Being Media-Savvy

I’m a great believer in media training, but the reality is that it isn’t as simple as ‘one size fits all’. Any training will no doubt help confidence and maybe point out your good and bad traits, but how to deal with a media interview about your latest paper in Science is very different from how to handle a Paxman style interrogation about some contentious issue possibly involving policy/politics. However, I do believe getting more scientists on air is definitely a good thing to do, to try to share the excitement and relevance of what we do with a general audience. Indeed, in the wake of recent events here and in the US, we in the higher education sector need to think much harder about how and where we do that communicating. My Vice Chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz expressed this eloquently in his recent Kate Pretty Lecture:

The public trust placed in us is directly linked to an understanding that what we do –through education, learning and research—is good for everyone. One of the biggest risks to our legitimacy and reputation is the public feeling that universities’ goals and our societies’ goals are no longer shared –in other words, a breakdown of trust….when people in King’s Lynn or Chatteris ask themselves that classic question –“What has the University of Cambridge done for us?”—I suspect the answer they come up with is: “Not that much”….clearly there is a problem here. If society at large does not believe that we have its interests at heart, then the failure is our own, because serving the interests of society is our only purpose. If society at large does not believe that what we do is ultimately for the common good, we need to do a better job at engaging with it, and communicating the impact of our work.

Can we have too many people communicating about science on our airwaves to fulfil, in some small part, that necessary agenda? Last week saw an article in the Observer apparently complaining that Radio 4’s programming needed to be ‘rebalanced’ because there was too much science. Programmes like Jim Al Khalili’s wonderful The Life Scientific, in which he interviews a different scientist each week about their life and science, were singled out for mention. I think this programme works spectacularly well: it doesn’t only focus on some limited aspect of detailed science which, however dear to the interviewee’s heart may not strike a chord with the average listener. Instead it focusses on the processes of science, the inspiration, the frustration and how the interviewee got from A (typically childhood and education) to B (wherever they are now). If Radio 4 were to recreate something in The Life Scientific’s image with ‘creatives’ as the interviewees rather than scientists I am sure it would be an equally good listen. But that is not to say that there is too much science.

With a sub-heading that read “James Runcie [the new head of Arts at Radio 4] plans to rebalance programmes in drive to put more ‘creative voices’ on air”, I was not the only person to react with incredulity over Twitter to the implicit idea that there was now an excess of science. When my howl of dismay at the article’s apparent buy-in to an outdated Two Cultures version of reality reached the Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams I was delighted to find that she rapidly sent me an email by way of reassurance. In this she stated categorically that she was proud to have championed and continues to champion science programmes on Radio 4 and was simply now highlighting other areas – taking the science success as a model. I do feel reassured. I suspect it merely indicates that press briefings can go wrong and journalists don’t always give the flavour one would wish to an article.

To go back to media training, nothing can stop a sub-editor having their wicked way with a story, however carefully one tries to prepare the ground. There is also the problem of how much the interviewer understands of the topic under consideration. Having been put off talking to the media for about 15 years after an ill-advised press release I helped to draft tried to explain what a colloid was by analogy with lumpy custard, I know how badly things can go wrong.  The flak after that included me being accused of merely doing cookery on live, albeit local, radio and it really got to me. Being a woman the not-at-all-veiled implication was that that was all I was fit for. And then, when I had just resurfaced into the media world after all those years I was wrong-footed on Desert Island Discs by Kirsty Young’s researcher having dug that story up. However, with the advantages of experience and age plus some serious media training, I could laugh the story off easily enough however much it had cut deep at the time.

This week I came across another situation that I found challenging in an interview with an international journalist for whom the idea of Collegiate Cambridge clearly didn’t make much sense, nor had they an awareness of the narrowness of the English school education system. I hope I managed to get my message across of why the Cambridge College system offers something special to undergraduates through the small group teaching they get within the College on top of lectures to the whole undergraduate cohort given at university level. And that our students at 18 have an undoubtedly high educational standard, it is just that it is much narrower than the equivalent European Baccalaureate and I regret that narrowness. But I had gone into the interview expecting the topics to be very different, about Cambridge University’s place as a global university and why the referendum result should give us pause for thought, as illustrated in the VC’s statements above. So, once again I managed to be wrong-footed having prepared, as it were, for a different interview.

It all goes to show experience is never enough, nor can one really do a sufficiency of preparation. But media training does at least permit one to breathe deeply and engage with less panic and fear, knowing how to regroup and take the necessary time to come up with an appropriate answer (this last interview of mine was anyhow for print media and so not in any sense ‘live’; time was not of the essence). The moral of these various anecdotes is that, as a scientist, I believe we have a duty to engage with the public and the media. To do so we have to hone our skills and there is always more one can learn to do it better.

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