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Working in physics: Scientists in the newsroom

Media fellowships can help physicists improve the way that they communicate their results to the outside world, and also offer valuable insights into how the other half live, as Helen Czerski describes.

Tools of the trade

Have you ever squirmed when reading coverage of science news in the media? Rolled your eyes when you saw a headline summing up a sophisticated science result in one line? Do you ever come to the conclusion that some complex subject matter has been condensed to the point where it may collapse in on itself, forming a mini black hole that will trap the real scientific understanding forever? And most importantly, have you ever asked why things might be like this, and what you could do about it?

I had the chance to find out in 2005, when I was awarded a media fellowship from what is now known as the British Science Association. These fellowships were set up about 20 years ago with the aim of introducing career scientists and engineers to the way that the media work. The core of the fellowship is the opportunity to work as a science journalist in the national press, broadcast or Internet media for three to eight weeks. In my case, I spent a month working for the Times Higher Education Supplement in London and another week reporting for them from the British Science Festival. At the time I was in the final year of a PhD in shock and explosives physics at the University of Cambridge, so doing the fellowship meant quite a significant change of scene. However, I wanted to do it because I was curious about the inner workings of news stories, and fascinated by how different parts of society communicate with each other.

Learning the ropes
My time in the newsroom was fun because I was not there to observe, I was there to do. I was trusted with stories to research and people to interview, and I discovered how hard it is to balance your own interest in a subject with the time you have available to report on it. One of the biggest projects I worked on involved analysing academic salary data released under the Freedom of Information Act. That effort turned into a rewarding front-page story, but I learned an extra lesson when a letter arrived complaining about my choice of data displayed with the story. “Why didn’t you include my institution?” asked the letter-writer.

My first reaction was one of amazement: even though it was the week’s top story, I did not think anyone would read my article closely enough to spot that they had been excluded. Note to self: someone out there is paying attention. Then I had to work out how to say, politely, that “I could only fit a limited number of institutions into the space allowed, and I didn’t think yours was important enough to make that list”. If I ever do it again, I will make sure that the listed institutions come from a hierarchy based on published data, so I can give a better answer to that question.

The real benefits of the placement came from just being in the newsroom, hearing how stories are chosen and seeing the near-panic that dominated the hours before the publication was “put to bed”. The biggest single message I absorbed was that it is the editor’s job to produce a publication that will sell. Someone can write an amazingly well-researched and thorough story but if the editor judges that “the reader” is likely to ignore it, it will not go in.

In my experience, science journalists are intelligent people who are genuinely doing their best to convey the excitement and importance of science to people who are not necessarily already convinced. And they really do know a lot about how to get the maximum amount of accurate science into their stories without turning people off. But newspapers and websites are up against a weird kind of democracy: anyone who buys a paper or logs onto a site is free to stop reading at any time. If the first paragraph does not catch the reader’s attention, what comes next could be Pulitzer-prize-winning stuff but no one will ever know.

So if you are ever interviewed by a journalist, bear in mind that they are there to help you get your message out, because (be honest) you could not do it by yourself. What they write is not intended for you; it is intended for your next-door neighbour, who may well think that Wolfgang Pauli was the guy who won the gold medal on the pommel horse at the last Olympics. Science journalism is not perfect, but once you see what motivates it, you can see that there is a lot more that we as scientists can do to improve the message that the public receives about science.

Read all about it
If you are interested in taking on a fellowship, you will need to be adaptable and a good communicator. You will also need to be prepared to learn to do things that you might not be naturally good at. In my case, this included writing about other people’s research without filling the piece with quotes (because I wanted to use the researchers’ own words) and also structuring an article as a journalist would, rather than as a scientist would.

As for the timing of the fellowship, most of the other fellows in my year were postdocs or researchers (both academic and industrial), and I think they probably appreciated the fellowship more than I did because they had a few more years’ experience of how research works. The more established you are, the more you can make use of your know-how; in particular, your peers are more likely to ask your advice if you have built a reputation as someone who is willing to help fellow scientists navigate the media. It also helps to keep in regular contact with friends and journalists whose aims are the same as your own. Moving about a lot (as is common for a few years after finishing a PhD) can make those contacts harder to maintain.

The flip side is that media fellowships take up a significant chunk of fellows’ time - about 10% over the course of a year - and it may be easier to fit this in while studying for a PhD. Either way, you will need a sympathetic employer who is prepared to let you take the time off. If you are concerned about missing that time at work, remember that a month or two off will make no difference when you look back in 10 years’ time, but a month or two spent in someone else’s shoes will be memorable and useful for life.

Since the fellowship ended I have finished my PhD, shifted my research focus (I now apply what I learned about high-speed photography during my PhD to the study of ocean bubbles) and I am on my second postdoc position in my new field. In that time, I have helped other scientists in their interactions with the press and I have also become much better at publicizing science events that I have been involved in, including the science video website SciVee. But the main effect of the fellowship was more a change in how I see the world. I am far more aware that scientists need to take the media seriously, and now that I am settled in the field of ocean science, where communicating research results to the public is essential if we are to stop treating the oceans as though they are infinite, I am looking forward to making use of that new understanding.

The next round of fellowships will be in the summer of 2010, with applications due by March 2010. More details are available online at the British Science Association’s website, including lots of information about the scheme and reports written by previous fellows about their experiences. Being a media fellow could be one of the best things that will happen to you in 2010. You are sure to view science reporting in a new light and what you learn will be invaluable if you ever find yourself on the other end of the microphone. Who knows, you might even have a ringside seat for the science scoop of the decade.

About the author
Helen Czerski was a media fellow in 2005 and is now a postdoc in the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, US.


This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Photolibrary

last edited: November 05, 2014



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