Tim Skellett is an Australian living in northwestern Germany. His interests include nature, ecology, gardening, reading, metal- & hot-glass-work and travelling, to name a few. His blog is listed in the Guardian Comment Network and can find him 0n Twitter, where he is @Gurdur.
Do blogs matter to the press? I came across on Twitter what I thought was a strange statement from Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre of Britain, speaking at a recent discussion on science-journalism in London. The relayed partial quote was: “Fiona Fox: blogs are fantastic but no journalists goes to them to look for full stories – must be realistic”. I thought that was quite wrong, and more importantly, that it would discourage scientists and others from blogging and from reaching out to the media.
Can your blog or your networking change the world for the better? Will the media take notice of you unasked? The answer to both questions is a definite yes. A simple single blog post can lead to major governmental events such as the resignation of Bush-appointee George Deutsch.
In Britain, a blog was very much thrust into mainstream-media news when the British police officer Night Jack’s blog first won the prestigious Orwell Political Reporting prize, then had its pseudonymous blogger author outed by a Times reporter who hacked the blogger’s emails. Other UK police bloggers as yet still not outed include Inspector Gadget and PC Bloggs, both of whom also have books out, and regularly get looked up and quoted by the media. Getting onto science, environment and medicine, it’s difficult to see how people like Carin Bondar, Bora Zivkovic, Maryn McKenna, Holly Tucker, Deborah Blum, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney could have achieved the massive success each has attained without their blogging. For book authors, these days, often a blog is essential. Grant Jacobs has also noted how New Zealand science-bloggers have appeared on NZ prime-time TV.
It’s vital to realise that the media do take account of blogs, do sometimes actually look up blogs of their own accord, and that blogs are an essential part of outreach. This all takes place in the long-debated topic of whether or not the media needs to change, or whether science-bloggers and scientists should change. The problem is, the media is changing, and often not for the better. Chris Mooney (@ChrisMooney) already documented back in 2008 how science coverage is disappearing from newspapers; that can only get worse as newspapers crumble economically under the weight of the net. There is however a counterweight, the net again, and that is many newspapers now regularly include blogs in their online coverage and often in their print coverage.
In the UK, there is:
The Times with its own science blog and many other bloggers,
In the USA, there is:
It’s essential to know that, in almost all these cases, the newspaper section editors and their reporters are accessible via Twitter and email. Pointing them towards an existing blog-post can often be helpful (I’ve done so myself many times, and it’s been productive, even if I am a very tiny fish in a huge sea). Even more, some newspapers are experimenting with public input into their reporting process; for example, the Guardian now has a Newsdesk Live section where you can have a direct input into the news topic of the day. Working together with Prof. Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu, of New York), the Guardian now has an Open Journalism section. Then there are sometimes cross-political initiatives like this one in 2008 which can make great venues for blog input. The need for effective science-communication as in the wake of ClimateGate or fracking has been stressed time and time again.
These means are all there for you to use. There are even freely available academic papers on science-outreach like this one. I would also name some helpful books, but I see many of them have already been named. It is really up to you, to each one of us, to use the opportunities provided. Yes, MSM science coverage is shrinking. Yes, in tabloids and sensationalist reporting, science will often be brutally mutilated. But corrective possibilities are there, and if you can make your story good enough, the media will sometimes come to you unexpectedly.
The most important thing is to build up your media-contact network before anything happens. If reporters already have some contact with you, and they know you are reliable, they will be much more inclined to listen to you or even initiate contact with you. In the end though it’s scientists who will have to initiate the most effort from their end; MSM journalists do most of what they can already. Since timeliness is the main part of response to a news topic, then having pre-existing contact even at a very basic level can be very helpful.
The next important thing is to realise that a science item must be told in a way that is intelligible and interesting to the general public. For example the #arseniclife debate was fascinating to scientists, but it left the public mainly unmoved. However, can you imagine what impact fast-response science-blogging would have on any event like the Camelford water pollution incident of 1988? Or Love Canal, New Jersey? The recent catastrophe in Fukushima was a good opportunity for science-blogging for outreach; unfortunately, that one fell victim to premature dismissal of risk.
A journalist’s job is not to relay hard science in an academic way; it is to entertain the public, hopefully with some solid information thrown in. Yes, Bora Zivkovic (@BoraZ) is right to think that a science journalist should be able to read a research paper; the problem is that there are ever less science-journalists in dedicated full-time staff positions, just as reporter positions overall are declining, and he himself has blogged on how science-blogs should not be written like academic papers. So it’s up to each of us to do what we can to fill that gap. The means are there.