Your intellectual gonads on a knife-edge...

March 26, 2004

... or dealing with the media. Tim Birkhead offers a few tips on how to keep those scientific credentials intact

You are completing your PhD when you have just had the good fortune, good supervision and great insight to make a major discovery.

Let's say it is something sexy - something to do with reproduction. Almost miraculously, it seems, your paper has been accepted by Nature , the premier science journal. Everyone is excited - a paper in Nature is vital research assessment exercise fodder and it will generate good publicity for you, the department and the university: a win-win-win situation.

Part of the deal of having your work published in Nature is that you are sworn to secrecy. You cannot tell anyone (at least not anyone in the media) about your results until just before publication. Then you are free to tell all. If your results are sufficiently exciting, the media barrage will feel horrendous and you'll soon be a queasy mixture of fear and elation. Publicity can be a seductive and dangerous mixture, especially for the naive.

Scientists need the media, but dealing with the media presents many dangers. It's a bit like walking home in the dark. Most of the time it's OK, but occasionally the media bogeyman jumps out of the bushes and rips your self-esteem away.

Most media people are a joy to deal with. The perfect interviewer is someone who has done their homework, inspires confidence and makes you feel special; they ask appropriate questions, and their comments give your work the merit it deserves. They may even offer you a fee. As you part company you are left with a warm glow of satisfaction. If only it was always like this.

It isn't. As in all walks of life, the media has some complete bastards, with the naive researcher the ultimate prey.

A friend had done a study that looked at the effects of bird droppings on the urban environment. It sounds naff, but it was newsworthy because a great many birds were involved. The surprising conclusion was that the ornithological ordure had no negative impact on the environment - good news for bird lovers (who had feared a cull). But there was concern over the health issue. National radio got hold of the story and sought an interview.

My colleague agreed, but was perplexed by the way the interview was conducted: a reporter came to record the answers, even though the questions were asked by someone else over the phone. Only when the programme was broadcast did it become clear what had happened. The interview had been "edited" and different questions used with my colleague's answers, turning the story into a scientific farce.

There is no greater insult to a researcher than having their hard-won research trivialised to titillate the public - and no better way of making researchers suspicious of the media's motives. Something similar once happened to a colleague and myself. Having been assured of a serious interview, we were more than disappointed to find ourselves live fodder for the show's presenter. We complained, and the next day the presenter telephoned to "apologise" - and was about as contrite as a great white shark that had just eaten two baby seals.

Cases such as these are fairly unusual, and radio is usually pretty safe.

Television is a different can of bird droppings. The first rule is this (assuming you are prepared to risk your career): if TV wants the world to see you on screen for more than a few seconds, ask what the fee is. If there is no fee: don't do it. Your university publicity office can suggest rates. Asking for a fee may sound mercenary, and you may be gagging for publicity, but TV companies usually have a budget and my advice is if they won't pay, they don't really want you.

Academics and the media can benefit enormously from each other - and usually do. The take-home message is this: if you are going to step into the media spotlight, then, like the proverbial Boy Scout, be prepared.

Tim Birkhead is professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sheffield.

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