[ASC-list] World class

Phillip Arena P.Arena at murdoch.edu.au
Fri Jun 4 08:12:11 UTC 2010


I can recall speaking with Lord Robert Winston, on a recent visit to Perth.
Here he spoke of his career in science, in particular, the IVF program at
Hammersmith Hospital and the incredible level of funding his group received
from the government. Partially, through a feeling of responsibility and
obligation (since his level of funding exceeded that provided to the most
prestigious education institutions in England) his group trained some of its
personnel as 'communicators' that would speak to the public in a form of
transparent education. He gave me the impression that he felt the need to
pay back the people for the massive amount of money being thrown at his
program.
The result was that even MORE money was thrown at his program; the funding
increased by another startling degree.

As communicators, we have been bound largely by the media in which we
published our work. It may be time to rethink how we present our ideas. I'm
sure many of us can recall times when the responses to our ideas have been
nothing short of wonderful. For me, publishing a short article on pain
relief in vertebrates in a small, but widely distributed laboratory
newsletter was a major milestone in getting my message across - I believe it
made more of an impact than my publications in higher end journals (I chose
to do this despite pressures from my superiors at the time). Also, talks I
have given to the public either through being a casual Education Officer at
our state museum or being invited to speak at the University of the Third
Age (U3A) here in WA, amassed such enthusiasm that it continually reminded
me of why I love what I do; renewing my belief in scientific communication.

Yet...we still have a long way to go.

Phil 


On 5/6/10 7:47 AM, "Dr Rob Morrison" <rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au> wrote:

> It is such a tangled area. One is best served, usually, by media which
> have a specialist science reporter, as he (or she) has some professional
> skin to lose if they get the science wrong.   We are having a discussion
> at present in the AusSMc as to whether one should keep aiming to get
> science into the better outlets (main media etc) or, by using things
> like New Idea, try to get it to more of the people who don't normally
> read it.
> 
> I like the IDEA of the latter, but have friends who regale me with
> stories of healing crystals, ghosts, psychic healers etc that they read
> about in such mags, and all of which they seem to believe. I am not sure
> I'd want them lumping serious science in with that because they happened
> to be in the same mag - worse, the good science might give credibility
> to the crap on pages either side of it!
> 
> Rob
> 
> Phillip Arena wrote:
>> Thanks Rob,
>> 
>> Excellent points.
>> 
>> Your mention of reporting news, reminds me of an article I once read that
>> focused on the differing styles of journalism as presented by various
>> newspapers in the USA. The particular news item was about a young child who
>> was bitten by his pet snake (and please forgive my ageing memory for missing
>> all the details).
>> The more 'reputable' papers reported the story as a boy who was bitten on
>> his face by his pet snake and whose injury was only in need of light
>> treatment. 
>> Down the other end of the journalism scale, the identical story was reported
>> as a boy who had virtually lost his eye and half his face following the
>> savage attack of.......and so on.
>> 
>> This then leads us to ask:
>> 
>> Where is the truth actually reported?....or does truth not exist in the eyes
>> of marketed media?
>> 
>> ..and would this current imbalance influence the nature of how a story is
>> written prior to submission?
>> 
>> Eg. were I to submit a story on a new species of lizard (yes, I'm a
>> herpetologist) in 'The world weekly news (aka "the world's only reliable
>> news"...and yes, an extreme example), it would only stand half a chance of
>> being published if I were to entitle the piece,
>> "I had sex with a frog from Mars!" (these papers often misrepresent reptiles
>> as amphibians).
>> 
>> (Update: A quick browse on the WWNews website shows the headline "Megan Fox
>> is a Man!"
>> 
>> Finally, to play devil's advocate, given that science can at times be
>> bland......do we need to dress it up in order to sell it? Surely, it all
>> comes down to our audience.
>> 
>> Thoughts for discussion?
>> 
>> Regards
>> 
>> Phil 
>> 
>> 
>> On 5/6/10 5:16 AM, "Dr Rob Morrison" <rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au> wrote:
>> 
>>   
>>> This topic, which has run before, seems to polarise people into those
>>> who hate the use of such cliches, and those who think that, for some
>>> reason, editors will love them and be favourably disposed to the
>>> "release" that contains them. A bit of evidence-based exploration is
>>> probably due here.
>>> 
>>> I have gone on the record for a while as being an opponent of
>>> "cutting-edge," "leading-edge," and especially "breakthrough" nonsense
>>> in these media releases, and it is more than just the grumpy whining of
>>> an ageing pedant.
>>> 
>>> Julian and others, while disliking the terms, defend them on the basis
>>> that they encourage editors to include the story in their bulletins, and
>>> say that is how newsrooms work. Perhaps some do, and others did once,
>>> before the terms became cliched. There is certainly evidence to the
>>> contrary.  I have worked in the newsrooms of several stations for years,
>>> and I know from my own experience that there are editors who view this
>>> stuff with (usually well deserved) scorn for the hyperbole it often is.
>>> As the science specialist I was often handed science stories to see if
>>> they should run. My own reaction to "breakthroughs" was immediately one
>>> of suspicion, and I was often right in that judgement. I ran other
>>> stories in which the writer had used careful writing explain why some
>>> reseach was significant and bothered to make clear why our audience(s)
>>> would find it so.
>>> 
>>> We also talked about this matter at a Board meeting of the AusSMC here.
>>> Garry Linnell, then the Editor of Bulletin and subsequently Nine
>>> Network, Telegraph etc, was openly scathing about such releases, saying
>>> that every second science release seemed to describe a "breakthrough"
>>> and that, when he received them, he binned them on the spot. He also
>>> said that "Someone should tell them not to do it."  Who should do that
>>> but the ASC?
>>> 
>>> When Susan Greenfield was our Thinker in Residence, I was on a panel
>>> with her and others to look at Science in the Media. Questions from the
>>> floor about "breakthroughs" led another editor on the panel to say he
>>> rejected them almost immediately, as (a) usually he couldn't understand
>>> the science described and (b)he could usually sense that someone wanted
>>> to use his media outlet for PR or for increasing their chances of
>>> getting their next grant.
>>> 
>>> Not all editors are swayed by these hackneyed terms, and why would they
>>> be? I surveyed some media releases on Eurekalert a while back - 5000
>>> plus, and half of them had "breakthrough" as their descriptor of the
>>> work done. "Cutting-Edge" and "Groundbreaking" scored absurdly highly as
>>> well.
>>> 
>>> I maintain that we should discourage this nonsense because:
>>> 
>>> 1. it is sloppy. If the work is significant, explain why - tell the
>>> story; do as Jen does and explain why others should recognise it as
>>> valuable;
>>> 2. it debases the currency. If every minor discovery is a
>>> "breakthrough,"  what do you have left for Marshall and Warren or
>>> Frazier when they come along?
>>> 3. if you get something really substantial and call it a breakthrough,
>>> how is it distinguishable for the puff-pieces that surround it
>>> describing minor work in the same terms?
>>> 4. it certainly doesn't "work" with many editors, who view it with scorn
>>> and discard the releases;
>>> 5. cliches of any kind are irritating. The media are full of them, and
>>> they are often hyperbolic to a ludicrous degree, as when a "tragedy"
>>> describes someone missing a goal or some sporting "hero" pulling a
>>> hamstring;
>>> 6. we ought to be encouraging science communicators to communicate well.
>>> Communicating in cliches is not doing that.
>>> 
>>> They almost always diminish the power of a story and suggest a writer's
>>> mind assembling verbal lego rather than writing well. The media are full
>>> of them. Any accident in a small town seems immediately to turn it into
>>> a "close-knit community," and do you ever see anyone reported of dying
>>> from cancer who hasn't died "after a long battle with cancer?" Sporting
>>> teams get :"bundled out" while gangsters are "gunned down." Australia's
>>> outback environment is invariably "harsh" when it is not "fragile" and,
>>> like me, you probably never want to hear again that South Australia is
>>> the "driest state in the driest continent." etc etc. Even writers of
>>> letters to the editor seem oddly afflicted by the feeling that writing
>>> for the media almost requires cliches. Where else these days do you read
>>> "Methinks" or "It never ceases to amaze me..." but in letters to the Editor?
>>> 
>>> Rob
>>>     
>> 
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