Get your research reported well in the news
Authors: Helen Jaques
Publication date: 19 Jan 2011
Researchers are often wary about dealing with lay journalists for fear that their findings might be misrepresented. Helen Jaques gives some tips for securing accurate coverage
Having made it through peer review and finally got their study published in a journal, many researchers then have to face an even more daunting process: dealing with the lay media. Given the media’s role in distorting topics such as the combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination, researchers are not unjustified in being nervous about talking to journalists. Contrary to prevailing opinion, however, journalists are not looking to misrepresent research in the interest of selling a story—they have reputations to protect. Journalists want to get things right, but they need help from the experts: the researchers.
But why should researchers bother talking to the media in the first place anyway? The main reason is to reach out to the public and provide it with accurate information on a topic, which is particularly important for controversial fields like stem cell research. A poll conducted by MORI in 2002 found that 90% of the general public gets most of its information about science from the media. It’s also in the public interest to communicate study findings: lots of research is publicly funded so the general public deserves to hear about it. Researchers could potentially benefit too, because wide positive coverage of a study could help attract funding in the future.
What makes news?
The media are in the business of catering for an audience, and by doing so the ultimate goal is to sell newspapers. The question that journalists ask when they write a story is not whether the story is of interest to scientists but whether it will appeal to their readers.
To secure media coverage of your work, first consider why journalists might be interested in reporting on your research paper and identify aspects that might attract their attention. For example, studies that feature a dramatic and unequivocal cure for a common disease appeal much more to readers than laboratory studies. The mnemonic “TRUTH” can help you understand whether your research is newsworthy: “T” is for topical or timely; “R” is for whether it is relevant to an audience; “U” is if it’s unusual or, even better, unique; “T,” again, if it’s trouble (which always makes a news story); and “H” is for human interest.
Bear in mind how different news outlets cater for their different audiences; “media” is a plural noun after all. A tabloid newspaper will probably take a different and more sensationalist “angle” than a broadsheet. Don’t rule out tabloids though, they have large circulations—nearly three million people read the Sun every day compared with roughly 300 000 who read the Guardian —so by targeting tabloids you’ll reach a far larger audience than by speaking only to the broadsheets.
Press releasing your paper
The next step is to make journalists aware of your work by asking the journal press office or the press office at your institution to help you prepare a press release. The BMJ issues several press releases every week, which are sent to more than 1000 UK and foreign journalists. Contact the appropriate press office early—preferably as soon as you know your paper has been accepted—so they have plenty of time to prepare a press release.
Press releases should include the overall message of the research in the first paragraph, whereas the rest should describe the study, what the findings mean, and the study’s limitations. Ensure that the release is accurate and covers the most important aspects of your research, because journalists may not read your paper in full. It is particularly important to report absolute risks as well as relative risks.
The BMJ issues press releases a day or two before a paper appears on bmj.com, but on the understanding that media outlets cannot run a story on the research until the paper has been published. By issuing press releases before publication but with an embargo date, the BMJ gives journalists time to talk to the researchers and get the story straight before the deadline, which hopefully helps avoid scaremongering.
Speaking to journalists
After the press release is issued, make sure that you’re ready for telephone calls from journalists. Prepare two or three key points about your research that you want to get across, and have them to hand in concise, simple sentences when you’re doing interviews. You should also anticipate the worst possible spin a journalist could put on your findings; there’s a chance that someone will take that angle. Make sure you can rebut daft questions and explain why a sensationalist take on your research would not be appropriate.
You should also consider how to describe the technical aspects of your study in lay language. Imagine having to explain what you do to an elderly relative over Christmas dinner, perhaps. Try to simplify jargon and translate it into everyday speech—for example, “myocardial infarction” can easily be “heart attack.” Also try to simplify numbers—“about three quarters” is easier to understand than “0.75342.”
Journalists are under a lot of time pressure, so if you do get a call about your research, speak to the reporter as soon as you can. Rather than answering his or her questions in that first call, however, take the journalist’s contact details and offer to phone them back in five or 10 minutes. This approach gives you time to decide on which points of your research you most want to convey and to find out a bit about the journalist and their publication.
What if it goes wrong?
Because of time constraints and the issue of editorial independence, journalists, and print reporters in particular, rarely check quotes back with scientists, so don’t expect to see the finished article before it is published. If you have a bad experience—if you think you’ve been misquoted, for example—don’t be put off from speaking to the media again. If you don’t talk to a journalist, it doesn’t mean that their outlet won’t run your story. By engaging, you at least have the chance to steer the journalist in the direction that you’re hoping for.
Finally, don’t be afraid of the media. Remember that journalists don’t know everything, and they’re speaking to you because you’re the expert.
Tips from the experts
“The single biggest mistake you can make is to treat the media as a whole. Different outlets and individuals have a totally different approach to reporting.”—Mark Henderson, science editor, the Times
“What a journalist thinks is important about a piece of research is not necessarily what the scientist thinks is important about their work. The question that journalists are asking when they write a story is not whether the story is of interest to other scientists but whether it is interesting to their readers.”—Geoff Watts, former presenter of Radio 4’s Leading Edge programme and BMJ contributor
“I look for stories that would appeal to a wide range of people. These may be particularly topical or deal with something that affects their day to day lives.”—Fiona MacRae, science reporter, Daily Mail 
“Scientists often worry about whether everything they say is absolutely accurate, but to get the message across to the general public through the media you have to simplify your science. It is important to concentrate on the overall message instead of worrying about the finer details.”—Jenny Gimpel, media manager, UCL
“When it comes to radio, you’re not talking to doctors, you’re talking to people in their cars taking the kids to school or eating their breakfasts. People are not necessarily glued to what you’re saying, so keep your message clear and simple.”—Emma Dickinson, BMJ press officer
Competing interests: None declared.
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- Science Media Centre. Top tips for media work: a guide for scientists . [Link] .
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- ABCs: National daily newspaper circulation September 2010. The Guardian . 15 October 2010. [Link] .
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Helen Jaques technical editor