Media coverage of science — what is holding scientists back?

By Rebecca McLeod 24/08/2010

I had my 10 minutes of fame last week as I was powdered up and thrust before the cameras for TVNZ7’s Media7 special on science and the media. A really fun experience, but there was some kind of weird time-absorbing phenomenon going on in the TVNZ studio that seemed to reduce my time to about 10 seconds.

Before I went up to Auckland for the filming I dutifully did my research and went around talking to some scientists I know that have had a fair bit of media coverage. I asked them about their experiences, and why they think it is that journalists sometimes struggle with reporting science, and some scientists struggle with talking to the media. I got so much great information. And then managed to blather away my precious screen time talking about a potential market for hagfish-skin t-shirts. Seriously, where does this stuff come from?! Shudder.

So, here is my chance to say what I should have said. I particularly want to share with you an analogy that my doctoral supervisor shared with me (that he had in turn been told by a mentor in the US). He likened science to law. As scientists, we prepare a theory, and then test it by gathering evidence — much as lawyers do. Our evidence (data) varies in the weight that can be placed upon it: we have qualitative studies and observations (think of this as circumstantial evidence), and we have quantitative data (cold hard facts). But – and herein lies the difference — when a scientist’s ’case’ is reported in the media, there is no standard framework or rules around how those different kinds of evidence are presented. More often than not, science stories are reported with little concept of the weighting that can be given to a particular piece of scientific information. And so we end up with the risk of the scientific conclusions being overstated or taken out of context.

If a reporter of a criminal law trial treated circumstantial evidence (’Suspect X was seen outside the crime scene at 4:55 am, 5 minutes before the victim is believed to have died…’) as cold hard facts (’…and is therefore the murderer’), they would likely be sued/reprimanded/sacked. Were that same reporter to overstate the bounds of scientific data, they would probably just end up looking a little lazy.

So, how do scientists cope with this? They adopt their own internal framework for presenting their data. You’ve seen this before: excessive use of ’maybes’ and ’possiblys’ and ’likelys’ and ’coulds’. The result: quite often a dithering, indecisive, dispassionate stuffy scientist. I hate to say it but it’s true!

It all comes down to how scientists present the uncertainty and caveats that surround their research. There has to be a way for scientists to do this without turning it into a dry sleep-inducing event. For some, the ability to do this comes very naturally, and for the others — well, practise practise practise!

Perhaps if more scientists can perfect the skill of presenting their science whilst dealing with scientific uncertainty, it might lead to more captivating science stories in the media.

Related posts:

A top programme – Media7’s Spotlight

How the media lost interest in Climategate

0 Responses to “Media coverage of science — what is holding scientists back?”

  • I know a number of colleagues who dont’t like to give interviews etc because they’ve either had the experience of being misquoted/misrepresented or are concerned about having this having. (Some of them also have the rather unrealistic expectation that they’ll get to see & edit whatever the journalist has produced before it actually goes to print…) Also the reporter may write a perfectly good article & then the subs cut it about, or tack on a ‘catchy’ headline, & the whole feel of it changes. That’s happened to me now & then – but you just have to put it aside & keep going 🙂
    I think part of the problem with avoiding (or inducing!) a ‘dry sleep-inducing event’ is that most scientists have been trained in a particular way of presenting information & for some of them it sort of becomes the default setting. As you say, practise practise practise. (And some do & are very very good at it.) But they also see different things as being important, & that probably argues that our comms people need to spend a bit of time ‘training’ the scientists in how to make their science more eye-catching to the journalists & the public at large.

  • You wrote “… some kind of weird time-absorbing phenomenon going on …”. It’s called the Haywood effect ;-).

    You came across really well (imho).


  • Yes, I also know a few scientists who are a little cagey about being approached by the media – particularly print media, where there seems to be the biggest risk of things getting taken out of context. I have worked with a few excellent print journalists who have insisted that I check their articles for accuracy before they go to print, but I guess many are just under too tight a time constraint to do this (particularly daily newspapers). One way around this is to have a carefully prepared press release – but this is of course only possible under the situation where you are a) approaching the media with a potential science story or b) aware that you are likely to be approached for comment on a topical issue.

    There are SO many opportunities for budding scientists to work on their science communication these days and I really think the standard of science communication in NZ is set to improve. There are science film and writing competitions and science fairs at high school, and loads of things happening at tertiary level. Here at Otago we just had the finals of the 3 Minute PhD Competition, where PhD candidates present their thesis to a live general public audience in under 3 minutes using only ONE slide (shock horror!!). Every scientist should work on perfecting that skill : )

  • We have ‘thesis in 3’ at Waikato – same thing as what you describe, from the sound of it. Excellent training in communication 🙂

  • Isn’t it great! I think the competition has actually gone international this year – our Otago winner is off to the Australasian finals. Perhaps yours is too : )

  • Oh, that would be great.
    Now, here’s another question. Thesis in 3 etc are open to all PhD students, not just those in the sciences. Do you think there’s a difference between the disciplines in how well their practitioners are able to communicate what they are doing to the media?

  • Oh I would love to be able to answer that, but I missed the event as I was in Auckland for the Media7 filming. Gutted. Apparently the regional competitions have been filmed for a coming tv show – I’ll let you know if I hear more about that. Then we can all be the judge : )

  • You were talking (or trying to talk) at the same time as David Haywood.

  • […] raised only once. Right at the end. By the University of Otago’s Dr Rebecca McLeod. Despite her protestations to the contrary, Rebecca delivered a bravura performance, telling of how the media liaison officer at the […]

  • Yes, I liked it, your colleagues comment on your passion about the subject was spot on, and you looked very amicable! Talking about any issues in fisheries is quite complex (I know that from my work!), keep the good work!