Tips and advice
Nearly 90% of the public gets information about science from the news media*. With its tight deadlines and limited space for detail, the media can sometimes seem like a minefield for explaining science. But the news media can also offer scientists an unrivalled platform for reaching the public and policymakers with their research. And by engaging with the media, scientists have an opportunity to influence the way their work is covered to get the best information possible into the public domain.
Remember to get in touch with the media offices at both NERC and your institution. Always ask for help and advice before doing any media work, and keep contact details to hand in case a journalist calls you.
The media is interested in news. There's no simple definition but, as the name suggests, journalists are first and foremost looking for stories that are 'new'. And it's worth remembering that they are ultimately looking for stories that will interest their audience. A good test is to think about whether you could imagine people chatting about your research around the dinner table or at the pub.
Science stories will normally be based on research findings - things that could make a real difference to people's lives. Funding awards and new methods, while important to scientists, are very rarely covered in the national media.
Newsrooms are high-pressure, fast-paced environments. At any one time, journalists will be working on a number of stories, to tight deadlines. If you're unable to work with those deadlines, there's a good chance they'll drop your story altogether.
Most stories come from either academic journals or major conferences. Media offices at your institution or funding body will often let the media know about newsworthy research a few days before it's available to the academic community, but this relies on you telling your media officers about the research as soon as it's accepted for publication or for a conference.
Media offices will normally impose an embargo, prohibiting reporting on your research until it's published. Most journalists respect embargoes and will wait until they end before covering your research - the embargo allows them to speak to you before reporting restrictions lift so that they can have their story ready to go.
Being quoted by the media, either in print, on camera or over the airwaves, is your opportunity to speak directly to the audience about your research. But the media is only going to provide that platform if you explain your research in a way that is meaningful and interesting to its audience. If you don't, somebody else will speak for you, and you will lose control over how your research is portrayed to the public.
The UK has a famously diverse, vibrant and robust press. Newspaper circulations may be in decline, but millions of us still pick up a paper every day and online audiences are huge and growing. Tabloids may not seem a natural home for science, but they often have the largest audiences, and some of the best UK science coverage can appear in the more populist parts of the press.
The first few sentences of a news article are the most important - they're designed to hook the reader in for the rest of the story. So journalists will almost always start with the five W's: the what, when, who, where and why (ie why does it matter). The detail, nuance and context of your research will often appear later in the article. Space in the media is limited, and those details are liable to be cut by ruthless editors. Bear this in mind when you're talking to journalists, and make the five W's of your story as clear as you possibly can.
Journalists are fiercely protective of their independence, and they're always short of time, so they will rarely show you a draft of their article before it's published. For this reason it's important to take your time and explain yourself carefully first time. If a journalist catches you on the hop, feel free to take a few minutes to collect your thoughts before calling them back, but do bear in mind that they will be working to a tight schedule. If you need support or advice, media officers at both NERC and your institution are there to help you.
Journalists may seek comment on your research elsewhere both within and beyond your academic community, particularly if your research is on a controversial topic. If you are approached to comment on a topical issue, or someone else's work, remember that if you don't speak somebody else will. You may not be the best expert for a particular topic, but the next person they contact could have no expertise whatsoever. That does not mean, though, that you should feel compelled to comment if you feel uncomfortable. If you're happy to be contacted by the media for comment on your area of research, you can register as an expert in your field.
Many of the problems with press coverage of science arise within the headlines. A dodgy headline can be extremely frustrating. But headlines will rarely be written by the journalist themselves - this is normally done by a sub-editor. Remember that they are there to hook in the interest of the reader. If a reader is interested they will often go on to read the article, which will rarely be as bad as the headline, particularly if it's been written by a specialist science journalist.
- It is not patronising to explain your work in lay terms - the average reading age of newspapers is under 14 and can be as low as eight.
- Practise speaking about your work in engaging and accessible language to non-scientists.
- Avoid technical terms, acronyms or measurements that the public may not understand.
- Before speaking to a journalist, decide on three key messages that you want to put across in the interview.
- Check where the journalist is calling from and always take their contact details, so that you can get back in touch if you think of something important later on.
- Find out what the journalist's deadline is - make the most of any time you've got to take advice and thoroughly prepare.
- If an enquiry really isn't in your area, recommend someone else who might be able to offer some expertise.
- Think about whether any area of your research is controversial, and prepare yourself to handle difficult questions. If you need support, ask a media officer for help.
- Scour the internet for media coverage of your area of research. How do journalists tend to approach it and what are the potential pitfalls?
- Bear in mind that journalists are writing for their particular audience, and not the academic community.
Going on TV or the radio can be a nerve-jangling experience, especially if it's your first time. But it's also a great opportunity to speak directly to the public about your research, and reach beyond the traditional audiences for science. And remember, if you don't speak they will find somebody else, and you'll lose your chance to influence how your research is covered.
If you're working on a documentary, you might know months in advance, and some producers will consult you on how your research should be portrayed. But the rapidly evolving 24-hour news agenda means that sometimes you might only get a few hours, or even less. The key is to take whatever time you have to prepare as well as you can. Know your key messages, anticipate difficult questions, and remember to take advice from your media office.
If you're approached by a journalist to do an interview for TV or radio, there are a few key things that you'll need to know. For example, where is the interview going to take place? Is it in the studio, over the phone, or 'on location'? If you need to travel, media organisations will often cover your costs.
Is it going out live or pre-recorded? Live may sound scary, but live interviews can't be cut, so you know that your words will be received exactly as they are spoken. In any event, find out how long you're going to be speaking for.
What is the format going to be? Are you going to be the only interviewee, or will it be a debate or panel discussion? If it's going to be a debate, find out as much as you can about your opponents. What is their stance on the issue? Which arguments are they likely to use?
You're unlikely to get a list of questions and, even if you did, the interviewer would rarely stick to them. But producers might be able to give you an idea of their angle and focus. Try to get as much of this sort of information as you can, so that you can prepare as thoroughly as possible.
When you're speaking on camera, or into a microphone, many of the same principles apply as for print media. Steer clear of jargon or complex language, and think in advance of ways to describe your research in language that will be meaningful to somebody who has no background in science. Practise speaking about your research to friends and family. Take your time, speak slowly and don't be afraid to take a short pause for thought, even if the interview is live.
If you're being filmed on location, it's likely that they'll do several takes. They'll often want to film some action too. This can range from walking with the presenter to abseiling down a glacial ravine. Find out what they want, set plenty of time aside and be prepared to be patient.
- Prepare succinct phrases to get your key messages across, and do your best to shape the interview towards your key points.
- Try not to be drawn into speculating in areas where you don't feel comfortable.
- Don't get into a row - the person that stays calmest normally comes across as the most trustworthy. You can't force people to agree with you. You can only give them the best information to come to an informed view.
- Have a glass of water to hand in case your mouth gets dry, or you need to buy a bit of thinking time.
- If you're struggling with too many interview requests, ask your media office for help. They can help you draw up a schedule and prioritise media outlets.
- Try to keep still during TV interviews. If you're moving around or gesticulating too wildly, it can distract the audience from the point that you're trying to make.
- Dress smartly for the camera - avoid distracting clothing like jangling bracelets, loud shirts or novelty ties.
- When you're speaking on radio, try not to rustle your notes or make distracting noises.
- If you're interviewing over the phone, find a quiet room and call from a landline. Dodgy mobile connections can be incredibly frustrating. Ask your media office if they've got access to an ISDN line (a high-quality phone line).
- If you stand while you speak, it will open up your lungs and make it easier to talk.
Before you do any work with the broadcast media, seek advice from the media offices at your institution and/or NERC. If your research is in a particularly controversial area, you can contact the Science Media Centre - external link for independent, specialist advice.