Sarah-Jane O'Connor

Dr Sarah-Jane O'Connor trained in journalism after finishing a PhD in Ecology then worked for The Press for two years. She is a teaching fellow in science communication at Victoria University of Wellington, editor of Sciblogs, and a former senior media advisor with the Science Media Centre.

COVID-19 coverage - News

Feb 04, 2020

Our Scibloggers have been providing updates on the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. This page will be updated as more posts are published. As of 11 February 2020, the virus has been officially named COVID-19. 12 March 2020 Wellington, we have a problem… Now that the WHO has declared a pandemic, what next? Sarb Johal The Psychology Report What’s the difference between pandemic, epidemic and outbreak? The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This is a landmark event, but what does it mean? Rebecca S.B. Fischer Guest Work 11 March 2020 Delays in feedback: Learning to drive, brain waves and COVID-19 How can China get back to work without taking too many risks? Marcus Wilson Physics Stop 9 March 2020 The three phases of Covid-19 – and how we can … Read More

Coronavirus ‘infodemic’ - Lately, In Science

Feb 03, 2020

Lately, my morning routine includes opening up our work email and checking the latest World Health Organization coronavirus situation report. It’s sobering to see the numbers increasing so rapidly – about 2,500 new confirmed cases every day and about 45 reported deaths. But I’m also reminded of the stark contrast between this outbreak and previous situations in terms of how rapidly information reaches us. SARS I was in my first year of university during the 2003 SARS outbreak and had very little information available to me. This was pre mobile data-enabled cell phones*, I didn’t have a laptop so used the university computer labs when I needed to work on assignments and Stuff was a website that was still only updated a few times a day – if that. Being an introvert meant I rarely watched the TV news in … Read More

Yes, koalas are cute – but should we bring them to NZ? Errm, no - Lately, In Science

Jan 14, 2020

It’s been hard to miss the extreme fires raging across Australia and the tragic plight of the animals – human and otherwise – affected by the fires’ insatiable spread. I know I’ve been captivated and concerned by the tales of how Australia’s famous wildlife has been coping. Koalas approaching cyclists to beg a drink of water, kangaroos seeking sanctuary on golf courses, and wombats apparently sharing – deliberately or otherwise – their burrows with other creatures. These stories and images have, of course, spurred huge amounts of fundraising and donation. But among the weirder attempts to help was a petition to introduce koalas to New Zealand’s eucalypt plantations, which currently has over 8,000 signatures. Look, I love koalas as much as the next person – but this is a terrible idea, and New Zealand knows it … Read More

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