World Federation of
Science Journalists

Scientists themselves catching on to better communication

November 2, 2009 posted in Sci.Journalism
 On the campus of the University of Ottawa in Canada’s capital, about 25 science students recently crowded into a seminar room bringing news releases they had written about their research.

They were met by longtime science reporters from the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen, and four senior, general assignment journalists – reporters who often cover science willy-nilly.

Splitting into small groups, each student was interviewed one-on-one by a journalist about his or her work.

University of Ottawa Tabaret Hall

“This was about as far from the comfort zone as you could possibly get for these students,” said their professor, Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, a cancer researcher at the university and at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

“The conundrum is simple: Science moves forward mostly in baby steps. Journalists want stories that are exciting.”

Vanderhyden’s course is part of a slowly growing effort by science itself to improve communication between scientists and the public – including the news media – and to lift some of the burden from science journalists.

Burden? Consider this. In 2006 the Royal Society in the U.K. polled the attitudes of scientists toward communication and looked at their skills in making science clear to the public.

The Society found the most important audience for these scientists was “policy makers.” Journalists came in last as a target audience, after schoolchildren, NGOs, teachers, and industry. More than 70 per cent of the scientists had no media or communications training.

The study recommended “the training of scientists in public engagement” with “the public, policy makers and media,” an idea that is slowly gaining ground.

Ângela Guimarães Pereira, the scientific officer of the European Commission, taught “public communication of science … from a journalistic point of view” to European scientists. It ran from 2005-2007, when funds dried up. Pereira says her group is preparing a course-based publication, “which could come out next year.”

In addition to its M.A. in science writing aimed at journalists and writers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an institute-wide communication requirement, mostly taught by instructors in its program in “writing and humanistic studies.”

Jennifer Craig, who teaches it in the department of aeronautics and astronautics, says the communication requirement is designed “to help students meet the communication needs in their discipline as they become young professionals.

“We ask them to analyze the audiences with whom they are communicating and to pull together the evidence that will reach these audiences. At first, the hardest thing for them to remember is that they are not writing for just one person – their professor, for example – but rather a range of people, and not necessarily experts.

the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 “We want them to be able to explain complex technical information to various audiences … there is no template for learning these skills, but they do learn them – through instruction and feedback, through mentoring and their own critical thinking, and lots of practice.”

She says there is likely a consensus among her colleagues that media-related skills are important, but MIT’s rigorous undergraduate curriculum has little time for a specific focus on communicating with journalists or news media.

At the University of Ottawa, Vanderhyden’s course got under way only about a year ago, and, unlike MIT’s effort, the course includes a lot of media awareness and coaching.

She checked out 29 “Let’s Talk Science” programs at universities across Canada and found no similar courses. “However, since word got out about this course, we have received several expressions of interest, and it seems that many other universities are considering setting up something similar.”

Europeans were early to respond to the need for scientists to work more effectively with journalists, and the Royal Society responded to its survey results with two one-day courses.

The “communication skills” course teaches writing and editing and advice on news releases and newspaper articles. Its media course has an outline of how print and broadcast media operate, and coaching on “soft,” “hard” and “remote” interviews with feedback via tapes.

Most university science programs provide little beyond science itself to help graduates in the workplace – it’s later, on the job, when graduates figure out grant-writing, personnel policies, the financial aspects of lab management. “And, if, heaven-forbid, they should actually make a major discovery, how to communicate the nature of that discovery to the media,” Vanderhyden says.

“My first experience with the media was trial-by-fire. It is a terrifying experience for someone who was quite shy by nature.” She was in a TV studio during a weekend cancer foundation telethon, being interviewed by the host.

“I was … being interviewed by the host for an hour. But it wasn’t a solid hour – every few minutes the cameras would swing our way and there would be a few minutes of questions before the attention was shifted somewhere else. Highly stressful, and so very carefully timed (down to the second) that at times I was more conscious of how long it would take me to say something than what I was actually saying.

“This is not something that I was trained to do, but has somehow become part of a scientist’s life.”

Alessandra Pasut, who researches muscular stem cells and is taking Vanderhyden’s course, was assessing her own news release during the University of Ottawa seminar. “Hmm,” she mused after a journalist asked her what “fibroblasts” meant. “You know, when I was writing that, I looked at that word and thought, ‘Yup, that’s about right.’”

“We are accustomed to talk with other scientists. That’s the major problem when it comes to scientists.”

She says Vanderhyden’s course “taught me that we’ve got to build a bridge of trust to ordinary people. You’ve got to communicate your work properly.”


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