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Have you or any scientist you know ever given information to a journalist and they reported it inaccurately? Or perhaps you gave an interview or invited a journalist to an event and they didn’t report any story about it?

These are some of the fears scientists often raise about the media. Many scientists shy away from the media because they think journalists will misquote them or sensationalise the story.

On the other hand you might have seen some award-winning science stories reported in the media. What makes the difference?
Publication of a story in the media depends on a number of factors, most importantly the journalists’ ability to gather information from the right sources, make sense of it and package a clear, accurate and relatable story.

Some journalists will write better science stories than others – often this relates to their training and experience. Rather than generalising journalists and avoiding the media for fear that they might distort your information, it is better to invest some time and energy in finding the right journalist to work with. Most of the fears that scientists have about the media can be overcome by working with the right journalist.
 

What the right journalist should be able to do

For a journalist to write a good science story they should:
  • Have some knowledge about how research is carried out
  • Know the right sources of news about science
  • Know how to spot science news
  • Package scientific information into a clear and accurate story that is understandable and relatable to non-scientists
  • Show interest in reporting the science and how it affects society, rather than focusing on drama and scandal.
Considering that most journalists will have studied arts and humanities, the ability to understand the science and report about it accurately doesn’t come naturally. It takes training and experience.

Failing to find and work with the right journalist could lead to various disappointments such as failure to spot the story, misquoting, shallow stories that don’t serve the purpose, using  information in the wrong context, sensationalising, and looking out for scandal and drama instead of the science.
 

Categories of journalists who might report science

Within the media you are likely to encounter different categories of journalists who might report a science story:
  • Specialised science journalists: These specialise in reporting about science issues. With experience they become better at it. They keep up-to-date with scientific developments. They have a good idea what questions to ask, where to find the right people to interview, how to get the right documents to read and websites to visit for additional information. Some begin with journalism training and learn science. Others begin with a scientific background and then learn journalism.  
  • Unspecialised journalists who show interest in and occasionally report on science issues: Due to staff shortage, lack of prioritisation or other factors, some media organisations do not let their journalists focus only on science even if the journalist is interested. There are also journalists who want to report on science without giving up other topics. For these two reasons you may find unspecialised journalists who occasionally report on science.
  • Unspecialised journalists who report on science when they have to: Some science-related stories will occur in unlikely places such as Parliament or Courts of Law, so the available journalist at the moment will report on them. Take for instance when a scientist makes a presentation to Members of Parliament, or an issue of scientific nature is debated in the House.

Finding the right journalist

When you have a choice, try to find and work with a specialised science journalist. They are more likely to produce a clear and accurate story.
However, some media outlets in developing countries do not have a specialised science journalist yet getting them to report about your research would add value to your work. In that case, it would be useful to identify the journalists that are most likely to report science stories even though they are not specialised.
 
When working with journalists who are not specialised you need to be aware that they may need more support from you because they are most likely not familiar with the topic. For example you could help them by giving them background information, patiently explaining things to them and referring them to other possible sources of information or people they might interview. This helps them to not only report the immediate story better but also improve their ability to write a better story afterwards.

Below are the different ways to identify a journalist to work with on a science story.
 
Notice who covers science stories in newspapers and broadcast media
Make time to read, watch and listen to the news. It is standard practice for the media to disclose the identity of the reporter. A newspaper or online publication will most likely place the name of the reporter between the headline and the first sentence of the article. Some of them go as far as placing the email address of the reporter at the bottom of the article. A television or radio report may have the reporter’s name, sometimes in their own voice, at the end or nearer to the beginning of a news item.
 
Therefore, by following the news you will get to know the names of journalists who report good science stories so that you can look them up; for example by email, on phone or via social media. If the story is online or they have shared it on social media, comment on it so they can notice you.
 
Get in touch with professional associations
In many countries science journalists have organised themselves into professional associations to help themselves grow in science reporting. Some of them are registered with the World Federation of Science Journalists as member associations. Professional associations can help you find a journalist who is likely to report about science accurately and meaningfully. Some of the professional associations include journalists who report on science broadly while others focus on more specific fields for example health, environment, or agriculture. 
 
Ask editors
Editors assign reporters, guide them and review their stories. Therefore editors normally know their reporters’ abilities.
Contacting the editor has the added advantage of helping you to build rapport with the person who makes decisions on whether to publish a story. Be prepared to give polite reminders because editors often get absorbed into their busy newsroom routines and might forget to get back to you.
 
Ask scientists that have received good media coverage before
Behind every good science story there is a good journalist and other actors including scientists and editors. When a scientist gets good coverage in the media, ask them which journalist reported it. It is equally important to ask how they worked with the journalist to get good results.
 
See which journalists follow your organisation on social media
Social media platforms give you an opportunity to see who is following your organisation’s official account. For example when you view your organisation’s Twitter account you will notice the followers are identified by their name, twitter handle and one or more words describing who they are or what they do. There is a high chance that your followers are interested in science and your organisation in particular though in some cases people follow an organisation for different reasons. Find out who is following your organisation and which of them are journalists. Approach them, exchange contacts and build rapport.
 
Find them at scientific meetings
Journalists that come to scientific presentations, workshops, conferences or exhibitions are most likely interested in the subject. At such events journalists are usually unmistakable. Do not wait for them to come to you. Approach them, say hello, introduce yourself and exchange contacts. However brief the meeting may be, it usually breaks the ice and the journalist will most likely be more supportive when you need them.
 

Once you’ve found the right journalist…

Having found the right journalist, you need to maintain good relations with them. Do not go to them only when you want media coverage. After building rapport with journalists you may brief them about your research in the earlier phases to prepare them to report on it when you have something newsworthy to announce. This requires you to explain to them that the initial information that you are providing is preliminary and only for informational purposes, not for reporting.


Below are five things you can do to keep a good rapport with journalists after the initial icebreaker:
  • Let them know when something newsworthy is happening in the scientific world that they otherwise would not know about.
  • Read, listen to or watch their stories and give them constructive feedback.
  • Give them picture opportunities, for example by granting them access to your laboratories or interesting field activities.
  • Inform them about training opportunities that you might be aware of.
  • If you invite journalists to a workshop, encourage them to attend the sessions and not walk away after the opening ceremony.
One might argue that it is the journalists’ responsibility to report and not the scientists’ job to motivate them; however, don’t forget they have other topics to report on. If you are interested in getting the media to report on science and your research in particular, you’ve got to work at it a bit.

And finally, be the right scientist

Don’t forget that journalists also want to find the right scientist to work with. If you want to find the right journalist for you, try to be the right scientist for them. Journalists like scientists who provide them with newsworthy information in a timely manner while appreciating the differences between journalistic and scientific writing.
 
Dr. Charles Wendo is the Training Coordinator, SciDev.Net
 

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