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Scientists and the Changing Media Landscape, Part 2

By Meg Miner and COMPASS

Jul 16, 2013


Minute Read


In order to bridge dissimilar cultures and have effective dialogue, you have to know who you’re talking to. At COMPASS, we often talk about the similarities between scientists and journalists – for example, they share a love for discovery, healthy skepticism, analytical minds, and competitive natures – in order for them to meet on common ground before explaining where their cultures diverge.

Over the last two decades, the culture of traditional journalism has changed dramatically. While many of the needs traditional media historically served are now being taken up by a growing and massive online community, there is still a role (albeit a changing one) for traditional media in setting the public agenda. How can scientists best connect with traditional media amidst these changes?

Not surprisingly, the changes in journalism are not an isolated phenomenon. As Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, said in a closing plenary at the World Conference of Science Journalists just two weeks ago, the culture of science is also experiencing changes.

These cultures both:

• Feel increasing pressure to produce outcomes that serve the public good.
• Experience constraints of stagnating budgets.
• Face increasing internal competition.
• Experience increasing pressure to publish, publish, publish.

But here is where they diverge. The changes in journalism have been driven by the needs of the public it serves, and how the public consumes and uses information has shifted dramatically. For journalism, mass media and social media are increasingly linked, but the transition has proven complicated. Online audiences want their news short and fast, which means that over time different types of content have suffered more than others. For quick breaking news, the online science community has been playing a significant role, offering up increasingly granular and ‘hyper-local’ pieces of information, adding value and nuance. These days, you’re more likely to find pieces wholly reported from behind a desk than from out in the field. And the labor-intensive and often lengthy (read: costly) formats of narrative and investigative science journalism no longer have a comfortable place in a traditional newsroom.

The few publications that still host long-form science journalism are turning to specialized freelancers and even foundations – like ProPublica or the Pulitzer Foundation – who fund, and in some cases help place, stories that the publications can no longer afford themselves. A different approach asks the public to directly fund each in-depth article they enjoy. This business model is employed by science journalism projects seeking to revitalize the long-form medium like Matter and Nautilus. Each publication took a different approach to start-up costs, both of which have been widely discussed – Nautilus with an unorthodox backing partner and Matter with Kickstarter – and at least so far, it seems they’ve met some success.

Another unique solution is ClimateDesk, a collaborative content and editorial share between media outlets that has made it easier to produce and distribute content that would have otherwise not been tenable for a single outlet alone. Universities have also stepped up to preserve the long-form, adding pockets of funding for independent magazines like the University of Minnesota’s Ensia and Yale’s Yale360.

So, how does understanding these shifts help you as a scientist to connect your science to the wider public? Scientists and journalists can work together to make the parallel changes in their cultures work for them. And they have been.

Here are some tips for effective engagement during this time of cultural evolution:

1. Ask lots of questions. It’s getting harder to know your audience. Many working journalists are freelancers, and one journalist may work for many outlets. In order to better understand what a journalist needs from you, it’s now more important than ever to gather information from the journalist before they interview you (see notepad at right). Knowing all of this information will help you know how to better help the journalist get what they need.

2. Prepare visuals or graphics in advance. Consider including time in your outreach efforts to put together an animated graphic or video. If a story is appearing online, chances are the journalist or publication will want more supplementary materials than they would want for a print article: videos, graphics, and additional photos to support the text. I’ve heard from some editors that they won’t even run stories if there aren’t compelling visuals.

3. Build a strategic outreach network. With the many voices online, public trust in individual journalists is now becoming as important as trust in publications themselves. Social media is also flattening the landscape and making it easier for scientists to connect directly to journalists. Take note of the individuals who are writing the stories that you trust and include them in your network of people that you reach out to when you have a new paper coming out.

4. Participate in the promotion of articles you’re proud of. Add value to the conversation by being a part of it! And, by sharing you’re supporting good journalism.


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