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From growth media to news media

25 Oct, 2012
Nature News screenshot

One of Kathryn’s news stories.

What happens when a microbiologist ventures out of the lab to work as a science journalist? The British Science Association Media Fellowship scheme gives scientists the opportunity to discover what it is like to work in the media and find out how reporters go about translating scientific research into something the public can digest. Kathryn Lougheed visited Nature News.

The British media doesn’t always get painted in the most positive of lights. With certain publications preferring to focus on gossip rather than actual facts, it can be difficult to know whether we can believe anything we read. When it comes to science journalism, it is occasionally frustrating for a working scientist to see research reported in a way that leans far more towards sensationalism than actual science.

So when I read about a British Science Association scheme to spend a few weeks working in a media organisation, I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about how scientific research gets mangled into news, in addition to being a fun mini-holiday from the lab. I had definitely underestimated how hard it would be to hang up my pipettes and pretend to be a journalist for a month.

My media host was Nature News. When it comes to news outlets, I like to think of the tabloids as late night kebabs — they likely contain things that a human being shouldn’t be ingesting but can be kind of tasty if you block out just how bad they are for you. Nature News, however, is the equivalent of those vegetable juices containing wheatgrass and ginseng—a little bit serious and I’m never sure whether I’m actually meant to enjoy them or just become a better person by consuming them.

The first thing I got to write about was how dogs shake themselves dry, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. I had thought that one of the requirements for working at Nature was a lack of humour when it comes to science news. Turns out I was completely wrong. They just have these things known as Standards, in which they put a huge amount of effort into only reporting things that are not rubbish and getting all their facts correct. Nature News: 1, Kat: 0.

One of the most interesting parts of the placement was learning what actually constitutes news. Of all the scientific articles coming out every day, few tell a complete enough story to be interesting to readers. On top of that, the research reported has to be of the highest quality—much of the job was phoning up experts in the field to get their opinion on whether the conclusions of the paper are justified. It’s funny how low down on the scale of importantness the actual writing part seemed to figure in being a journalist.

A big difference I noticed between publications such as the Guardian or the BBC and Nature News was the kind of research deemed newsworthy. The final week of the placement was spent at the British Science Festival in the greyest city in the world, Aberdeen, along with all the other lovely media fellows and most of their media hosts. While everyone else was typing away to get their stories from the festival back to their offices, I was left feeling slightly abandoned. Nature didn’t want to cover anything from the festival and, to be honest, I could see their point. It was kind of surprising seeing newspapers I read myself reporting research that either wasn’t that new or unique, or which (I probably shouldn’t say this) wasn’t very good. Clearly, Nature had succeeded in turning me into more of a news snob than I already was.

Yet despite all my efforts at adhering to Nature’s high standards, I still managed to publish one article during the first week of my placement that several readers quickly leapt upon for being just a teeny bit factually incorrect. I won’t lie—I found this kind of traumatic and briefly harboured fantasies of hunting down the commenters so that I could shake them by the shoulders and yell, “Give me a break, I’m trying really hard here!” But time has just about healed the guilt and indignant rage, and it’s left me with a newfound respect for journalists—do you have any idea how hard it is to write about something that you know very little about?

That’s the thing—I don’t think the vast majority of journalists go out to deliberately get things wrong or over-sell the conclusions of scientific research. They have to rely on the scientists explaining the relevance of their work without spinning it into something that it’s not. Press releases aren’t always entirely accurate and, for the media outlets with an incredibly fast turnaround on stories, it is very difficult for the non-expert reporters to work out what parts are really news.

My placement is now over and I am back in the lab growing bacteria and wondering if I will ever do any science worthy of publication in Nature. But I’ve taken away a few lessons that I hope will improve my own ability to interact with the media and explain my work to non-experts. Scientists have a huge role to play in making our work accessible to the public instead of relying on the media to portray us accurately and getting annoyed when they don’t.

I am incredibly grateful to the journalists at Nature for unleashing my questionable reporting skills on their readership and putting up with all my stupid questions, and to the British Science Association for running this scheme. I’d recommend applying to any other scientists who are curious about how the media works – other than a few brief moments of terror, the placement was a great experience and I wish I could have stayed longer.

Kathryn Lougheed

Dr Kathryn Lougheed is a research associate at Imperial College London. She works on a Wellcome Trust-funded research project studying latent tuberculosis.

Find out more about the The British Science Association Media Fellowship scheme.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 Oct, 2012 2:40 pm

    Interesting post. I once had dreams of being a science journo but decided against when I realized that it was a matter of “writing about something that you know very little about”… so I became a science blogger instead :D

  2. 25 Oct, 2012 5:07 pm

    As well as being correct, novel and well-researched, articles also have to be interesting. As number 6 of Tim Radford’s 25 commandments (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/jan/19/manifesto-simple-scribe-commandments-journalists) says: “Nobody has to read this crap”. Getting both accuracy and entertainment (which even includes Nature News) is never easy.

    Great post, I hope you bring these insights back to your department and colleagues.

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