Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Getting the balance right, Scientist v Journalist

What comes to mind when you open the paper in the morning to find headlines like  Study: All Red Meat Linked to Premature Death.”,  Girl dies from flu vaccine white rice increases diabetes risk,......

If you are a member of the general public, you either get yourself in a panic and empty your food store of all red meat once you get home, decide never to get another vaccination or cut out white  rice from your diet all together. The more resilient one's  will just brush over these alarming headlines. If you are an informed scientist however you either sigh at the site of yet another misleading headline, smirk with amusement at a typical journalistic catchy headline or be filled with discontent at yet again another misconception and bad science reporting. 
The constant filtration of bad science to the general public has led to the birth of groups such as the Voice of Young Scientist, making sense about science and the ask for evidence campaign. http://www.senseaboutscience.org/index.php

A recent standing up for science media workshop organised by the Voice of Young Scientist brought together researchers and journalist to discuss the issues of science reporting, what journalist are looking for and how scientist can contribute to getting the right information out to the public. 
The day was divided into three session; a morning discussion with a panel of Scientist about the changing image and role of science and scientist in the public domain, a midday session with a panel of journalist about what they look for and how a story makes it to the headlines and an afternoon session with the organizers offering tips on how scientists can get their voices heard and respond to bad science. Being on a university campus, the day will not be complete without a stop over at the pub for Friday night drinks.

So what was the outcome of the event, have scientist and journalist finally come to a concession as to how best to report science to the media? It turns out that our well informed scientist as usually skeptical about speaking to the media in fear of the outcome of the story due to past experiences of their colleagues. It is after all their reputation on the line.  Professor Mathew Cobb shared an embarrassing story about being invited to comment about a duck that turned up at a dogs home in relation to "does the duck that think its a dog"? He also shared positive experiences on situations where his expertise made a difference and occasions where he wakes up in a panic at 3am in the morning after realizing he'd said something on air that wasn't true.  His take home message which was reiterated by the other speakers, don't shy away from science communication but carefully select what you choose to speak up about and be prepared.

The world of journalism is a demanding and fast based environment with deadlines to be met and the turn around time does not allow for thorough digestion of a paper. At the end of the day, it's a business selling to the public and they need the catchy headlines. Yes, they don't always get it right and they may come across as the enemy at times but truth is that they like to get it right. It is therefore our responsibility as Scientist to ensure that we are available and work together with the journalist to get the balance right.  We need more scientist to engage with the media to make this happen.  

Scientist need to bear in mind that as much as we love working with facts and figures, not every member of the public is interested in our number crunching, as such journalist give the public a simplified version of their own understanding considering these reporters themselves are usually non scientist. They do however take pride in their stories as much as we take pride in our reputation as thorough credible researchers. But how do you get the success story of dolly the sheep across to the public in an easy to understand, fun, engaging and catchy story without getting abuse from animal rights activist? 

In our own way, we can write blogs, record a podcast, tweet, comment on these scientific issues online and just be proactive in reporting good science without leaving it up to the journalist and bad publicity. Remember, however that once you put something out in the public domain, it's hard to retract, so get it right.
Lets join together in asking for evidence and making sense about science. http://www.senseaboutscience.org/index.php


Amara said...

Lovely post. Yes, scientists have a responsibility for correcting misinformation out there. Its sad but true that sometimes journalists tend more for sensationalism than truth. I'm a member of VoYs too. I've bookmarked your blog and will surely be back.

Anonymous said...

Yer journalist are also just trying to do their job so if we scientist can help them do a better job whilst at the ssame time maintaing our reseacr integrity its definalty worth the extra effort