Do Scientists Want (or Need) Media Training?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMay 24, 2010 1:14 AM


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Tomorrow at MIT, I'll be giving a four hour "boot camp" on science communication to a group of graduate students and other interested parties. The session begins with an overview of the "theory" of science communication--why we must do it better, what the obstacles are, and how a changing media environment makes it much tougher than it was during the era when the dude at right was so popular (the same era when the dude at *top* right was about to deregulate the media...). Then, the session goes into a media "how to"--rules for interacting with journalists, media do's and don'ts, and an overview of various key communication "technologies," such as framing. Finally, it ends with a role playing in which the scientists get to try out their chops in a Colbert-style interview, and see if they can stay on message while traversing the very rockiest of media seas. I get the sense there is an increasing demand for this kind of training, which is often not provided in the standard science graduate curriculum. The hunger seems especially strong among the younger set of scientists. Why? Well, consider the write up for another all day sci comm boot camp I did at Princeton recently, sponsored by the Center for Complex Materials. I think it captures why scientists increasingly want to know about the workings of the media:

These days, amid ongoing media controversies over climate change, the teaching of evolution, the safety of vaccines, and many other scientific topics, researchers are increasingly asking themselves questions like these: Should I be doing more to communicate about my work to the public? And if so, how should I go about preparing for media encounters—and what should I be ready to say? In this daylong science communication workshop these questions will be answered. By the end of the day, scientists will have learned not only how to interact with and present themselves to the press, but also how to be ready for a full scale media crisis—because you never know when one is going to hit. (Just ask the scientists at the center of “ClimateGate” late last year.) Science journalist Chris Mooney will introduce the group to the bewildering and ever-changing mediasphere for science--one in which scientific content in newspapers is vanishing even as science blogs and online media are booming. How do you navigate this media maelstrom and know which journalists to trust, and which to avoid? What kind of message should you design to convey information about your work, and what kind of image should you project? What kind of language should you use—and absolutely avoid? What are modern examples of successful science communication—and cases of abject failures?

These sci comm sessions tend to be pretty packed, and they're quite a lot of fun. But with some exceptions--like the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where "communications week" is a standard feature of Jeremy Jackson's summer long "Introduction to Marine Biodiversity and Conservation" class, and Randy Olson and I both teach--such content isn't yet part of the institutional structure of higher level science education. The question is, should it be? I would argue strongly in the affirmative. And how can we make that happen? Well, more funding from outlets like the National Science Foundation would be a good idea. So would rejiggering institutional priorities to put media training squarely into the curriculum. In the meantime, I suspect it will be popping up more and more on an ad hoc basis on various campuses, wherever a group of graduate students, or one or more sympathetic faculty or staff, feel a crying need for it....

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