by Toss Gascoigne, Executive Director of FASTS and Vice-president of Australian Science Communicators.
In the May issue of Microbiology Australia, John Finlay-Jones outlined some of the challenges facing scientists in the media. He used the recent rash of food-borne pathogens to illustrate the difficulties of gaining accurate coverage for complex issues. The media can be tricky, but favourable media coverage encourages a range of positive outcomes: create jobs, improve public health, increase funding for research programs, change policy, and satisfy public curiosity. And as most of the funding for research in Australia is provided from the public purse, scientists have a duty of accountability to explain how public funds are being spent and what the benefits are. The future for groups which depend on public funding and do not have community support is bleak. Microbiologists make a major contribution to the wealth and health of society, but is this contribution properly recognised? Do people understand what microbiologists do? The industries they sustain? Do they accept the need for continuing funding of microbiological research?
Julian Cribb, former science writer for The Australian newspaper, claimed that scientists had let Australia down because they have not told the people what they are doing: "Scientists have been so wrapped up in their work and their discoveries, they have forgotten to explain them to the society that pays their miserable wages. They have omitted to put their work in language that ordinary people can understand. They have failed to explain its relevance to our daily lives — our health, wealth and well being as a nation—and how to put it into practice in our industries." He was a great advocate of using the media as a tool in building support, a proposition that scientists sometimes find difficult. Scientists and journalists tend to eye each other suspiciously from great distances. But some scientists have learned to use the media with great skill (and profit). To help those just starting out, here are five tips for basic survival.
1. Get your message straight.
Work out the two or three main points you want to get across, phrase them in simple non-technical language, and stick to these points. There is no time or space for complicated explanations.
2. Talk about the implications of your work, rather than the clever science.
People want to know how they are going to be affected by your work. Is it going to mean cheaper bread? Will it expose some dangerous food-handling practices? Will it create a new export industry?
3. Learn about the world of the journalist.
They live by ferocious deadlines, and are always in a hurry. They work in a highly competitive industry, and few understand even basic scientific facts. But they do try to get things right—the onus is on you to explain your work in clear and simple terms.
4. Prepare a single sheet of paper with the important details.
This should set out the basic details of the story, spell everyone’s names correctly, and have your phone contact points. And consult your collaborators and colleagues to make sure everyone agrees on the wording—it can head off territorial arguments before they start.
5. Understand the importance of pictures.
Good pictures can make all the difference. A compelling photo can gain a story prominent newspaper coverage; and the rule is that without interesting pictures, there is no television story. Show enthusiasm for your story; don’t wear sunglasses on TV (you’ll look like a crook); be available to journalists; always look at the reporter on TV and never look down the camera lens; and be conscious of reporters’ deadlines.
There is a lot scientists can learn in making the media work to their advantage. Unless they learn to use the media to explain their work to the public, they cannot hope that the public will support them. Lack of public support translates rapidly into loss of public funding and the sidelining of what should be one of the driving forces of Australian life.
Editors’ note: This article is reprinted, with permission, from The Australian Society for Medical Research Newsletter, July 1997.