On November 20, 2020, more than 50 scientists attended our online event "Science and the medias".
We had the great pleasure of welcoming Aurélie Coulon, PhD in biology and science journalist at RTS, Fabrice Delaye, who’s holding a Master's degree in Science and Technology Studies from EPFL and is now science journalist at Heidi.News, and Eugène Schön, communication specialist, the correspondent for the French-speaking part of Switzerland at Startupticker.ch .
They expressed their points of view, their needs and the constraints they face in their daily work sharing scientific information. Afterwards, we opened an interactive question-and-answer session. This online conference was a great opportunity to clarify the expectations of each party and to exchange on how to build a environment favourable to scientific information.
The exchanges were exciting and constructive. We will continue proposing similar discussions in the future. In the meantime, we have entrusted the reporting of the interactions to Valérie Beauverd, journalist. It was a great pleasure reading her.
Excellent reading to you. We look forward to your comments.
Journalists under the microscope of scientists and vice versa
What are the expectations of researchers and the media in terms of scientific information? In an attempt to answer this question, the scientific communication agency Radar RP organized an online conference on this topic on November 20, 2020. Two journalists, a communication specialist and more than fifty scientists took part in this frank and constructive debate.
For the past nine months, scientific news has mainly focused on Covid-19. However, the dialogue on scientific information goes far beyond the health crisis we are currently experiencing. The expectations of researchers and the media sometimes prove to be complex.
But what is scientific information? Does it have the same meaning for a public of experts as it does for the general public? How do journalists decide whether information is relevant? In an effort to popularize scientific research, the public relation agency Radar RP invited three science journalists to discuss these questions with an audience of scientists from the public and private sectors.
Scientists and the media each have their own agenda
At the outset, the agendas of scientists and journalists differ. Doctor in biology and science journalist at RTS Info, Aurélie Coulon indicates that the daily news timings are relatively short. "In general, it takes one day to prepare a subject for the news," she explains. "Our requests can seem urgent, because we quickly need experts to evaluate an information or a publication."
Speaking about television, you necessarily need image. Here too, journalists rely on the availability of scientists to carry out a filmed interview. If possible, it should take place within a few hours. "We're going to keep 20 to 30 seconds of interview and that can seem frustrating," says Aurélie Coulon. In addition, there is the shooting, i.e. the cinema sequence, during which the journalist will film the person she is interviewing. This could be, for example, an interaction in a laboratory with other people. "The final product is a subject in images; it should last between one and two minutes," she specifies.
Fabrice Delaye is a scientific journalist for the online media Heidi.news in the French-speaking part of Switzerland He conducts investigations over several weeks. “If the Washington Post publishes a complete article about the launch of the Pfizer vaccine, we will not hesitate to take it up and comment on it," the journalist says. "However, we will try to establish an original focus on the same issue, such as how the RNA vaccine works. I guarantee that it is not that simple to understand."
Producing clear information
One imperative: avoid scientific jargon by any means. When addressing a large audience, the effort to popularize a subject is important. Although scientific work has its own requirements and specificities, Fabrice Delaye invites researchers to take a step back from their work. Most research is highly specialized," he says. "You have to be able to ask yourself in what context they are taking place and arrive at the very essence of what will be communicated. If an idea isn't clear, there's a problem."
As for Aurélie Coulon, she believes that the quality of communication gets trained over time. "I invite all experts to express themselves. I invite women in particular to dare to speak out."
Working in the public’s interest
When she decides to cover a scientific news, Aurélie Coulon always thinks in terms of public interest. "We receive a lot of press releases on pre-clinical studies for drugs. I am particularly careful not to give false hopes." Apart from the coronavirus crisis, the journalist remains cautious about the early phases of clinical trials and prefers to wait for results on a larger scale. “In the context of Covid-19, it's a bit different," she admits. "There are so many expectations and questions. We are following the different stages of developments in relation to drugs and vaccines.“
The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated this: the expertise of scientists is preponderant. "We are trying to clarify what is being said by scientists. As journalists, we cannot say that one technology is better than another. We have to report and explain the results. This is why we need scientists to frame the subject," insists Fabrice Delaye.
But how do they select scientific information? According to the journalist from Heidi.news, scientists already help journalists in the curation process. "Thirty thousand articles in neurosciences are published every year, who can read all that? asks Fabrice Delaye. If a researcher from Geneva makes the front page of Nature, that will surely attract our attention. But that doesn't mean that the article on page 45 of the magazine is not important. "Universities and research centres therefore play an important role in filtering information. In addition, a social network like Twitter is an extremely useful filter to follow scientific news."
Identifying the stages in the life of a business
Eugène Schön, correspondent for the Startupticker.ch platform in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, relies on the proactive approach of scientists to inform the media. To this end, he works closely with Innosuisse, the agency that promotes innovation in Switzerland. "We publish five to six news items a day in connection with the world of entrepreneurship, innovation and start-ups," says the communication specialist. With more than 10,000 subscribers to its newsletter, 40% of whom are foreign readers, Startupticker.ch focuses mainly on news from young companies based in Switzerland.
"During its life, a company will go through different stages. It is important for a scientist, for example, to identify at what stage the company is at and to communicate about it," says Eugène Schön. He cites a number of examples that can attract media attention, such as the launch of a new drug, the results of a test, winning a prize or signing a contract with a new partner.
In addition, the press release provides general information and allows you to contact the company afterwards. We are curious and we try to be very reactive while keeping a critical mind," continues Eugène Schön. "In general, I build trusted relations with the company founders. I really enjoy talking to them, because they are best able to tell and explain the history of their project."
Knowing how to create exclusivity
However, these contacts are built on the long term. "If you have a relationship of trust with a journalist, you can tell him or her that you have a great story coming out. If it is exclusivity, the journalist will want to be the first to publish it", notes Fabrice Delaye. Developing these relationships takes time. In this context, the journalist insists on the emotional dimension of an article. "We can't stay on purely mechanical aspects. Behind scientific research, there is a story, there are people," says the journalist from Heidi.news. "I find it exciting to understand how researchers arrived at these results and why they became interested in this or that field, but it has to be embodied. That's what is going to help us connect the scientists to our audience."
Great article at the crossroads between science and media. In my experience, scientists have a lot of content and journalists now have to opt for short format as the readers zap. Breaking down a lifetime effort into a 5 minutes video or article has become an art !!! The curation of scientist or the curation of a journalist on a given topic is unlikely to bring the same results. Filters are also subjective, that is the beauty of it. While news must be timely, more in-depth analysis and added-value opinions can also play a role, even if the audience gets smaller. Something worth exploring as well is the « authority level » on a given topic. Having anyone talk about a serious topic like COVID19 can create so much noise, this does not help, and because of that we can’t hear the scientific experts any more. With deepfake and fake news, scientific media and fact checkers will surely play a vital role in the future.