My life as a media fellow
Courtenay Frazier Norbury encourages participation in the British Association scheme.
THE British Association for the Advancement of Science Media Fellowship scheme is now open for this year’s business. But why should you apply? Many scientists avoid the media at all costs: why would anyone want to put themselves in the middle of a newsroom?For me, the spur was an interview I gave to a local radio station as part of National Autism Day. Armed with accurate facts and figures and ready to wow the public with my amazing experimental approach, I waited for the interviewer to ring. Much to my surprise, she didn’t ask the carefully prepared questions on my mind. Instead, I found myself stumbling through questions about educational policy and my views on Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man. The messages I most wanted to convey didn’t get any air time.
I vowed to fight back. Perhaps by learning more about how the media works, I could better prepare myself to communicate with them. This was my goal when I accepted a BA Media Fellowship and boarded the plane to Dublin for a two-week stint at The Irish Times.
Life as a science journalist
I entered the newsroom with some trepidation. Fortunately, Dick Ahlstrom, the science editor, put me right at ease. He is passionate about science and a journalist of great integrity. He publishes a science page every Thursday that showcases the best of Irish research; a fantastic opportunity to talk with a variety of talented scientists about all aspects of their work, from the long grind to the ‘Eureka!’ moment.
I wrote a piece on my first day, based on the work of Dr Catherine Pettigrew, who used electroencephalography to study language impairment in adults with stroke. This taught me valuable lessons about how to write ‘the hook’, and the importance of the picture to sell a story.
From there I moved out of my comfort zone to write about the great unknowns: cell biology, chemistry and physics. Here I learned perhaps the most important media lesson: the press release is the scientist’s best friend. How I wish I known about this when I’d be interviewed for the radio – it is possible to tell the journalist in advance what you want to talk about! And I never would have believed that I would utter the words ‘I want to know more about particle physics,’ but some scientists just had such an enthusiasm for their area.
The Festival of Science in Norwich was a fascinating insight not just into the media, but how other scientists present themselves. As a psychologist, I spent the first few days feeling quite alarmed by how psychology was presented to the media and the public at large: innate beliefs in the supernatural, what body language reveals about political psyches, and telephone telepathy? Things improved as the week went on, but I was frustrated by the different journalistic attitudes to ‘psychologists’ versus ‘cognitive neuroscientists’; don’t they know these are often one and the same?
Back to my day job
My experience as a Media Fellow was invaluable. I know that I have much greater confidence in speaking to the media and I now know how to prepare an advance statement that will be provocative, but not misleading. I’ve also learned how important it is to challenge inaccuracies and bad science by writing to the paper or the journalists involved. Most of them are hugely respectable and grateful for an insider’s view. And I now know that I can write about 600 words in an hour if need be, which has been a great asset to my scientific writing.
I now want to encourage colleagues to become involved in media training and the BA scheme. This is the only way to ensure that the public gets a more balanced view of psychology and science, and to help the media to learn more about what real psychologists do.
For more information
BA Media Fellowships run for three to eight weeks, including one week at the BA Festival of Science. Fellowships are available at most broadsheet newspapers, the BBC and more. Applications close on 18 April. See www.the-ba.net/the-ba/scienceinsociety.
Dr Courtenay Frazier Norbury is a Nuffield Foundation New Career Development Fellow at the University of Oxford.
Gifted or cursed?
Part one of Child Genius (Channel 4) introduced us to several ‘gifted’ children who, in an uneasy mix of voyeurism and education, we will follow into adulthood to see if they ‘fail to fulfil their potential’.Society Fellow Professor Joan Freeman is on hand to test IQ, but also to gently remind parents that there’s more to life as a kid than learning Old Norse. Parents tended to focus on a particular gift, to the detriment of other areas, and Freeman warned ‘I doubt if parents really want their children to be boffins’.
Special mention should go to one of the children, Dante Minghella, who noted that psychologists ‘always have something really annoying about them’. Jon Sutton
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