By Katherine Hurst 30/10/2020


Most people hear “ER” and they think of an emergency room – ambulances, patients, life and death situations.

But for the staff at the Science Media Centre, ER stands for “Expert Reactions” and means timely comments from experts responding to breaking news. 

When news breaks, journalists often want quotes about the importance or relevance of what has happened. They might also need help understanding complex issues so they can then communicate them to the public. The Science Media Centre helps by providing comments from academics and other professionals.  Journalists can follow up further with those experts, or they can use the comments directly in their reporting, saving them and the experts time, and ensuring the information they are using comes from respected sources. 

Earlier this week NASA announced the discovery of water on the sunlit side of the moon. NASA’s press release came out early Tuesday morning, and was followed closely by media articles, many of which featured quotes from New Zealand experts. How did journalists get those quotes so quickly? To find out, we need to go back in time several days, to when NASA announced that they would be announcing something…

Putting everything together

Sarah-Jane O’Connor from the Science Media Centre says that “all the best news comes from Twitter”. She saw jokes circulating about a forthcoming NASA announcement before seeing the actual press release.


Space is a perennially popular news topic, perfect for an ER. The NASA website gave a few more details which indicated that the story even had a local angle – the SOFIA, a modified 747 which functions as a high-altitude observatory, has visited New Zealand several times. The founder of the SMC, Peter Griffin, has even been on board.

 

On Thursday a story was published about NASA’s ‘exciting’ moon discovery. New Zealand-based space scientist Dr Duncan Steel had been doing some digging behind the press release, and told Newshub “it’s likely to be in relation to water”.

Back at SMC HQ, Claire Kaplan was scanning recently released journals for interesting scientific research to load onto their Scimex website. She picked up a paper about water on the moon, and realised that its authors and embargo time matched the details in the NASA press release. Claire’s colleague Daniel Walker was responsible for sourcing quotes and producing that week’s ERs. The Science Media Centre keeps a database with thousands of experts, so the first thing to do was narrow down the field. It’s great to have some stalwart experts who are experienced commenters, but important to get a range of people from different institutions and backgrounds.

The four-day lead time meant plenty of time to prepare – not every ER has this luxury. Many scientists are used to working with long timeframes, but when news happens out of the blue comments can be needed in as little as twenty minutes.

Daniel says, “There’s a balance between wanting to give the experts enough time to think through comments, and setting them a close enough deadline that we can give it to journalists before they’ve finished writing their stories.”

“Sometimes we are asking ‘can you decode this?’” Daniel says. “Others want to comment on the hype, zooming out to the meta-narrative. Obviously, that comment won’t have as many specifics on the actual paper. So they each have their purpose – they don’t cancel each other out, they both have value.”

Daniel emailed ten experts on Thursday asking for comments, and had an immediate reply from one. Often people are busy, or unwilling to comment on something outside their area of expertise. He sent the comment out to SMC’s list of journalists on Friday, along with comments that the Australian Science Media Centre had collected. More comments arrived over the next few days, so he emailed again on Monday afternoon. Timing can be everything – it was Labour Day, a traditionally quiet public holiday, so Daniel knew that by the end of the day journalists might be struggling to fill their Tuesday morning pages.

 

Watching the results

Once the embargo lifted early Tuesday morning, stories started appearing in papers and on news websites. Many of them feature comments from the SMC, such as an article on Stuff which quoted Dr Duncan Steel. 

Daniel points out that “confirming there’s water on the moon doesn’t sound as jazzy as discovering there’s water on the moon”. Journalists need to find new ways of appealing to the public, often by adding a human angle. Dr Alan Gilmore considered the implications of the discovery for any long-lasting human base on the Moon. Translating research into easy-to-grasp concepts can be fascinating, as in Associate Professor Jan J. Eldridge’s comments:

“This finding suggests getting water from the lunar surface might be as simple as grinding it up to get water. Although a rough calculation suggests you’d need to process 15 tonnes of rock to get a day’s water intake for an average person.”

Expert Reactions don’t always focus solely on the content of the news, but also on the context. Professor Richard Easther’s comments about the hype surrounding the discovery proved valuable in extending the media coverage of the story.

“These results also illuminate the hype machine that operates inside science. The media event accompanying the news has been teased on social media and elsewhere as NASA to make major announcement about the moon, but given the buildup, people could be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing is a damp squib… Just to reiterate — these results look like solid, interesting and important work. But the media fanfare is overcooked.”

“To keep a story rolling the whole day, you need to find a different way to talk about it,” says Daniel. “Richard’s comments almost let them get two stories out of it. In the morning RNZ ran a story about lunar bases, with his comment at the bottom. Later in the day, they flipped it and the cynicism is at the top.” 

Expert Reactions present different perspectives on emerging science-related issues, and help journalists to interpret breaking news or see past shiny media releases. 

They may not be saving lives, but the Science Media Centre’s ERs are doing their best to help transmit timely quotes and insightful analysis from experts to the public – in Emergency Room terms they are the ambulance at the top of the cliff of misinformation.

Katherine is studying toward a Master’s of Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently undertaking an internship with the Science Media Centre as part of her studies.