The art of communicating scienceBMJ 2016; 352 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i174 (Published 01 February 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i174
- Rachel Isba, consultant in paediatric public health medicine, North Manchester General Hospital, and senior clinical lecturer, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine,
- Lucy Potter, year 3 core trainee in psychiatry, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust
Journalists care about accurate but entertaining science reporting, Rachel Isba and Lucy Potter discovered when they undertook a fellowship in two national media outlets
Over the summer we took part in the British Science Association Media Fellowship scheme, with BBC Breakfast and mirror.co.uk. The scheme, which has run annually since 1987, places scientists in media outlets to give them the confidence to engage with the media and give journalists access to new scientific expertise. After their placements, fellows attend and report on the British Science Festival as part of the press team for the event.
Our fellowships were funded by the Wellcome Trust, but other funders include research councils, learned societies, and universities. Neither of us had any formal experience with the media and we wanted to develop our communication skills. Science and medicine sometimes seem to be reported poorly so we wanted to find out why and how the media report on science and health.
As well as raising the profiles of our hospital trusts and increasing understanding by strengthening links between ourselves, our departments, and the wider media, we were both keen to increase local science communication activity and encourage others to engage with the media.
Placement with BBC Breakfast
During my three week placement with BBC Breakfast in Salford I got involved in a bit of everything, and I even ended up on the sofa as a guest talking about sports doctors in the wake of Chelsea football manager Jose Mourinho’s “demoting” of his medical team. I learnt how to spot and then pitch a good story—for example, background music in operating theatres and children as super spreaders of viruses, and what not to bring up in the planning meeting. Very interesting work analysing the contents of airline toilets is not suitable for breakfast time viewing apparently. The stories had to work both visually and aurally, and while they were “proper” science they had an element of fun.
The team was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about having a medic knocking about, and only one person approached me for medical advice—a rash, inevitably. The placement was a great experience and I now understand a lot better why science is often portrayed the way it is in mainstream media. The majority of people working at BBC Breakfast come from an arts background, and I realised that as scientists we don’t always present our work in the most accessible way. I have learnt to spot the interesting bit in an otherwise relatively dull bit of research and where to look for a good science story. The fellowship has encouraged me to get involved more in general science communication/engagement, and I have now signed up to be a science, technology, engineering, and maths ambassador working in primary schools.
Placement with mirror.co.uk
My fellowship was based at mirror.co.uk, where for three weeks in July I worked as a reporter across the technology and science desks at the Mirror’s head office in Canary Wharf.
I didn’t know what to expect coming on to a “red-top” newspaper, and I had plenty of reservations. Before I started my placement, speaking to the media seemed risky and I worried that my views would be misrepresented. But on my first day the journalists were honest and welcoming, and right from the start I was encouraged to work on topics that I cared about.
As I got to know the reporters, I began to realise that they face a number of challenges. Keeping the audience engaged is hugely important; otherwise the paper’s 800 000 readers will vote with their feet. The reporters received continual updates about how their stories were doing compared with their colleagues’. If they failed to attract readers, their article was dropped from the homepage and all hopes for a front page headline in the print edition were lost.
If medical stories are to make an impact on non-specialist audiences, you may need to be a bit creative. That doesn’t mean covering bad science. The journalists wanted to report on the truth, but they were looking for stories that could both inform and entertain their readers.
The journalists also wanted to know why doctors and the wider scientific community get annoyed at the way the media present research news. We discussed the importance of balanced and truthful reporting of mental health issues and how damning stories can harm public perceptions.
There are so many highlights from my time at mirror.co.uk: attending Stephen Hawking’s press conference on a new search for extraterrestrial life; being filmed for a clip on sleep disorders; contributing to Ben Goldacre’s debate on drug trials transparency and showing that it’s not too complex for public scrutiny; and addressing some of the common stereotypes of mental illness depicted in the press.
Impact of the scheme
The fellowship offers a great opportunity to learn how to communicate better—not just to the media, but in everyday clinical practice. Pitching your ideas teaches you how to translate science into language that can be understood by a wide audience.
Clinicians should seek out opportunities to communicate more widely—with patient groups, colleagues (in the very broadest sense), and even with the media. You don’t have to do a media fellowship to get involved in communicating science, lots of opportunities exist: from volunteering as an expert via your trust’s press office to going into primary schools to get children excited about science.
Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.