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Yesterday at the Science Online 2012 Conference in Raleigh I attended an afternoon session on "Why Scientists Hate and Fear the Media; or, Science Training for Journalists". Quite a mouthful which at times proved to be hard to swallow because what was destined to be a lively session anyway, eventually came off the rails. The upside of the 'unconference' format is that sessions are more relevant to more attendees, but the downside is that sessions can be "we the unknowing led but the inexperienced."
What I was able to come away with though, was that many scientists worry about damage to their reputation after missteps, misquotes or misunderstanding. A bad round with the NY Times, CNN, or Wired.com can derail your career.
No doubt that could happen. Emphasis on the could and I hope some of yesterday's attendees joined today's session on risk, wonderfully led by David Ropeik, to help ease their mistrust.
What yesterday's session skipped by was a realistic scan across the average science - media - scientist - journalist relationship.
For a start the average researcher in the average university is not likely to get a call from the NY Times, Guardian, or CNN or in Canada, a print outlet such as the Globe and Mail. The call is more likely to come from a local newspaper, or an electronic broadcaster, and this changes the scenario significantly.
The big national outlets or specialty publications are more likely to have a dedicated beat reporter who has time to read the original science paper or dig deeper into the research. Specialty publications also have deadlines that are farther out. Despite a dismissive comment during the session about reporters who don't read the research paper, there is no escaping the fact a local reporter has neither the time or the background to read a scientific paper. Nor is it in any way similar to the tweeted comment about a "reporter who doesn't read a science paper is like a restaurant reviewer who doesn't visit the restaurant".
The editorial team at your local media outlet meets in the morning. An assignment editor or a general reporter has your media release and pitch YOUR story as they understand it from your release. They do a bad pitch, your story dies. They do a good pitch, your story lives and gets assigned. If you're lucky, it is the newspaper because the reporter has more of the day to contact you, ask the relevant questions, write a story, maybe call back for a clarification, and file. If it is your local TV station they have a late afternoon deadline to call you, arrange a camera shoot, get the story, edit it and file for the evening news. Alas though your call comes from a radio station. Next newscast is at the top of the hour !
Or how about at equally likely scenario:
You or your institution's PR department have a good 1-to-1 relationship with a local reporter, they got the story directly and they've had several days to write a solid in depth piece or feature. You even got to vet some of the material. Great ! Ah, but remember the editorial meeting in the first scenario? They saw the report on TV the night before or in the morning paper, and are now all about catching up and not looking out of touch with a great local scientist or discovery. All they have to work with is the story from the competing outlet and are now playing catch-up and call you cold.
That's the reality and while I certainly understand scientists fearing for their careers and credibiliy, it is still not an outcome with a high chance of probability despite the pressures all round.
It is a tough world out there and if scientists think media can ruin them or that funding is tight and competition for dollars is cutthroat - try spending time in a newsroom today.
There are no real bad guys in the relationship. There are shades and degrees of talent, resources, and ethics thoughtout the process from the day the research starts through to when a media release or blog goes out, and ending with a TV crew on site hoping to make you and them look brilliant.
There was an endless re-tweeting of a line from the #scio12 opening keynote yesterday that more people are killed by cows than in shark attacks , and I'll go out on a limb and extend the line to say there are even fewer science careers smashed on the rocks of academia by a bad headline.
Many scientists need some media training and some scientists may need to step away from the microphone forever, but in general, this is not about media training. It is about common sense at its best whichThomas Huxley believed, science was all about.
Pascal Lapointe - Www.sciencepresse.qc.ca
Bravo. Many scientists should read this.
Meera Lee Sethi - http://www.scienceessayist.com/
I agree; thank you for this lucid, level-headed post.
Mike Spear - genomealberta.ca
Thanks for the comments. Hope it helps scientists see things in a slightly better light.