Should Scientists Communicate with the Media?

By Michael Edmonds 11/03/2011

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.

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