Communicating with media is a good way to publicise your research but also to get a policy message across. You can do this by writing letters to your local or national newspaper.
It is important to choose your medium well; writing to a local newspaper about an issue in the area is more like to get a good spot in the paper and attract the attention of the MP.
How to talk to journalists
Hannah Devlin, a science correspondent for the Times, has provided us with a guide to talking to journalists
Science journalists sometimes get bad a rap, the stereotype being that given half a chance we’ll sensationalise, over-simplify or muddle our statistics. There are instances of this, but across the media spectrum the standard is generally high. Most science journalists either have background in science, or have a personal interest in the subject and none wants to look like a fool when shown to be wrong.
This is a good basis for the mutual trust on which any conversation with a journalist is based and, in my experience, the relationship between scientist and journalist is usually mutually beneficial. That said, there is tension between the big picture that journalists need to present, the short timescales on which they operate and the need for scientific rigour.
Journalists rely on trusted scientist contacts in order to tread this line successfully. Here are a few points to bear in mind to help ensure that you get the most out of interacting with the media.
- Time pressure. A news story is typically picked up first thing in the morning and filed by mid-afternoon so time is a limited resource. If you need a moment to order your thoughts before speaking to a reporter, or to read the scientific paper under discussion, that’s fine. Don’t expect to be able to call back the next day though.
- Brevity. News stories are written to strict word limits, meaning that explanations need to be short and direct. You will rarely be quoted at great length so try to make your point succinctly.
- Steer clear of technical language. Words like “diagonal covariance matrix” are never going to make it into print. Where possible, use everyday language that you would use to discuss your work with a non-scientist friend or relative. Analogies can be very helpful and your own ones will probably be more accurate and illuminating than those thought up by the journalist on the spur of the moment.
- Anecdote. Readers love to hear the human side of research. This is an opportunity to tell of the incidents and that may not make it into the scientific paper, but will bring your work to life on the page.
Above all, engaging with the media can be rewarding and fun. It’s an opportunity to explore the human, humourous and ethical sides of your subject that you may not dwell on day-to-day and to gaze into the future. While it might take months to see the fruits of your labours in the laboratory, this is a chance to contribute to a piece of work that is done in a day and will in most cases reward you tomorrow.