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14 May 2009, Posted by Eric Karstens in Journalism, 0 Comments

Science communication gets savvy


I was kindly invited to speak at a forum titled Bring research to the media, at the Prague Research Connection 2009 Conference on 7 May, 2009. On this occasion, Eleftheria Prodromou interviewed me for the conference newspaper. Here is the full interview, excerpts of which appeared in in her eventual article. I will also follow up with a dedicated article about what I told the Prague audience.

Eleftheria Prodromou: Explain the purpose of your participation in the session next Thursday. What will you talk about?

Eric Karstens: I’ll be there to help bridge the gap between the scientific and the journalistic communities. Since the two run on quite different sets of rules and conditions, there are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions whenever they interact. Therefore, besides maybe giving a bit of practical advice, I’d like to suggest a slightly different concept for their co-operation. Scientific researchers and in particular the institutions they work in should let go a bit when it comes to controlling the message. They should rather embrace the opportunity for public discussion, even controversial debate – even though I admit that this sometimes hurts.

EP: There is no shortage of interesting science research stories. Do you agree?

EK: Absolutely. It is just a matter of presenting them.

EP: What obstacles do you believe exist in communicating these to, in the first instance, journalists and their editors, and the second instance to the public (via the media)? In other words, what will attract a journalist enough to respond, and what will attract a member of the public to read or watch a science story?

EK:In journalistic theory, there is the concept of news values – what makes anything important, interesting or attractive enough to be taken up by journalists and welcomed by their audiences. The same rules apply to science communication. I know that many scientists cringe when they read press reports – or, even worse, watch TV segments – about their own field of specialty. That’s because mainstream media over-simplify, because they are often sensationalist, and because they always need a “hook” to pick up a story. But that’s what it takes. And it’s not because all journalists are sensationalistic by nature, but because they know how to attract the attention of the public. Basically, the trick for scientists is to know the news values and to come up with “hooks” by themselves. They better not wait until a journalist comes up with his own one.

EP: Are there any personal experiences you’ve come across in which you were pitched a story in a bad way or in a good way that you would like to recall?

EK:Nothing I recall off the top of my head right now.

EP: What advice/practical tips can you provide to scientists and researchers in getting more media coverage?

EK:Try to think like the media. Actively imagine yourself in the role of a journalist looking for anything to write about your project. Try to “sell” your project to your non-scientist family members and friends. After a while, you’ll learn what laypeople understand and like, how you can drag them into your world. Then, the same will work with journalists and the general public.

EP: Do you find, increasingly, that scientists are now represented by third parties, such as PR professionals? What would the ratio be, roughly? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

EK:No, I can’t say that I have noticed an increase, and PR representatives in science still seem few and far between. PR is always a bit problematic from the point of view of a journalistic organisation such as the EJC. Having said that, I feel that communication professionals should be more involved with scientific research projects. It’s just different talents and competences – performing science or being a public advocate for science. Therefore, rather than trying to transform scientists into part-time PR people on their own account, better let them do their job in peace and let other professionals assist them with public relations work. It’s really a communication ecosystem, one that’s beneficial to journalists, the media and the general public as well as to the scientists.

EP: How many science stories are you presented with (via someone else or of your own accord) and produce a story on?

EK:None, since my organisation, the EJC, is not a publisher.

EP: Define the direction you think science and the media is heading…good or bad? What needs correcting?

EK:The general direction is good. The new communication ecosystem including user created content, blogging, citizen journalism and the like opens up many new opportunities and new paths. The communication culture is changing. It’s getting more open, more diverse, more informal. And I think that’s a good thing.

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Interview by Eleftheria Prodromou.
Copyright: European Commission, 2009. Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.

Thanks to Catherine Gater for her Gridcast blog post about my Prague talk.