At Science, a Focus on Media Training for Scientists
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
In a letter published at Science, Cornell University professors and media relations staff offer their recommendations on media training training for scientists.
The recommendations are based on a media relations course for graduate students taught as part of the Biogeochemistry and Environmental Biocomplexity program.
Below are some specifics:
Currently, most communication training for scientists begins after a prominent scientific discovery, and the training often occurs in a trial-by-fire style. However, a cultural shift is under way, reflecting the higher stakes of research, and an increased recognition by scientists, stakeholders, and policymakers that (i) scientists need to get their message out, (ii) scientists need training to learn how to do so, and (iii) training should begin at the graduate level.
Over the past year, we developed and recently completed a science communication course for graduate students in the Biogeochemistry and Environmental Biocomplexity program at Cornell University (funded by a NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant). The goal of this course was to improve our ability to discuss our research with both the general public and the professionals writing and reporting on science in the media. This was achieved through a combination of guest lectures, field trips, and development of individual projects.
From this experience, we strongly encourage other graduate programs to implement science communication training. We have three key pieces of advice based on our effort that we hope will help others in their course development:
First, involve people from multiple fields across your college or university. In particular, we highly recommend involving staff from the press relations office. These specialists have a unique perspective on what topics are newsworthy and on the challenges scientists face in communicating effectively. Include scientists who have personal experience communicating their research to the public and journalists from your campus or local newspaper.
Second, visit a news room (radio, print, or television) and talk to reporters--not just science reporters, but reporters in all fields. Ask to sit in on a meeting where reporters and editors pitch stories to each other. This process reveals what stories interest reporters and how those stories are developed. Understanding this process will help scientists identify and explain the newsworthy attributes of their own research.
Third, get hands-on experience communicating science as part of the class. Do not just set up a series of lectures and field trips: write press releases, write articles, conduct interviews, get interviewed, create a Web page, and set up a science blog. Ask your collaborating journalists and PR specialists to facilitate and critique student projects. Hands-on experience with feedback from media professionals and other students provided some of the most useful learning experiences in our course.
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