The role of mass media is to inform and entertain. Media organisations do this to make money. With the exception of some public broadcasters that get government support, media organisations are commercial businesses that can only exist as long as they make a profit. Mass media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, as well as online news services, compete with one another and with online and social media for readers, listeners, viewers and advertisers.
It is not realistic to expect the media to educate the public about science and produce a country of science-literate citizens – that is the job of the education system. What the media can do is to put issues on the table and set an agenda for discussion and debate. The media can create broad public awareness, help people to form opinions and encourage people to participate in debates about science-related issues.
“It is often useful to hold information briefing sessions (think of it as ‘Science Topic 101’) with journalists before the release of a major paper. This enables journalists to get a better grasp of the content before they report on major issues, especially when the content is complex, foreign or far. Infographics, images and live demonstrations are compulsory to help clarify and illustrate the story.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
Your research news story competes with other kinds of news for limited space and time (and, according to technology companies, increasingly shorter attention spans)1. Journalists, or their editors, act as “gatekeepers” when they decide which science stories to cover. They will judge your science story on typical news value – i.e. newness, uniqueness, local relevance, societal impact, etc. Journalists and editors also select stories based on their own interests and preferences. Other factors that may determine whether a story is used or not, include the complexity of the material, deadlines, access to science news, the availability of scientists for interviews, availability of print space or broadcast time, etc.
Keep in mind that science journalists write for their readers, listeners or viewers. Their priority is to please their editors and serve their audiences. It is not the job of science journalists to enthuse about science or scientists without asking critical questions.
Science journalists can legitimately refuse to act as mere mouthpieces for institutional news. A good journalist will ask probing questions and will definitely explore any controversies or inconsistencies in a science story. It is completely acceptable for science journalists to ask questions about who is funding a specific science project, and to reflect (critically) on public spending on science.
Collaboration between researchers and journalists works best when both parties recognise it as a partnership. Communication professionals can be key catalysts in this process. Researchers have authority and expertise, and new knowledge to share. Journalists have the skill to turn this into a story that will capture the attention of ordinary people. Journalists (and communicators) can help scientists to make their complex information accessible and interesting.
However, the relationship between scientists and journalists is sometimes problematic. Scientists often share negative experiences about how information about their research was botched by a journalist and how they were quoted incorrectly or out of context. Equally, journalists complain about scientists who are impossible to get hold of, or who speak down to them, who do not reply to emails, do not call back and do not understand media deadlines.
With their unique ability to understand both the world of science and the world of the media, research communicators play a key role in building relationships between scientists and journalists, and encouraging mutual respect and trust between these professions.
A relevant case study can be a powerful way to illustrate the positive and negative potential of science-media interactions. Keep your eyes and ears open for examples where research communication has led to noticeable (good and bad) consequences. Such case studies are valuable to include and discuss when presenting communication training to researchers and communicators.