screenhouse, a factual science programme production company based in Leeds, began running a one-day course called "Media Skills for Scientists". Its trainers can present the course at laboratories, and it can be tailored to specific needs. Other companies offering similar services are SciConnect, based in Southampton, and Splendid Thing in Bristol.

Some universities are also taking a proactive approach to media training by offering regular courses on campus.

Researchers concerned that their careful work could be oversimplified or even misrepresented in the media may take heart that the situation isn't as bad as it may seem.

A paper published last month in the journal Science concluded that relations between academics and journalists were "more frequent and smooth than previously thought". It surveyed 582 scientists and found that 46 per cent reported that their contact with the media had a mostly positive effect on their career, compared with 3 per cent who rated their experiences negatively.

"Scientists can misinterpret what journalists are after," said Jim Al-Khalili, a nuclear physicist and professor of public engagement in science at the University of Surrey. "Their job is not to promote your research, nor is it to make you look bad. If you know what they're looking for and can provide them with a 'hook' for their story, they will be very grateful."

Matt Rooney is an engineer at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. He is on a placement at Times Higher Education as a Science Media Fellow with the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

matt.rooney@tsleducation.com

ON MESSAGE: IMPROVING YOUR MEDIA PERFORMANCE

- Contact your university press office - its staff can give you help and advice on media work.

- Practise speaking about your work in jargon-free language to non-scientists, and try describing your work in just 150 words. Don't use acronyms or measurements that the public may not understand.

- If you have an important paper coming out and you know the journal will highlight it, make yourself available for interviews around the dates of the press release and publication.

- Before speaking to a journalist, decide on three key messages that you want to put across in the interview. If you are asked a question that does not relate to your three points, try to get back to the subjects you want to cover using phrases such as "what we must remember is ... ".

- Think whether anything surrounding your area of research is controversial. If there are contentious matters, it is best to work out how to deal with them before an interview.

Adapted from "Top Tips for Media Work", produced by the Science Media Centre.

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