Provoking words that set the scene for a wonderful and educating debate on the how to (and how not to) communicate science to the media. Speakers in this session included Paul Offit, Derrick Pitts and Maiken Scott.
Paul Offit, a virologist, immunologist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, started off the session. He was the co-inventor for rotavirus vaccine and passionately spoke about the importance of vaccine education and the consequence of poor vaccination conclusions, such as the infamous ‘MMR linked to autism’ study. We were reminded about the media’s job to entertain rather than to educate, which marks the main challenges as scientists that we are up against. Offit told us that he had turned down invitations to interview with the likes of Oprah and Letterman as fear of being portrayed as a villain. Although the science may be on your side, the host doesn’t have to be, which I guess makes for good viewing.
Derrick Pitts, a science interpreter for the general public at the Franklin Museum, gave a similar message. It’s important to trust the reporter you speak to. The wrong reporter and editor could (whether intentional or not) take what you say out of context. He advised scientists to take the control. Do the research and find out what kind of reporter you’re dealing with and what kind of information they want. You should know what your goals are and where you want the interview to go… so even if it does go off script, which it most likely will, you’re prepared and bring it back to your main points. Above all, remember your audience. They can stop listening (or reading) at a split second, so keep them interested!
It became apparent in the session that science and media speak two very different languages. A scientist could write ‘X has potential in cancer therapeutics’, while the media may translate that to ‘X will cure cancer’. If you imagine this happening again and again, the public will eventually lose its trust in scientists and scientists lose their trust in the media.
Building on the trust comes down to effective science communication. Maiken Scott, WHYY science and health reporter, touched on this. Many reporters cover such a variety of subject matters that there is no way they can become an expert in a science story within a matter of hours. The good news is that we have access to social media and blogging platforms literally at our fingertips. So if you want to put your science out there, or challenge something you heard… the stage is all yours.