As result of being a member of the Society for Endocrinology Public Engagement committee I have had requests to do press interviews. When called I have the usual thoughts of ‘but I’m not an expert’. Conversely I get very frustrated, even being compelled to rant on social media, about poor representation of endocrinology in the main stream press. So when the opportunity arose to attend a training event organized by the Science Media Centre, at the Wellcome, off I went. Public engagement/working with the media is increasingly important. Professor Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, declared that if you want to be successful in obtaining a Wellcome Trust grant engaging with the public was essential. He used coverage of Ebola and mitochondrial donation as examples of where the media can influence public perception/debate and policy.
Introductory remarks stated if we want to reach a wide audience there is no substitute for getting information into the mainstream media. 23% of people read print media, 59% use TV/radio. When the media contact us they need a rapid reaction – the news cycle is 24 hours long so if you don’t respond in time, the story will have moved on. They are looking for people who are trust worthy; thankfully 90% of the public trust scientists (18% trust politicians). Media coverage is very competitive – even if a journalist has a great science story it may be dropped if a war breaks out somewhere. The benefits of working with the media can include sparking collaborations, attracting staff/students, gaining recognition for your area of work and helping obtain funding. There is an increasing view by grant givers that we have a duty to engage with the public, especially when funding streams are from public money.
The next session involved a discussion with 4 journalists. The skills of a journalist are to break down a story, understand it and then communicate it to the general public. Each had their own style/target audience. David Shukman (BBC science editor) has ‘the cameraman test’ – if the cameraman shakes their head it is not an engaging story. His pitch is at the level of a bright 10 year old. Fletcher (Freelance) described the intensely competitive world of freelance journalism, and her need for a rapid response. Smyth (the Times) described his style as writing for a colleague in a classics department, whilst the Sun packages the same story differently, being tongue in cheek without meaning to cause offence. All described editors as ‘gatekeepers’ for getting science into the press. They said scientists have to ‘let go’ and not expect to check copy, that is the journalist and editor’s job.
We then heard from 4 scientists who worked with the media. Dr Dangour (LSTH) described his experience of landing directly in the media spotlight after a systematic review he published stated that organic food had no difference in nutritional content. What ensued could only be described as a ‘media storm’, and ’Sense about science’ helped him deal with the media. Dr Helen Bedford (ICH) described her motivation as the extremely damaging paper from Wakefield regarding autism and MMR vaccine, and how at the time this was not adequately challenged in the mainstream media. She also said it was important to have female role models in the media.
So my (and the experts speaking) top 10 dos and don’ts:
- Answer that call! You can make a difference to the public’s perception about endocrinology. If you don’t respond those with extreme views may lead the story
- Don’t be afraid! You are an expert to the general public in your area of work/experience
- Work out your message in advance
- Have 2-3 clear points prepared
- Use language lay people will understand
- Say ‘I am not saying’ or ‘it is completely wrong to say’ so facts are not misrepresented.
- Call back within hours – the news cycle moves on quickly and deadlines are tight.
- Get some media training- the more you do the better you will get
- Communicate, communicate, communicate!!
- Don’t lie or exaggerate
- Don’t say too much-have your main points summarized
- Don’t stray out of your area of knowledge
- Don’t loose your temper
- Don’t talk off the record and expect it to stay off the record especially if you have an exciting discovery
- Don’t criticize others or be part of a ‘row’ story
- Don’t expect to check the article in advance-accept that the language and writing will be different to yours
- Don’t forget journalists have to entertain and it is a fiercely competitive world.
- Don’t be offended. If you give a 10 minute interview there may be 1 quote which is used (or even none!).
- Don’t be patronizing or underestimate a journalists intelligence
Am I going to be the next big thing in the science media, the Professor Cox of endocrinology? To date I have been quoted in QC magazine but following a recent interview by a Sunday Times journalist my quotes weren’t used. For now I will not be giving up the day job but I will be answering the calls from the media. I am persuaded that we should engage with the public, getting across important messages about hormones and when I get my invite to the GQ awards I’ll write my next blog.