Talking to the media is one of the best ways researchers can communicate the importance of what they do to the general public, but some scientists are apprehensive of the media, wary their work could get oversimplified or misrepresented, or just uneasy about how to do it.
Despite these worries, scientists and the media can have an effective and mutually beneficial relationship, helping to build greater public trust and support for science. Many University of Arizona Health Sciences faculty have learned firsthand how fulfilling it can be to practice effective communication for a general audience.
“Working with the media is really rewarding,” said Judith Gordon, PhD, associate dean of research for the College of Nursing. “Once you start, you discover how pleasant an experience it is. It ends up being really fun.”
Many researchers with media experience say they feel obligated not to keep their science sequestered in laboratories and medical journals, and see communication with the public as vital to their overall goal to improve human health and potential.
“We’re not functioning in a vacuum. We have responsibilities to society, not only in terms of the work we do, but in terms of communicating our science to the public, to the media, to elected officials and to our own communities that pay for our work,” said Janko Nikolich-Žugich, MD, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Immunobiology in the College of Medicine – Tucson. “Being able to translate what you do so your neighbors understand its importance is an exceptionally important part of the mission of being a biomedical scientist and a doctor.”
Many Health Sciences researchers point out that when people don’t understand or trust science, they are less likely to support funding for research or follow the guidance of scientists.
One way to build trust is to talk about the scientific process so people can develop more realistic ideas of what science can and cannot do.
“It’s very important to let people know about the process from discovery to getting a technology into their hands, to manage expectations, to know that sometimes it takes time to get there,” said Frederic Zenhausern, PhD, MBA, professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. “Otherwise, people think you will cure cancer tomorrow.”
Collaborating with communicators
All colleges, and many centers and departments, have dedicated communicators who are ready to support faculty to achieve successful interactions with the media.
“I would encourage faculty to reach out to the resources in their college to help them figure out how to spread the word about the great work they’re doing,” Dr. Gordon said. “The media is the conduit through which we reach the general public.”
Communicators also can help faculty field interview requests from the media. In May, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health Professor Kacey Ernst, PhD, MPH, and Associate Professor Paloma Beamer, PhD, wrote a piece for The Conversation that offered guidance to people concerned about air travel during the pandemic. It became the first article for The Conversation penned by UArizona faculty to surpass 1 million page views, and the authors relied on their college communicator, Shipherd Reed, MA, in the resulting flurry of media attention.
“Paloma did a ton of interviews. Shipherd really helped her navigate them,” Dr. Ernst said.
Many reporters aim to keep their writing at an eighth-grade reading level, which makes it crucial for scientists to convey important points in easy-to-understand language. A communicator coaching a scientist on how to do an effective interview will help figure out how to make key points accessible.
“Part of our job responsibility is teaching. Talk to reporters just like we teach our students,” said Jun Wang, PhD, associate professor at the College of Pharmacy. “Start from the basics. Don’t use scientific jargon or complicated scientific terms.”
Many scientists worry about oversimplifying their work, but distilling key concepts into simple and straightforward bullet points can help clarify the message. Repeating important messages can also help reporters understand what to emphasize.
“Keep your points to a minimum, maybe three to four points, max, that you reiterate,” Dr. Ernst said.
Making simple and clear points is also a way to counter misinformation, such as fears surrounding vaccination or conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
“Part of my responsibility is to convince as many people as possible that science is real,” said Dr. Wang.
“It’s our duty as scientists to convey information to the public that they can use to make better decisions, because the people who spread misinformation are more than happy to get in front of a camera to grab that mic,” Dr. Ernst added. “If you don’t get out in front of it really quickly, pseudoscience can get really entrenched.”
Researchers interested in learning how to communicate their science to a general audience can find support on and off campus.
- Contact the Health Sciences Office of Communications for media relations support at 520-626-7301 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If needed, the Office of Communications also can connect you with the specific communicator for your college, department or center.
- Biosciences Toastmasters: This campus club allows professionals, students and community members to work on their public speaking skills. While they usually meet on the Health Sciences Campus in Tucson, they currently meet weekly on Zoom.
- Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science
- Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
- Public Voices Fellowship
- “Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public,” written by former New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean. This book provided inspiration for the above infographic, “When You’re Being Interviewed,” that can be printed out for reference.