Science and the media (Boffins Office 5)

Don't expect anything overly educational: I just feel like sharing some personal experiences on this topic...

...primarily because we wrote a media article this week, and the responses were, well...interesting.

Science for the general public

A lot of scientific research is funded by (a) student tuition fees, (b) public taxpayer money or © a combination of both. As such, most academics feel that they should give something back to the people that made their research to begin with. And I think that's a healthy sentiment :).

One way to do that is by writing a general interest article. That is, a write-up that includes some parts of our research work, but in a way that (hopefully) makes it interesting to a wider audience. I've written such articles on a range of topics, and this week we published one in the Conversation on modelling forced migration.

How is it done (the non-expert version)

I am no expert on this, but I feel compelled to share my personal experience on it anyway, as I've done a few :). Usually there are three ways that general interest articles emerge:

  1. The researchers issue a press release, which is then taken up by the media.
  2. The researchers write an article together with an editor of a particular news source.
  3. The researchers are interviewed by the media directly, which is then put in an article and spread around.

The three ways can result in very different articles, and the quality can differ greatly. Approach (1) tends to be heavily influenced by the researchers, so it often leads to articles that are often thoroughly checked, but might not have such widespread appeal. Approach (2) can vary a lot in quality and accessibility, because some news sources involve the researchers to a large extent, while others just take a blurb of text and make an article out of it. And approach (3) usually has little involvement with the researcher, other than checking if the statements in the resulting news item are at least reasonably correct (on live media like radio of course, that check can't really be done).

In our case, we've had articles go all across the board after one of us got interviewed. For instance, when we were modelling composite materials containing clay and polymers and my colleague James Suter got interviewed by it, the resulting article was this:

(Source: the Register, though the image comes from our Advanced Materials paper)

But there are also cases where the interviewer stayed much close to the content, e.g.:

Source: BNR news radio (apologies for the Dutch!)

It is very rare that a news item is a 100% complete and accurate representation of the underlying research project. Equally it's very rare that a particular piece of research appeals to the broad audience if it's presented in unaltered form. And that paradox is one of the reasons why it can be so hard to write a strong research article for the general public.

That all being said, sometimes we're not interviewed directly about the science at all, but about other matters such as combining work and private life. I've had that happen once:

Source: HPCWire (or was it my own camera? I honestly forgot...)

How is it received?

Quite frequently, academics appear in the media, continue with their work, and that's it for the time being. Sometimes, other journalists come back, ask for an interview or to help with an article, and the item gradually evolves and lives on for a while.

This week in our case we were encouraged by The Conversation to respond to comments made on our article, so I decided to do that. Our Conversation article got 8 or so comments, I responded to a bunch of them and overall I think it led to a reasonable sensible conversation.

However, in the meantime our article was also picked up by Yahoo News UK, where a whopping 173 comments appeared underneath it, mostly actually by people who deny climate change (either as a joke, seriously, or half of both), and even a couple who appear to believe in a flat earth! You can find that version of the article here, but be warned the comments are pretty extreme...

Before we move on, let's at least set the flat-earth myth straight here:

Source: * article on arguing with flat-earthers*.

*(Global warming and climate change is here to stay too of course)*

I chose to respond briefly to the most popular comment, and time will tell whether that was wise or foolish (I'll keep you updated here...).

Closing thoughts

So as you can see, general articles about researchers and academics can go all over the place, and the reactions too can be all over the board. Often the reactions have very little (if anything) to do with the article itself, and I know that many articles from other academics have been misinterpreted in much more serious and harmful ways.

I do think the goal of sharing new findings with the wider audience justifies the potential misinterpretations that we all experience along the way. But it's tricky to decide whether it is also our responsibility to respond to all the misinterpretations that we may sollicit when we publish our articles. Especially for articles that get huge swathes of comments, that may be a little too much to ask for...

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