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Next steps in Science and Journalism bridge-building #scisplain #journosplain


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Jacquelyn Gill at The Contemplative Mammoth offers 5 key tips to answer: How can scientists actively engage with the media? Some of us have been banging our heads to the wall trying to make inroads. Inspired by the SciJourn misfire at ScienceOnline 2013, a handful of us decided to meet On Air to hash it out.  We didn’t record it, but there were some clear themes.

There is a very vocal group of scientists who care sincerely and deeply about engaging the public in meaningful science dialogue.  We recognize that the media – in all of its varied forms – plays an important role in this dialogue.  Without journalism the non-science public would probably remain largely unaware of important issues, technological advances and new innovations.  What we read or hear becomes apart of our awareness and we bring these topics up in conversation with each other and share opinions with those that we influence. When science is missing from the conversation or misinformation is inserted it creates a tangle.  Scientists can either avoid the conversation or jump in and try to sort it all out.  Those of us participating in #scisplain – scientists interested in explaining scientific concepts – are the ones willing to take on this task.

But a good number of us has come to realize that Explaining Science is no easy feat. Not because we don’t know how to communicate with the public.  There is a fair number of scientists who are well-versed in public communication and have the personalities to engage people, too. (Present company included).  We’ve found that our obstacle is penetrating the golden veil.  Several of us have tried engaging journalists, pitching ideas and the results are hit-or-miss. When we speak with each other we realize we have a host of questions about journalism. Specifically, we want to know how we can be of service to journalists, but we can’t seem to nail down answers.

We’re hoping to get succinct, clear answers to yield predictable results. Yes, this works. No, that does not work; try this instead. We’re scientists, we like formulas that work. We desperately need a #journosplain – journalists interested in explaining journalism so as to bridge the divide between science and the public. Hence the G+ hangouts.

In our last conversation, we wondered how could we help to increase scientific literacy with better science explanations.  An Explainer is a quick, easy to digest break down of a science, math, or engineering concept.  Some of my favorites include those done by Radiolab. This one on Speed – Physics and Math explainer – is awesome. There are some great written ones, too.  All of these would be perfect for print/digital media, too. Like this one at Empirical Zeal.

I get that not everyone may be super interested in physics, but the concept is solid and has been successfully done for biology, medicine, and chemistry. But how can we get this kind of cool, neat stuff across the eyes/ears of people who may not necessarily visit science blogs or magazines?  How do we engage non-science folk?

What does a scientist have to do to make friends with a journalist at a lifestyle magazine or local newspaper reporter and share all of this neatness.

Our question to journalists and journalism decision makers such as editors and producers, Should scientists write explainers?

Would this be helpful or interesting? We would love to find ways to include explained science concepts into stories being covered by newspapers and magazines.

How do I make myself available as resource for journalists who may want to write explainers? Scientists are told to cultivate relationships with Journalists but this can be very difficult.  Scientists and journalists pretty much operate in separate silos.  Is there a match-making service for us?

Should I pitch an idea for an explainer for a journalist to write or do it myself? If so, how do I pitch it and to what outlets? I have attempted pitching to a couple of lifestyle magazine websites and I haven’t been successful. I worry that what I have to share isn’t thought of as interesting to those magazines.  So, if we’re recommending scientists to pitch science stories to newspapers/magazines, then we are going to need a lesson on how to pitch.

Can’t wait for your comments.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. DukeNews 4:35 pm 03/18/2013

    Two short answers to some rich questions that deserve longer: 1. Context is everything in the news business. Explainers “just because it’s cool,” are doomed. Editors and reporters care — perhaps too much — about what a finding means to the average Joe, or how it relates to something else that’s in the news right then. eg. Explain comets only when there’s a really obvious comet visible. Any other time, it’s worthless to them. So look for timing and events to peg your explainer to. (And no, “international year of the chemist” does not count)
    2. Go ahead and pitch yourself, if you must, but don’t hesitate to trust a professional to help. Almost every institution doing research has at least one public information officer — PIO. Many of them have worked in a newsroom and are reasonably conversant in science as well. It’s their job to understand what reporters want and to help you connect.

    PS – See you this weekend in Durham!

    Link to this
  2. 2. DNLee 5:16 pm 03/18/2013

    Thank you for the feedback. Ultimately, I think the best solution would be the creation (and use) of a Science Media Center. This would mean getting journalists and editors on board.

    Link to this

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