Posts Tagged media

Are the Media Reporting or Creating the News? Michael Edmonds Sep 22


I ask this question after the post-election reporting that I have seen over the last couple of days, including that in the general media and on TV programmes The Nation and Q+A. Consider the following examples:

This morning I heard one radio commentator suggest today would be “Coup 2″, that is that David Cunliffe would be rolled as leader of the Labour party.

Yesterday on either Q+A or The Nation (or possibly both – both programmes were so similar it was hard to keep track) David Shearer was invited on to speak about what Labour had done wrong, then once he had left it was claimed that his very appearance on the programme showed he would roll Mr Cunliffe.

Jamie Whyte (who  is probably my least favourite politician) was treated badly being repeatedly asked why he wasn’t going to resign, even after he had explained he had been asked not to. The idea that if someone isn’t successful at something means they need to give up and resign doesn’t seem to be a particularly healthy attitude.

While I think it is important that the media ask politicians the tough questions, I think some are crossing the line into trying to create the news rather than reporting it.

Media Hyperbole Michael Edmonds Jan 24


On my way to work this morning I heard a rather unusual report on the radio news.

The first statement was along the lines of “New Zealanders blame overseas drivers for accidents on our roads”

This was then followed by a statement “justifying” this claim by saying

“in a survey a high percentage (sorry can’t remember the number) of New Zealanders believe overseas drivers are unprepared for our driving conditions”

My question is, does the second statement justify the conclusion made in the first?

*Note – the above is my paraphraisng of what I heard as I don’t have a photogrpahic memory, however I am sure I got the key point correct.



Becoming a SAVVY Scientist Michael Edmonds Oct 30


For the past two days I have been attending New Zealand’s first Science Media SAVVY workshop. Developed by the Science Media Centre with contributions by Michael Brown, a media skills trainer with Skillset and Dr Mark Quigley, who also contributed to the funding of the workshop using part of his Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.* It was quite an experience – sometimes fun, sometimes challenging, but always informative.

The first day involved filmed interviews, allowing us to see what we looked like on camera, and through constructive feedback learning how we could perform better. The facilitator’s Michael Brown and Peter Griffin were able to show us how we are all capable of giving a good interview by moving into “the flow” of the interview, and gave us techniques on how to get into the flow quickly and confidently. Michael also gave us some tools for dealing with aggressive questioning, although I’m not sure if I’m ready to forgive him for trying this out on me first, without warning :-).

While half of us were getting used to seeing what we looked like of film, Dacia Herbulock from the Science Media Centre, was teaching us how to construct media pitches that were engaging, concise and as jargon free as possible. This included brainstorming alternatives for words such as frequency and molecule, as well as discussing the finer points of blood splatter research and the internal structure of stars.

Day two saw us visiting the Christchurch Press to get a better understanding of how a newspaper runs. Getting some idea of the deadlines and constraints reporters have was extremely useful, as well as making personal contact with Paul Gorman who looks after science related stories at The Press. Peter Griffin also gave us an outline of how the media environment is changing and how we might use this to our advantage in better communicating science. The afternoon then finished with a media panel, who after giving us their background and then listened to our pitches. Business cards and contact details were then exchanged, and then it was off to the pub for a beer.

As well as the training we received, another benefit of the workshop was sharing the experience with other scientists, from a variety of organisations and disciplines. It was fascinating to hear about the work of scientists doing research on Antarctic fishes, soil science, environment toxins, stroke rehabilitation, blood splatter forensics and volcanology (I was a little suspicious of a volcanologist doing media training but he reassured me there wasn’t any immediate volcanic hazards in Christchurch).

My general impression is that everyone involved with the SAVVY workshop found it extremely beneficial, which bodes well for future workshops taking place in other centres around New Zealand. If you get the chance to attend one – go for it.

*The winner of the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize receives $100,000; $50,000 to spend on her/his development of media communication skills with the other $50,000 to spend on whatever he/she wants. It was extremely generous of Mark to spend some of his prize on helping other scientists develop their media skills.

Folic Acid, Science and the Media Michael Edmonds Jul 08


This morning on the TV programme Q+A there was a discussion of whether or not folic acid should be added to bread. This is the second time this issue has been raised since it became a political hot potato three years ago, and was put aside. At the time a Folic Acid Working Group was set up, but apparently the members of this group declined to appear on Q+A this morning. Instead, Greg Boyed interviewed Oxford Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology, David Smith, and Dr Andrew Marshall of the Paediatrics Society. The result was embarassing and frustrating to say the least.

Dr Marshall, who supports the addition of folic acid to bread, was dismissive of the evidence provided by Professor Smith to suggest possible risks with folic acid, accusing him of “cherry picking”, while simultaneously appearing to be selective in his own sources of evidence. He also called Professor Smith a “folate hater”, but then swiftly withdrew the comment. I find this type of behaviour appalling – this is the type of rhetoric which taints science and leads to the sorts of non-scientific naming calling “debates” we have seen with climate change.

Personally, I found Professor Smiths’ arguments no more convincing, especially when he emphasised that folate was synthetic and not the same as naturally occurring folic acid. If find the implied “natural is good, synthetic is bad” argument coming from a Professor of Pharmacology extraordinary.

Other frustrating arguments put forward included a big deal being made of some of Professor Smith’s research being funded by bread manufacturers, and Greg Boyed implying that because Professor Smith was an Oxford don that his views held more weight than others. Personally, I would much rather place my faith in the evidence, not rely on an argument from authority.

The panel discussion after the interviews was also annoying. Matt McCarten referred to scientists as “pointy heads”, no doubt frustrated by the conflicting views of the two experts. While I can empathise with his frustration, such insults do nothing and perpetuate the gap between scientists and the general public.

With regards to my own view on folic acid, I think that it’s mandatory addition to bread is not the way to go, primarily because of the variability in its dose. It seems to me that the best way to reduce neural birth defects is to make sure that women who need it receive a known dose of known benefit. Putting it bread just seems such a random way to administer a bioactive substance.

Having said that I am open to being persuaded otherwise, but with evidence, not rhetoric. There appears to be some early suggestions that folic acid may reduce the occurrence of strokes, which might add to the evidence for its addition. However, there are still those who argue that it can increase the risk of some forms of cancer. What really needs to be done is a thorough risk/benefit analysis incorporating ALL existing research.





SCANZ 2012 – Dr Mark Quigley: Calm and Assured on the Outside Michael Edmonds Mar 02


There are probably very few Cantabrians (or New Zealanders) who wouldn’t recognise Mark Quigley. Soon after the major quake of September 4th, 2010, Dr Quigley began appearing on our TV screens explaining what was happening to the ground under the Canterbury region.

As a result of the excellent work he did informing and reassuring the New Zealand public in 2010 and 2011, Mark received both the Prime Ministers Science Media Communication Award and the New Zealand Association of Scientist’s Science Communicator’s Award. And at SCANZ, Mark shared many of the trials and tribulations of being catapulted into the public gaze.

Mark’s movement into the spotlight could be best summed up, in my opinion, as “fortune favoring the bold.” Shortly after the September 4th quake, Mark found like many of us that there was little information available about what had happened. Hearing various concerns expressed via a local radio station, Mark called in and began to fill in the gaps for the many concerned callers, for example, explaining what liquifaction was. This was then followed by a Skype interview with NBC for which he was able to provide his own photos of earthquake damage.

Now identified as the “got to” guy for information on the earthquakes (by this stage multiple aftershocks had occurred) Mark found himself cycling across a damaged city after a day working in the field to appear on TV in the evenings. Sometimes, they would keep him waiting around for hours, and after a while Mark ended up having to make it clear this was unacceptable. Personally, I think these appearances by Mark in his work gear lent great credibility to what he was talking about. Instead of the suited show ponies we had someone who was obviously involved in what was happening in the city.

Mark described how after the first severe quake there was an almost unending thirst from the public for knowledge. Public lectures were incredibly popular with some media describing Mark described as a “Geo Rockstar”.

Mark credits various factors for his success in working with the media:

  • being willing to engage and communicate the same message over and over again across all media
  • a willingness to be time flexible and geographically adaptable (i.e. willing to cycle across the city for interviews)
  • having a broad knowledge base and a willingness to expand it
  • using Google Scholar to quickly check info before interviews
  • respecting the audience
  • responding to public and channel interest where appropriate
  • being culturally sensitive and human
  • being careful with what is said

Though in spite of the last point Mark did experience being misquoted and having colleagues ask him “Did you really say that?”

Mark describes himself as having been a local based optimist while being scientifically realistic in what he said.

One of Mark’s final points in his talk was to remind us all that if scientists don’t talk to the media the gap gets filled with speculation and nonsense, and that if scientists downplay or avoid discussing the science then this just creates suspicion from the public.

An extremely important point, in my opinion.

Women, Media and Society Michael Edmonds Oct 14

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warning – contains sexualised content

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An eye opening social commentary, that actually makes me want to apologise for my gender. To all the women out there I salute you for your many successes in spite of the kinds of attitudes and people shown in this clip.

Does the Media need Facts to Create a “Good” Story? Michael Edmonds Mar 24

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A common criticism of the media’s reporting of science is that facts are often exaggerated, misrepresented or ignored. However, the recent reports of an “incident” involving politician Darren Hughes show another technique of some sections of the media – when there are limited facts available, the gaps can be filled in by opinion and innuendo.

At the point of writing this blog the only facts released to the public are that an 18 year old male has made a complaint of a sexual nature against Mr Hughes, Labour’s education spokesman and chief whip. Mr Hughes has claimed that he has done nothing wrong and is waiting for the outcome of a police inquiry into the alleged incident.

However, it is said that nature abhors a vacuum. So, it appears, does the media who are filling the gaps with supposition and innuendo. Already on is a poll asking if Mr Hughes career will survive the allegations against him? Given that no one seems to know what the allegations are, this question seems a little premature. A similar question was also asked by Petra Bagust this morning on TV one’s breakfast show.

At this point in time there is no evidence available to show whether the alleged incident was a simple misunderstanding, a serious abuse of power, or something in between. Yet some media are attempting to “fill in the gaps” by any means necessary, for example a “source close to the complainant says he is bearing up well.”

Some may question why I am posting a story about politics on a science blog, however, I see this story as a lesson on how some sections of the media operate. If we do not provide them with enough facts the gaps will be filled in with something else – implication, quotes from “experts” or pure speculation.

Should Scientists Communicate with the Media? Michael Edmonds Mar 11


A common message these days is that scientists should be communicating with the media more. This is a noble ideal but one has to ask does this mean every scientist should be lining up to speak to their local media person?

My answer would be emphatically, NO.

The reason that scientists are being asked to communicate more with the public is to show that science is interesting, important and beneficial to society. Therefore scientists who communicate with the public and the media must be able to communicate science clearly, enthusiastically and knowledgeably. A bored looking man in a white coat mumbling incomprehensibly into a microphone will not do.

Scientists who engage with the media need a good sense of what the public will find most interesting about their work. Most university students will probably at this stage point out that I have now eliminated about 80% of their lecturers (apologies to my academic colleagues here, who I am sure are in the remaining 20% anyway)

Furthermore, if a scientist is going to successfully address the media on a scientific subject that has even a hint of controversy associated with it they will need further skills. First, they will need to be familiar with the controversial issues and, if they are being challenged by someone with an “alternative” theory they need to be familiar with that theory and be able to counter any common arguments. Issues such such as evolution and climate change require a substantial knowledge base.

Science often puts an emphasis on objectiveness and rational thinking, yet engaging with the public may be best achieved by invoking an emotional response, for example showing people that science has meaning (and benefits) for them. The public also tends to respond better to bold statements, a challenge for many scientists who are used to describing their work in terms of uncertainty. This is an ongoing challenge for scientists.

In a world where it could be argued that style wins over substance there is inevitably debate over the appearance of scientists in the media. Some will argue that the public will relate better to young and/or good looking scientists and that a female scientist sets a good role model for girls. Others will say that it is the message that is important, and that so long as the message is delivered knowledgeably, clearly and with enthusiasm, appearance is unimportant. I would have to say I would tend to fall in the latter category, although I am disappointed when scientists appear in the media without paying any attention to their appearance. Surely most scientists can afford to have at least one nice outfit and a comb in their wardrobe!

This is of course not to say that many scientists CANNOT communicate with the media. Provided they make the effort to understand how the media works, and doing suitable preparation before a media encounter, there is nothing to stop many scientists from performing well in the media spotlight.

Masters of Outrage Michael Edmonds Mar 05


An interesting comment of public outrage via the media. Possibly relevant to the whole John Campbell/Ken Ring fiasco?

Note – video is rated PG

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