lunedì 13 aprile 2015

Science and the media: what journalists are looking for?

Where do science stories come from? How can scientists deal with journalists to explain their research and avoid bad science to be spread?

Victoria Gill from BBC news and Kevin Fitzpatrick from BBC Radio Manchester cover this issue during the "Standing up for Science Media Workshop", held at University of Manchester last 27th of March.

The workshop aimed to provide early career researchers the basis  to develop their skills as science communicators. 

It was divided into three sessions:

  • Science and the media, in which panellists shared their experience with the world of media (with Matthew Cobb, Susanne Shultz and Dr Gary Moss);
  • What journalists are looking for: Victoria Gill and Kevin Fitzpatrick explaining the point of view of journalists
  • Standing up for science-the nuts and bolts, providing useful information to young scientists who want to commit themselves to deliver good science to the public.  
Each part came in the format of questions and answers and was liven up by long discussion groups.

The event runs each year and is organized by the Voice of Young Science -VoYS-  network. VoYS is part of  Sense about Science, a charitable trust that collaborate with Universities and Institutes across the UK to promote general understanding of science and raise public debates about scientific issues.

The session with journalists reveals to be particularly inspirational.

Here the invited panellists reveal the secrets behind their job.

Victoria Gill,Science Journalist for BBC News

Victoria Gill tells about her job as science reporter: one day it might just be sitting at the desk, going through the infinite sources of information to grasp the right story to tell; another day it might be  going round for gathering all the information to build up the story, from filming or interviewing the experts. She points out that, with the increasing number of available channels, there is plenty of ways for science stories to be generated. The main one is given by papers already published on peer-review journals. Another source is given by  advance-notice databases,  in which journalists publish notices about new papers that are going to be  published, together with information about the research team and author's contact details. This allows science reporters like Victoria to prepare all the material in order the story to be released on the proper channel as soon as the embargo expires.

Not all the announcement papers are stories. Finding what can become a story is journalists' business.

But stories can come from everywhere: e-mails from scientists, conferences, but also daily events, either science related news or more huge facts. As an example, the recent tragedy of the Germanwings crash that gave rise to lots of speculations about the co-pilot's psychological state.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, reporter for BBC Radio Manchester

Kevin Fitzpatrick highlights the pressure that radio journalists feel to find new stories. They basically need new stories everyday and for different sessions of the radio channel. The pressure is not only about time, but also about the need of keeping the audience at the highest number as possible. Which means that there is always urgent need to find stories that can attract a large public and tell them in a way that is understandable and engaging. The interest relates to how the information affects the public in terms of both the amount of people involved  and, obviously, at what extent that is important for them.

Both Victoria and Kevin agree that the most difficult part of the job is  keeping a balance in delivering the information in a way that is both attractive and correct.
This is a very big issue today, when the huge amount of social media produce every kind of information constantly, unfortunately not always accurate.

The following list includes some ways for this goal to be achieved:

  • journalists have to ask the right questions to the scientists;
  • journalists have the responsability to avoid  the mistake of misrepresenting scientists work for the sake of sensationalism;
  • scientists have to prepare themselves before the interview;
  • scientists have to collaborate with journalists in order to explain their developments;
  • scientists can facilitate journalists' work by asking themselves: "How can I summarize my research in order for it to be fitted in a headline? Why should people matter about my work?"
  • scientists have to bear in mind which kind of audience is going to hear from them. This affects the level of scientific language to use and the depth of knowledge to provide.

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