Standing up for Science, Pt. 1

On Friday 26th June I attended the VoYS Standing up for science media workshop. It was a fun and informative event chock full of great advice to budding science communicators and scientists wishing to learn/take part in science journalism/media. The following will feature advice from the day that was memorable to me and may not reflect the workshop as a whole. Check out a summary of the day written by SAS themselves for a more balanced perspective.

The first panellist to speak was Dr. Jeremy Pritchard. I’d heard about Jeremy from those who’d studied within UoB’s Biosciences department. I also followed him on Twitter and knew he had a lot to say on teaching and biology (which makes sense as he is a biology lecturer!). I really enjoyed his recap of experiences within the media, especially the televised evolution vs. creationism debate he unknowingly became a part of. More importantly, one particular sentence he spoke early on stuck with me:

“Show responsibility for being a scientist”

For the past few years, I have tried to give back to the community through outreach/engagement volunteering but have never considered it a responsibility. My reasons for volunteering, apart from the fact it is super-fun, do include spreading my enthusiasm and (little) knowledge of science to the interested public. Past this, I try to point out bad science/claims where I can, but find that I don’t encounter this within my circles as most people I interact with on a regular basis are scientists.  I do believe Jeremy is right though. I think we as scientists do have a responsibility to disseminate knowledge and do what we can to promote scientific literacy, especially to those who do not have the education to begin with.

The last point mentioned above was by Jane Symons, a science and health journalist who has written for many tabloid newspapers. She stated that the main readership for The Sun newspaper were those from working class and/or uneducated backgrounds and thus they would be the ones who needed health news the most, especially if it could potentially save lives in the long run. The discussion of this point was interesting, as it made the idea that a health news story that was sensationalist or misrepresented (which most scientists dislike, from what I gather) less black and white. If by sensationalising, the news makes headlines and is read by a chunk of the public who could benefit from it, isn’t that a good thing? Importantly, I’m not endorsing this tactic, but I did find it interesting. The media, which I always regarded as black and white, does have a massive grey area. I also liked Jane’s description of how a typical day in her life works. A lot of it seems to be checking emails and press releases, making sure to read everything just in case she ever misses a great story. It seems very fast-paced and even more stressful when compared to a day in Academia, but may suit some folk.

[On a different note, I liked Jane’s description of a “bollocking box”, a room where you would be taken to be told off in by an editor/superior. I wondered then if there’s a bollocking box in my head and that’s why I criticize myself so much..!]

Dr. David Gregory-Kumar, whom I had first seen at the Birmingham Cafe Scientifique a while back, was charismatic as ever and gave some insights into his job as Science & Environment correspondent for the Beeb WM. I particularly liked the idea of “dicking about” and “noddies” in video’d news reports, where scenery, the reporter/interviewee are filmed looking into the distance or nodding to nobody, possibly from multiple angles, all edited later with voiceover to generate the feeling of a continuous dialogue within the news report.

Great advice from Dave included:


NO SLAGGING OFF WOMEN” – (Tim Hunt was mentioned a few times in this workshop, mostly in the context of, “please please PLEASE nobody do what he did”)

Jokes aside, (well, almost), Dave went on to talk about how news stories are selected for publishing/videoing- they have to the CFM factor. What is that, you say? “Cor, Fuck Me!”, a sentence uttered by someone upon hearing your science news. If your news can induce this, you’re onto a winner. This probably isn’t how it works all the time, but I would like to think it happens in the majority of cases.

I will write another post soon commenting on the group sessions and some of the lessons learnt from other panellists.

Thanks for reading!

2 responses to “Standing up for Science, Pt. 1

  1. I don’t think I agree with Jane Symons regarding the need for the health news to reach working class readership of The Sun. It is not because the working classes are ignorant that they are eating badly, it is because they can’t afford better food or have no time to cook better food.

    The other issue with reporting health news and hoping it will change behaviour is that food products are labelled as good or bad to your health almost daily! Coffee is the one that comes to mind quite a lot.

    Very interesting day though and one that I recommend becomes more popular and is attended by more scientists.


    • Health news spans more than just food (though I agree food is on the news a lot), and sure, there are many reasons as to why the working class may be, in general, less healthy than other socio-economic groups. But health news/information can get to those in need of it through a variety of channels, the media being one of them.

      Secondly, x causes y, where x is a food or food group and y is a terrible disease or health benefit, is usually the bad side of sensationalising news. I’m on the fence with sensationalist news like this because I’m not sure what the effects of these kinds of news stories are. Wine has been proposed to be super good for health but I haven’t stepped up my cheeky vimto game in response! I do wonder how many people take food news seriously. One example that comes to mind is the wheat intolerance movement. I wonder how much of that was due to the news..

      I would recommend all scientists take media training or make an effort to get involved with the media (or discussion of it) in some shape of form.

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