I first contacted the charity Sense About Science when I was still at school. Naturally, a boy still pending A-levels wasn’t of much use to an organisation operating primarily through career researchers, but they very politely added me to the mailing list and I kept an eye on what they were doing. Over the years, my involvement grew and I am now on their Plant Science Panel, but on Friday 26 June, I finally got to meet some of them, at a workshop devoted to standing up for science in the media.
I’ve long been concerned about how science is portrayed in the media, and had all but reached a point of dismissing any research reporting in the press and on TV as basically worthless. The day’s workshop has greatly turned that around.
There were maybe 30 delegates from universities around the country, including Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Warwick. Perhaps there was the benefit of selection bias that people in the room were more likely to be motivated and outspoken, but there was a level of interaction in the room that is rare for student conferences and group work. It was a great atmosphere for exchanging ideas where nobody shied away from criticism.
First, we got to pick the brains of three scientists (Dr Jeremy Pritchard, Dr Deirdre Hollingsworth and Prof. Boris Gaensicke) who had all had experience of media exposure (and media exposure gone bad) to see how to handle people from the media, how to phrase things to avoid confusion and how to correct things when the reporters get it wrong. Prichard in particular was very animated, recounting how even his own spouse had stitched him up from a journalistic point of view. I started to get a sense of fairness from the whole affair – that there is a constant tug-of-war between the scientist eager to share their work and the press, looking to present it in the most eye-catching way.
The second session brought us two journalists. The first was Jane Symons, freelance health journalist who frequently publishes in The Sun. At first, I sensed a sacrificial lamb, but in fact she won me over with her candour. She told us that while it may not be best journalistic practice, she might hype a health story if it encourages readers to adopt a healthier lifestyle. She also scorned the habit of even the most prestigious broadsheets for unfair ‘balance’, saying [paraphrased] “Anti-vaccers and climate change denialists should not get to express an opinion – they are mad.” Beside her on the panel was Dr David Gregory-Kumar from BBC Midlands Today. I’ve already met one of his colleagues and it became clear to me that a common feature of their job is a wicked sense of humour. They’re perfectly suited to putting people at ease, which is extremely useful when trying to get the most out of the least natural interviewees. I still remember his biggest advice – don’t wear a “titty shirt”.
To round off the day, we heard more of the work of Sense About Science and their Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network from their reps, Victoria Murphy and Leah Fitzsimmons (respectively). They were joined by Dr Paul Sainsbury from the Society of Applied Microbiology and together they went through the processes of asking for evidence for a scientific claim in the public arena and how to angle a story to make it tantalising for publishers. With a better understanding of the work of VoYS, I felt much more inclined to get involved.
Overall, it was a day well spent. I hope that over time, Sense About Science gets to conduct more of these sorts of workshops, or even large-scale conferences. I would like to see far more career scientists not only trying to get their work more public appreciation, but also standing up for science when it is being presented to the public.
Please follow the links embedded in the post for the Twitter accounts of the people mentioned and websites of the organisations featured.