Media coverage, skew, and general not-in-the-Christmas-spirit ranting

Bah, humbug.

A little earlier I nonchalantly and lazily microblogged using the oh-so-professional channel of my Facebook status about something that slightly irritated me whilst watching the news. Here was what I wrote:

One attempted act of terrorism: Almost 24/7 news coverage. Thousands of scientific breakthroughs every day: Not even a few minutes of airtime. No wonder the general public feel isolated from science, in fear of technological advancement and generally depressed at the state of the world…

Anyway, seeing as the comment sparked quite an interesting conversation, I thought I’d relay these thoughts on this, my slightly more traditional soap-box haunt.

Obviously my comment pertained to the recent attempt to bring down a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit. How much about this could there possibly be to report? Hours worth of television time, apparently.

It just depresses me that the news programs, day after day, cover crime, terrorism, war and political unrest as their main stories, then attempt to lighten this doom-riddled cake of hopelessness with a cherry in the form of a ridiculous human factor story about some family’s cat being rescued from a tree (or something equally banal). Earlier today I watched a story about freak weather in the UK – the seemingly important aspect of this being a woman who gave birth in an ambulance because it was stuck in the snow on a sliproad on the A14. Oh, and then there’s 10 minutes of football news!! If I were sat at a desk I would somewhat non-figuratively be slamming my head against it at this point. Luckily for me I’m on a sofa.

I’m not just going to have a long rant here about what I think the news SHOULD be covering, I think that much is pretty obvious from my list of interests ~superconducting flux qubits, yey!~ <-excuse the voices in my head.
Moreover, I'm wondering: What can we actually DO about it?

During my time in a University setting, I think I've only once been invited to a seminar by a person from the Press (in this case it was Radio 4). I think that the press just do not engage enough with scientists. There is so much cool research just waiting to be explored and popularised. There is also a large body of enthusiastic, young PhD students who would be willing to talk about what they are doing, which would not only help popularise their respective subjects, but also break that 'mad professor / scientist' stereotype which seems to still be hanging around a couple hundred years after it was actually representative.

However, until the 'media approaching scientists' kind of thing reaches a critical mass, it will be up to the scientists to shout louder and more ingeniously to make people take note. It will be up to them to chase down the media opportunities.

And I believe that there is a somewhat insidious problem here – primarily that it's not considered a worthwhile activity amongst science/engineering peers to communicate and popularise your research. Carl Sagan et al. are very much the exception rather than the rule. Popularisation is certainly not taught alongside science, or encouraged, even though there are lots of external grants available for this kind of thing. We rely on the rebellious defector amongst academics to propagate the enthusiasm. Instead, we should be supporting those who wish to act as spokespeople for their research.

A lot of media types are also looking for the ‘scare story’ angle. They will try every trick on the book to hype the negative angle of your research, especially of you are working in disruptive or controversial technology areas. I think that academics should be trained to answer media questions a bit like politicians: Get across the positive impact at all costs (short of actually, you know, lying..). And for goodness sake don’t mention Skynet. Or nano greygoo*ahem* tech. It’s ‘submicron’ or ‘molecular’ engineering, guys!

Ultimately, the goverment hands out the money to the funding councils, and therefore if we as scientists aren’t in the forefront of their minds (I mean look, we’re competing with the NHS, the education system, the war in Afghanistan, etc….), if they don’t see our science and go “Wow, you know – that’s not only the future of our country, but it’s actually pretty interesting too”, then funding for our research will indeed be cut.

So go out there and tell people that your research, be it Physics or whatever, is awesome. In any way you can. Ignore anyone who tells you that it isn’t worthwhile. And if you do it right – if you do it *really* right – then those people might just mention it to their friends the next time they have tea and cake 😉


Note: On this topic with a slightly more transhumanist slant, inspired by the conversation, Stuart has also written a blogpost.

Merry Christmas by the way people.


10 thoughts on “Media coverage, skew, and general not-in-the-Christmas-spirit ranting

  1. Neil Dickson says:

    I once had a conversation with someone about the negativity of news, and people seem to be under the impression that all positive news is boring, since they’ve never seen or heard of a science news show. Daily Planet, a science news show on Discovery Channel Canada is really interesting when they’re not repeating old stories, which they do far too often.

    The fact that they repeat stories so often suggests that they just can’t find enough scientists around the world to discuss their work to fill a 1-hour show 5 days a week. I find that rather surprising, since I love presenting crazy ideas and experiments (although I’m way behind schedule on making my video tutorials), but I suppose that most researchers are much more reclusive.

    Hmm… maybe having something like a journal where the “papers” are presented in video form would get more scientists on board with actually presenting their work instead of just slapping together some text and equations related to their work.

  2. Ian Durham says:

    Well, I guess it’s good to know that the American media doesn’t have a monopoly on idiocy.

  3. Geordie says:

    The symphony of science series reaches a lot of people who like science but aren’t scientists. There’s a good idea in there somewhere.

  4. rrtucci says:

    Suzanne, time for you to host a new BBC TV show called “The Secret Life of Machines II”

    • physicsandcake says:

      I might just do that.

      Well actually I’ll get my ‘Quantum Computers are Awesome’ lecture I’m doing in February filmed semi-professionally and then take it to the BBC and tell them they should be showing stuff like this, and if I had a budget I could make it even cooler.

      Then they’ll escort me from the premises 🙂

      No, seriously, it would be cool to do something like a new series of The Secret Life of Machines. There’s loads of new stuff that could be covered, and that thing that James May presents (Big Ideas?) just doesn’t quite cut it…

  5. Shane Legg says:

    In a small tribe it was important to know about any changes in the pecking order, who was fighting with who, who was sleeping with who, and any encountered dangers from people in the tribe, other tribes, or any other local dangers.

    That worked pretty well, and it made sense. We still have the same basic psychology, but now we get information from the far reaches of the global in seconds. So we end up knowing all about which sports star (who we will never meet) is sleeping with which movie star (who we will never meet). And about attempted acts of violence by people we will never meet in far away lands that we might never visit. We love TV shows about artificial tribes of people (who we will never meet) facing difficult situations because that’s what our psychology evolved for.

    While small tribe psychology doesn’t make much sense a in global technological society, to get people to think and behave otherwise is an uphill battle against human nature.

  6. rrtucci says:

    Well, if you are serious about going to the BBC, I have two ideas for preparing yourself
    (1)Maybe you can befriend some of the guys that did the original Secret Life of Machines. Bet they don’t live that far away from you. England’s a tiny island.
    (2)You could try phoning famous people, identifying yourself, and interviewing them on the spot. (I believe Radio Shack sells some cheap equipment for recording phone conversations.) Then writing it up in this blog. As an example of this type of guerrilla tactic, here is an interview of Sir Anthony Leggett

  7. gelada says:

    I agree, wholeheartedly. I am normally banging on about this for mathematics, but it covers the whole of science. Scientists are not trained to communicate to each other very well. Let alone non-specialists. We can change that!

  8. dark_daedalus says:

    @rrtucci :

    1) Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod

    Note : The UK may be small, but it is dense.
    2008 Population statistics :
    UK 61 Million in 93,259 square miles
    US 300 Million in 3790000 square miles

    2) Recording a telephone conversation without the other’s
    party knowledge and consent for supply to a third party
    is illegal in the UK.

  9. 8-0-8 says:

    I don’t enjoy playing the cynic but I feel inclined to ^^; You probably know this already too, but those of us with common sense are compelled to ask “why?” as if in search for a better, more humane answer.

    The media uses fear because it gets ratings, which equal cash because of advertisement… it’s worth noting that I read an article stating that freely broadcast television may soon go extinct because of the availability of internet television and cable tv.

    The 10 minutes of football news is just salt in the wounds >.>

    Personally I don’t think science should be slanted to showcase only the positive… mostly because mixing politics with *anything* only seems to make it worse, and in a world full of bad logic the clarity of science is somewhat relaxing. Besides, if the media wants to make a pariah of someone they’ll find a way regardless.

    …on another note I always thought it would be great to base a scifi series on the rules of M-theory. I’m not sure where you stand on all of that though ^^; haha

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