I am a scientist. Should I also be a journalist?


Media Session at the SISC 2014 conference in Venice

Media Session at the SISC 2014 conference in Venice

I have always considered communication as an integral part of being a scientist. This is why I joined ClimateSnack, which improves my writing and provides a direct channel between early career scientists and a broad audience. I am no expert on scientific communication – rather, I am a young scientist trying to make sense of it, after receiving no formal training whatsoever during either my degree or Ph.D. I have often focused on how to engage with a general audience, but seldom on how a scientist should engage with the media. In particular, I have never considered where the role of the scientist should finish and that of the scientific journalist should begin.

I was recently at a conference on climate science, where one of the plenary sessions was dedicated to communicating science. The first part repeated the old story about scientists having to be communicators, about tuning the complexity of one’s message to the audience and so on. This was followed by interventions  by two science journalists, one working for a television channel and one for a large newspaper. In different ways, both lamented the fact that scientists do not make their research media-friendly. By media-friendly, what they meant was not only clear and understandable, but something fashionable that would attract readership or viewers. The exact wording was: something pop. This struck me, because I had always assumed that the job of a scientific reporter was exactly to turn cutting-edge research into something palatable for a larger audience. It appears, however, that at least some of the journalists expect the initial scientific message to be already in an appealing and catchy format.

My first reaction was that, perhaps, the journalists were making a valid point. Except for publicly owned ones, the general purpose of newspapers and televisions is to turn a profit. If a piece of news won’t attract the audience, they certainly won’t report it as a goodwill gesture. It is therefore reasonable to ask that both the original source of the news – the scientist – and the reporter join their efforts in turning research into something pop. On second thought, I questioned the idea that the scientist should try to sensationalize his research. When I give a presentation to a non-scientific audience, I try to make my message clear and concise and I use real-world examples people can easily picture. However, I always avoid looking for a striking headline unless there is an extremely solid scientific basis behind it.

The risk of science journalists asking scientists to help them make scientific news more appealing is exactly this. As long as the journalists ask for clear scientific communication, deciding for themselves what can make the news, the task of the scientists is clear. Once we scientists get drawn into the process of making a piece of research pop, then we risk having to choose between being true to the science and spreading our research to a wider audience. Should we be faced with this choice or should we just focus on clarity of communication and leave the rest to the journalists?

As I said, I am by no means an expert on the topic. The boundary between the role of the scientist and that of the journalist is very difficult to set, and I still don’t have a clear opinion in my head.  However, the fact that this problem was raised by journalists means that we scientists should at least be aware of this issue. Probably many of my more media-savvy colleagues were, but for me it was a recent find, and a topic on which I would like to have your opinion.

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Gabriele Messori

I am Ph.D. student in the Physics Department at Imperial College London. My research interests focus on meridional heat transport in the atmosphere and its effects on the polar regions.

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