Have you been “media trained”?
Until recently, I was skeptical of the value of specific media training for scientists, imagining such training to be similar to other transferable skills training – how to manage your time/supervisor/self – occasionally useful, often a waste of the very time you are learning to manage.
Last month, I invested three days in a course entitled Research, Researchers and the Media: a hands-on approach to communicating your science. The course is run by the Postgraduate Transferable Skills Unit at the University of Edinburgh , but is led by a lecturer from Imperial College. Gareth Mitchell, who lead the course, is the presenter of the BBC World Service’s technology programme Digital Planet , the podcast of which I have been listening to for years.
Hands on was certainly accurate. Upon arrival, we were briefed – briefly – before having, variously, microphones, video cameras and press releases thrust into our hands. We were to sketch out news reports – one for radio, one for television – based on the press release (with a little help from your favourite journal beginning with N). Taking roles – radio producer, camerman, or a (somewhat unlikely) spokesperson for the British Space Agency – we were to gather all our audio and video footage before lunch. On the first day. With a bunch of people we had never met.
In the afternoon, ably assisted by Robert Sternberg we put our video footage together. Maybe it’s the bit of computer scientist in me, by I was utterly hypnotised by Final Cut Pro – that is a very powerful piece of software. Robert worked magic on our interviews, cutting and editing and recording voice over.
Do you think our piece would have made it onto the six o’clock news, or would we have been left on the cutting-room floor?
Gareth worked similar magic using Pro Tools to edit our audio material, splicing together questions and answers. You can hear the Saturn audio piece included in the mp3 below.
The next day Gareth asked us whether the first day’s work had given us insight into how manipulative the media could be. One witty participant responded that he hadn’t trusted the media in the first place! The ease with which soundbites can be manipulated, and the difference between what makes “good” or not so useful interview material, were things I learnt. It will be a while, though, before anyone calls me up to ask for my expert opinion and requests from the media for a comment on my work seem unlikely. When I wrote my proposal there was a section for Public Engagement. My supervisor offered me her stock response.
Development of statistical methods allows little opportunity for public engagement, but we will endeavour to make use of what opportunities do arise, for example with students of the mathematical and biological sciences at different levels.
By email in the weeks before the course, and in the evenings during the first two days, we had worked on a script for a magazine-style science radio show. The culmination of our three days’ work was a trip to BBC Glasgow, where we went into the studio to record the show “as live”.
*I acquired another cool name tag*
If you listen to the mp3 you will hear that I have transformed from Space Agency expert to Radio Presenter, and that I execute some excruciatingly cheesy links! Our two producers (one of whom brought along her experience at the Edinburgh University Science Magazine) managed us ably from behind glass, with the help of the studio manager. It was satisfying to jointly lead a show from start to finish, with a producer in one ear and an interviewee across the table. Great fun – we certainly met the last of the course objectives in more than one way.
To end the module with a renewed and savvy attitude to the science media. Watching television, reading the newspaper or listening to the radio should never be quite the same again.