Dr Becca can now be found at http://scientopia.org/blogs/drbecca .
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Perhaps I peaked too early. My first paper in grad school was accepted with minor revisions to a NPG journal that let me know soon after I'd sent back the proofs that they'd be putting out a press release. I didn't really know what that meant as far as I was concerned, but felt happy that the higher-ups thought my research would be interesting to the public.
"Becca," my PI warned me, "I don't like that this is your first experience, because it is not usually this easy. Enjoy this, but know that in the future, getting your work out there is going to be much more of a struggle." She is clearly a very smart lady. I, of course, was all "uh-huh?" and waited for the phone to ring. Which it did. A lot.
First there was WebMD, and then a couple of newspapers from my grad school city, a newspaper from a nearby city, a few lesser-known websites, and Ladies' Home Journal (my work happened to be in female rats). I started to feel like Tom Hanks in Splash when he gets to work and his secretary's like, "you had calls today from NBC, CBS, ABC, Newsweek, Sea World, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Mrs. Paul." Except I didn't have a secretary, obviously.
The highlight of the whole experience came when I got calls from two local news stations that wanted me to come in for a live on-air interview. As in, ON TV.
I was nervous as fuck, but the day before my small screen debut, the station emailed and asked me to send them questions for the anchorperson to ask me. PERFECT, I thought, and emailed back what I thought would be easy questions to help them walk me through my research:
1. Why did you do these experiments?
2. What were the results of your experiments?
3. What are the implications of your findings?
Piece of cake, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHLOLOLOLZZZZ.
When I got to the studio bright and early, the news people were like, "Oh hai. The anchor lady is up in Capital City, so what we're going to do here is put this Secret Service-style thingie in your ear, and you can see her on the monitor and hear what she's saying through the earpiece. There may be a tiny delay, mkay?"
Mkay. No problem, I'm thinking, since I gave them those questions. I am totally prepared for this!
But when we finally went LIVE ON AIR, the anchor person looks at me (or rather, my face on a monitor), and in my ear she basically says, "So! Your research [which remember, was in rats] shows that estrogen is like, really bad for women!" And over the course of the next 1.5 seconds, my brain went, Gah! NO! Remember how I gave you those questions to ask me? But I obviously couldn't say any of that out loud, and so my next thought was OK, let's just pretend she asked you the questions you gave her. So I said something like, "well, let's back up a bit and I'll tell you why we did these experiments."
And so on. The anchor lady kept trying to get me to say these really crazy things about women and how screwed they were because of my research, but each time I only told her the truth about my research in rats. When I got back to lab, my advisor was sooooo proud of me. "All the media want to do," she said, "is turn your research into some exciting little snippet for their viewers, when in reality it's of course so much more complicated than that. Nice job not letting them run away with it."
I was reminded of this story by Scicurious's recent post about a horrid piece in Scientific American that spews a whole lot of scare-mongering hyperbole about how the birth control pill is OMG changing the structure of your brain. Go read Sci's analysis, because she lays the smack down. And if you have the opportunity to talk to the mainstream media about your own research, keep them on track as best you can! I'd imagine this group whose work appears in SciAm is getting tons of angry and/or scared emails right now, and all for a paper whose implications for the general public are actually pretty nominal. I'm not saying that any of this is their fault--for all we know the SciAm writers got a 2-minute phone interview and did the rest on their own interpretation. But still, maybe if they'd requested to see the piece before it came out they could have helped tone it down a bit, and get it focused on what the public should actually take away from their work. As scientists, I think we have a certain degree of responsibility for helping the mainstream media--and even science journalists--portray our research as accurately and hype-free as possible.
Oh, and somewhere buried deep in the bowels of my apartment, there's a VHS tape with the very excellent and very hilarious interview on it. Good god but I'm lucky all this went down a year or two before the advent of YouTube.
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Sounds like a useful experience for when you're a PI.
My own publicity story is far less exciting than yours. My first 1st author paper was in PNAS, and my PI decided to get our PR department to get some publicity, even though it was mainly a mechanistic basic science story (that's pretty far from direct human relevance), so she talked to them, and they wrote a press release which ended up on over 30 blogs/science websites. But no TV or radio appearances for her or me.
I found the book "Am I Making Myself Clear" a really great resource for learning how to deal with the media. It is written by a science journalist and gives tips on how to make the whole thing go smoothly. Surprisingly, to me anyway, she suggests not demanding to "fix" the article once it's written but this is assuming you are talking to a real live science journalist, I think, rather than your local TV station or newspaper. Anyway, totally worth the read!
I've been on TV and radio a few times to help 'make sense' of research. It's fun but it feels like I spend a lot of time trying to get the interviewer back to the research not the exaggerated possible implications. My favourite interview was: lesbian worms. Yep, some research showed the manipulating a gene in C Elegans meant that the worms no longer preferred males for mating but would equally mate with other hermaphrodites = lesbian worms. The radio interviewer actually mentioned that the manipulated worms preferred the music of the Indigo Girls! I just kept saying: worms aren't humans...
That's a pretty cool experience. I hate the way the media over interprets science. They can pick up a paper with the worst methodology or a tiny sample size and turn it into the next apocalypse. Unfortunately the general public is a combination of too trusting and too science illiterate to question what the super-smart anchors are saying that the super-smart scientists said.
I have only ever been on TV as an "extra": I was sitting at a scope in the background while postdoc mentor was being interviewed. We had a lot of contact with the media during that time and, IME, no journalist will let you see their article before it is published, much less change it based on your opinion of it. That is why I think that it is important that if you talk to a reporter you sit with them long enough to make sure they understand the main point (and limitations) of what you have done.
Good point, Gerty.
I guess that is why my post doc place refused us mere mortals to have any contact with the media without a PR person present.... I can only imagine what kind of stuff that would've hit the media stream without some "interpreters" inbetween.
I think some researchers do think "any publicity is better than accurate information" and that in any event, people talk about your research... and I think that many journalists have that angle too - maybe mostly due to need of sticking out so that their story gets published?! (evil circle)
I liked how you kept coming back to the main thing "We did this" and not stating "well, not really but you could draw that..." for a very juciy sound bite ;)
That's a brilliant story, and a great experience for you! Impressive that your first paper was so big. Was your PI right, was your next paper a huge shock or did your success continue?
It's so frustrating that journalists really only care about the possible implications of what you do. I was told recently to stay away from science journalism as a career path, since newspapers are laying off so many people that they will just get non-science specialists to write the science stuff. So, perhaps it's set to get even worse?
I don't think it's just science that they overhype though. Everything seems to be blown vastly out of proportion these days.
There's two kinds of errors in journalism- excessive hype and factual incorrectness. The former is, as JanedeLartigue mentions, endemic to all topics journalists cover. Face it, you have to be a better storyteller than professional storytellers to get them to spin it your way.
Sometimes, they also invent things out of whole cloth. Some idiot PR person for our university misquoted one of our entymology grad students. And apparently, cockroaches do NOT eat bedbugs. I was HIGHLY disappointed to discover that is not true. I had told my Toastmaster group and everything.
What kind of PR person has a thing for advocating for cockroaches?
(besides "one interested in self-preservation" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZg3-Y1QIc4&NR=1)
Also, I, for one, am seriously, seriously dismayed over this claim of lack of Youtubery. Vid or it didn't happen!
That's the best thing I've read today (though its only 10:30am here)! I was on local news once, 5 or 6 years ago, but (thankfully) not because of science.
Surely there's got to be some gadget somewhere that converts VHS into a format that could be posted on Youtube, it's such a shame to deprive us!
@Jason, that was from the time you saved those puppies from a burning building, right?
@Jane - I'd imagine there must be, though it might take VHS --> DVD --> vid file --> YouTube.
The correct approach is not to put out press releases unless you actually should.
Just yesterday, I was interviewed (for print). When I saw my words this morning, I didn't feel too stupid. Win?
:As scientists, I think we have a certain degree of responsibility for helping the mainstream media--and even science journalists--portray our research as accurately and hype-free as possible."
Ne'er a truer worde was fucken spokene