Sarah-Jane O'Connor

Dr Sarah-Jane O'Connor trained in journalism after finishing a PhD in Ecology then worked for Fairfax Media for two years. She is now a senior media advisor with the Science Media Centre, Sciblogs editor and is on Twitter: @DrSJNZ.

In science communication, words matter - Lately, In Science

Jun 21, 2019

Being a grammar nerd isn’t always the best way to win friends and influence people, but today I’m yet again reminded why it’s important to get our words right. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Authority released its annual HSNO Monitoring report, which includes data on hazardous substances and new organisms managed under the HSNO Act. This year, they’ve expanded their report by investigating data related to harm to people, such as poisoning. This all sounds like good, important data to collate and communicate. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the EPA’s press release included this line: “The HSNO Monitoring Report 2018 covers the period from 2006 to 2016, and includes data on hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances, aerial application of 1080, through to environmental pollution.” Hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances and aerial application of 1080? You’d be … Read More

A new pre-print server and media access to research - Lately, In Science

Jun 06, 2019

A few years ago I was talking to a physicist at a work function when he told me about arXiv (I made him spell it out for me so I could look it up the next day). You mean, people put their research papers up online for free, for people to read them before they’re peer reviewed and you don’t have to wait for the journal publication that will probably be locked behind a login? *Head explode emoji* Now that I’m no longer at a university, I’m fortunate to have access to journal articles through work, but if I was a regular Jo Citizen much of the research I’m interested in would be locked away where I can’t access it. That’s not good for scientific literacy as a whole, nor would it be very easy to keep up to date … Read More

Tracking CFC emissions: a scientific mystery story - Lately, In Science

May 23, 2019

Thirty years ago, in May 1989, global leaders gathered in Helsinki to sign into force the Montreal Protocol. You might not be familiar with it by name, but you certainly know its effects: the Montreal Protocol phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and other ozone-depleting substances in an effort to reverse the damage to the ozone layer. It’s one of the few global achievements we can rightfully crow about. Researchers say if we hadn’t phased the chemicals out, the ozone hole over Antarctica would have been 40 per cent larger by 2013. In 2016, a paper in Science reported the hole had begun to ‘heal’, showing an increase in ozone. (It’s worth pointing out that through to the mid 1980s the CFC industry, including Du Pont, was still arguing that the science was still too … Read More

Improving health news through press releases - Lately, In Science

May 18, 2019

In 2014 a study was published that challenged an oft-cited criticism that journalists are to blame for hyped-up health stories. Sensational headlines, breathless reporting, caveats buried so far down the story that most readers never find them. We hear these complaints all the time about the media. But this study, published in The BMJ, turned the claims on their head. Cardiff University researchers found the exaggerated claims in new stories was strongly linked with those same exaggerations in institute press releases. Particularly in the modern media landscape, with fewer journalists filing more stories in a race to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle and the insatiable appetites of online news sources, there’s a certain amount of good faith that a press release from a respected institute – say, a university – is robust. Of course, it’d be preferred … Read More

Violence in the media and cycles of trauma - Lately, In Science

Apr 26, 2019

As governments consider tightening the reins on social media companies and the platforms’ use in terrorism, new research highlights the impact of being exposed to such violence. Following last month’s mosque shootings in Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced plans to co-host a meeting in Paris called the “Christchurch Call”. The aim will be to have world leaders and tech company CEOs pledge to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. There’s plenty of scepticism of what it will achieve, but it’s clear something needs to happen. The Christchurch shootings stand out in the collective repulsion over the means by which the alleged gunman live-streamed his attack: first on Facebook, then republished on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet. As of last week, companies were reportedly still playing whack-a-mole with the video as the stream kept showing back … Read More

A drug-resistant fungus shows the importance of the media - Lately, In Science

Apr 10, 2019

Last weekend a number of alarming headlines from the USA showed up in my social media feeds. They’ve continued over the past few days, from Forbes: To People.com: And ever the restraint from Jezebel: The stories stemmed from a New York Times investigation, by Matt Richtel and Andrew Jacobs, detailing the number of cases of Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungus first identified in 2009 that has since spread through many countries, often causing serious illnesses in hospital patients. What’s most concerning is how difficult the job of reporting on the numerous cases was. As Richtel wrote in a ‘behind the scenes’-style story, “in 30 years, I’ve never faced so tough a reporting challenge”. “As our reporting continued, we discovered it was common for hospitals, doctors and public health agencies … Read More

Where is the social responsibility among social media companies? - Lately, In Science

Mar 19, 2019

An 18-year-old has appeared in court on charges relating to sharing a video of a terrorist attack last week, but where is the accountability for the social media platforms that enabled it to be shared in the first place? Much of Friday afternoon was surreal: we went from celebrating the action of thousands of New Zealand teenagers protesting about the lack of climate change action, to sitting in stunned horror as news update after news update arrived from Christchurch, where 50 people were killed in an attack on two mosques. It added insult to injury to find out the alleged gunman had apparently live-streamed the shooting at Masjid Al-Noor – on Riccarton’s Deans Ave – on Facebook, with the video appearing on YouTube and other social media shortly after the 17-minute video cut out. New Zealand’s Chief Censor has … Read More

The MMR Myth: How should we report it? - Unsorted

Mar 08, 2019

This week a new research paper concluded, again, that there is no link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine and autism. It almost seems mundane to report on, given we established many years ago that there was no such link and the persistent myth was based on fraudulent ‘research’. But as a friend and family member of people on the autism spectrum, and having worked for several years in disability care, I find it personally offensive that this malicious myth persists. Putting aside the fact they’re completely wrong, I despise that they treat autism as something so sinister and shameful. Our autistic family members, colleagues, friends and neighbours deserve so much better than this. But the question remains: how should we report on these issues when they arise? Dip a toe into the subject of science communication, and … Read More

Cold-store snails, data for sale and NZ’s lost birds – our favourite science journalism from October - Lately, In Science

Nov 01, 2018

Phew, it’s been a busy month in the news agenda: from the IPCC’s 1.5C report to turmoil in the National party and tragedy in Wanaka and Mt Cook. Through all of that, you’d be forgiven for missing some of the excellent science-related stories that have been published over the past month. But never fear, we’ve collated some of our favourites for your reading and listening pleasure. Let us know in the comments if you think there’s something we’ve missed. What happened here Charlie Mitchell, Stuff This month Stuff has launched a new ‘premium’ section on its website to highlight some of the excellent long-form reporting being produced by the company’s journalists. It’s no surprise to see National Correspondent Charlie Mitchell featured with this in-depth story about the West Coast’s Powelliphanta augusta snails that were rescued from a cloudy mountaintop … Read More

Suffrage 125: a series - Suffrage 125

Sep 17, 2018

Please don’t do the math, but I was eight in 1993 when New Zealand celebrated 100 years since Suffrage. My mum the history teacher made sure we understood when major world events were going on. I remember her pointing out the Rwandan refugee crisis on TV, telling us it would matter later that we remembered this. And so, of course, I remember the centenary of Suffrage. But it didn’t really mean anything to me then; how could it? When Kate Sheppard was simply a woman on the ten dollar note, it meant nothing to me to consider that there had been a time women couldn’t vote or own property. At age eight, neither of those things were high on my agenda. (Property ownership still feels like a distant ambition, if we’re being  … Read More