The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Event report: helping scientists speak directly to the press

The annual ScienceWriters meeting took place in October in Flagstaff, Arizona. In one talk, journalists and researchers addressed the topic of science communication by scientists.

Alan Boyle, the Science Editor of said he has often worked with researchers who take the initiative to work with media. It’s important to form relationships even if it is before the publication of the study as it forms trust between researchers and journalists. It can also be useful to tell journalists about research of which the scientist might not even be a part personally.

Even after the story is published this is not the end of the process. Journalists can then follow up to find out if what they wrote was accurate or if there are any follow up stories in the research.

He highlighted that it’s very useful for journalists to have videos and graphics from researchers. Journalists have often come to rely on things directly from YouTube. Minute physics provides a good example of the kind of internet technology that science communicators are using now. Blogs in particular can be a great bridge for science journalists.

Finally he recommended that scientists try to engage readers in something fun or interesting in addition to actually having a serious point too.

Bruce Goldberger, University of Florida College of Medicine said that scientists need to fine tune and develop their public speaking roles. He had several individual points of guidance:

  • Be comfortable and don’t panic
  • Get there early
  • Be yourself
  • Use layperson’s language
  • Use bullet points
  • Think about what to wear based on the context you are speaking in
  • Speak slowly and deliberately
  • Be enthusiastic about what you are saying
  • Have a web presence such as a website and/or blog
  • Be ready 24/7 to respond to current events and respond to journalists promptly. If it isn’t your area then recommend someone who might be better
  • Be aware of the media broadcasting that is available in your institution

Science communication consultant Dennis Meredith said that communication training for scientists is perhaps a better catch-all focus than media training as such.

A basic question to start with is "who are the scientists trying to reach with their communications?" The answer is of course a wide range of interested parties: colleagues, donors, institution administrators, students, legislators, etc.

One of the main problems for science communicators at the moment is that science coverage in the news is going down in all media sectors. However, science coverage on the web is going up especially on videos.

Uniquely for public information officers (PIOs), there is a significant reserve of trust for them compared to journalists, lawyers, and politicians. The job as a PIO is to give scientists tools that help translate the difficult concepts.

They should try to use visual vernacular because visual information is so much better for recall. Using visuals to connect with a popular trend makes is more interesting for audiences. If there is an historical context then an old film or an image help put it in context. Explain the technology that you are using.

Finally, Meredith suggested that scientists and PIOs give readers a “so what”? What benefits and solutions does the research study offer for subjects that your audience will be interested in? Scientists communicating to the general public should have readers’ interests at heart at all time, not their own interests.

A video of the event is available here.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin