When does a science story “end”? Never, probably. Science keeps voyaging on eternally in search of truth, and few if any stories in science truly “end”. But as science communicators of any stripe, we routinely have to make decisions about when a certain story has run its course; when the PR ship has sailed and the news cycle has ended. As scientists, we’re lucky if we have to consider this and should be grateful if and when our science even attracts media/science communication attention. But the point of today’s post; perhaps an obvious one but to my mind worthy of reflection on; is that scientists are not slaves to the PR machine– as a flip side to the previous self/science-promotion post, at some point we may have to say “This story about our research is done (for now).”
I routinely reflect on this when the media covers my research; I always have. My recent experience with New Yorker and BBC coverage of our penguin gait research (with James Proffitt and Emily Sparkes as well as Dr. Julia Clarke) got me thinking about this issue a lot, and talking about it quite a bit with James. This morning, over coffee, this blog post was born from my thoughts on that experience.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10 for some mushy penguin specimens; PR officers might also get queasy.
I was waiting for a call from BBC radio one night almost three weeks ago, to do a recorded interview about our penguin research-in-progress, when I woke up surrounded by paramedics and was whisked off to the hospital. I never did that interview or any further ones. I won’t go into what went wrong but it relates to this old story. I’m OK now anyway. But for me, the penguin story had mostly ended before it began. However, I’d already agreed with James that we’d try to avoid doing further media stories beyond the New Yorker one and the BBC one, which was due out the next day and for which James (fortuitously instead of me!) was doing a live appearance on BBC Breakfast (TV). I got a few emails and calls about this story while recuperating in my hospital bed, including the one below, and turned down interview invitations for obvious reasons, with no arguments from anyone– at first.
Then, after I recovered and got back to work, we kept getting a trickle of other interview/story invitations, and we declined them. Our PR office had suggested that we do a press release but we had already decided in advance not to, because we saw the story as just work-in-progress and I don’t like to do press releases about that kind of thing– except under extraordinary circumstances.
Finally, over a week after the BBC story aired, a major news agency wanted to film an interview with me about the story, which would get us (more) global coverage. They prefaced the invitation with the admission that they were latecomers to the story. Again I firmly said no; they could use existing footage but I could not do new interviews (these would inevitably take a half day or so of my time and energy). They wrote back saying they were going to go forward with the story anyway, and the journalist scolded me for not participating, saying that the story would have been so much better with a new film sequence of me in it. Maybe, but (1) I felt the story had run its course, (2) I’d had my hospitalization and a tragic death in the family, and (3) I was just returning, very jetlagged, from a short trip to the USA for other work. Enough already! I had other things to do. I didn’t follow up on what happened with that story. Maybe it didn’t even get published. I wasn’t left feeling very sympathetic.
Above: The BBC story
I kept thinking about being pressured and scolded by journalists, once in a while, for not joining in their news stories when they contradicted my own threshold for how much media coverage is enough. This reaching of a personal threshold had first happened to me 13 years ago when I published my first big paper, in Nature, on “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner.” After ~3 weeks of insane amounts of media coverage, I was exhausted and pulled the plug, refusing more interviews. It felt good to exert control over the process, and I learned a lot from learning to wield that control. I still use it routinely.
But… I am of course passionate about science communication, I feel it is a great thing for science to be in the public eye, and I actually love doing science communication stories about research-in-progress– too much science is shown as an endpoint, not a process. Indeed, that’s why I do this blog and other social media, most of which is science-in-progress and my thoughts about it. So I was and still am thrilled that we got such positive, broad, good quality media attention for our penguin work, but it was plenty.
Probably to many seasoned science communicators and scientists, my post’s message is blindingly obvious. Of course, scientists have rights — and responsbilities– in deciding how and when their research is covered. This is a negotiation process between their research team, their university, PR officers, journalists/media, funders and others involved– including the public. But less experienced scientists, and perhaps the public, might not realize how much control scientists do have over the amount of media attention they get. It’s easy to get caught up in a media frenzy surrounding one’s science (if you’re lucky enough to generate it at all) and feel the wind in one’s sails, thereby forgetting that you’re at the helm– you can decide when the journey is over (just be sure you communicate it diplomatically with others involved!).
As scientists, we have to balance enormous pressures and priorities: not just science communication and PR, but also our current main research, teaching, admin, personal lives, health, and so on. So we have to make hard decisions about how to balance these things. We should all reflect on what our dynamically shifting thresholds are for how much attention is enough, what priority level a given story has in our lives, and when the timing is right for any media attention. And as collaborative teams; more and more the norm in science; we should be discussing this issue and agreeing on it before it’s too late for us to exert much control.
Much like an over-played hit song, it’s not pretty when a science story gets over-milked and becomes too familiar and tedious, perhaps drawing attention away from other science that deserves attention. And we all will have our opinions on where that threshold of “too much attention” is. If we, as scientists, don’t think about those thresholds, we may end up rudderless or even wrecked on lonely islands of hype. I’ve seen scientists ostracized by their peers for over-hyping their work. It’s not fun. “Hey everybody, John is having a celery stick with peanut butter on it!” Celebrity culture doesn’t mean that everything scientists do deserves attention, and any amount of attention is deserved and good.
A great thing about science is that, in principle, it is eternal– a good science story can live forever while other science is built upon it. Each chapter in that story needs an ending, but there’s always the next chapter waiting for us, and that’s what keeps science vital and riveting. As scientists, we’re all authors of that story, with a lot of power over its narrative. We can decide when to save parts of that narrative for later, when the time is right. With our penguin story, we’ve only just begun and I’m incredibly excited about where it goes next.
How about other scientists, journalists and other afficionados of science? What examples of scientists taking charge of how their research gets covered do you find particularly instructive?