Carsten Rahbek: Communicating Science Through the Media

The last six months have seen several influential scientific papers been taken out of context and sprayed across myriad forms of media. From the Insect Apocalypse to claims of 60% of earth’s wildlife dying in the last 45 years, it seems like journalists have little regard for scientific nuance. But is it right to blame the media for these distortions, or do scientists themselves need a better understanding of how the media works?

Professor Carsten Rahbek has appeared in over 1000 scientific articles, including outlets like The Washington Post and the Times, and has appeared often on local and international radio and television programs. I sat down with Carsten during his recent visit to the CBD to ask him about science’s history with the media, and whether the scientific community needs to work to understand the media a little better.

Sam Perrin (SP): Do you think science has traditionally had a good relationship with the media?

Professor Carsten Rahbek, Natural History Museum of Denmark (CR): Yes. I think that if we’re doing science and it’s not communicated then it’s not worth anything. I think as a community, every scientific discipline has an obligation to communicate it to the broader public. Not every single individual scientist – but somebody has to do it.

Do I think the media in general miscommunicate what I tell them? Absolutely not. I think most communication mistakes actually come from the scientists. There was a very interesting study in the UK where researchers looked at the discrepancy between what was written in the media and what was in the scientific paper. They looked at whether it was the journalist that took the research out of context, or whether it was the press release and communication by the scientists involved. The conclusion was that most of the big mistakes came from the scientist not being accurate about their own research, and trying to oversimplify it. And that’s not picked up by the media.

An example is one of the most cited papers about the impact of climate change on species extinction, published in Nature. Media reports concerning the paper said that one million species would go extinct, which is nowhere in the main paper. The media was accused of making it up, but they didn’t, it was in the press release by the institute. So maybe the relationship has been bad at times, but science needs to become better when communicating with the media. We need to think more carefully, just like any other profession, about what we want to communicate, and stick with it.

SP: Should scientists develop a better understanding of how the media works?

CR: Absolutely. In my center, we deal with global issues like biodiversity, climate change, disease, so it’s easy to get your research noticed by the media. So for all my PhD and PostDocs I hold training courses with professional media people once a year. Because you need to know what you’re doing. You need to know whether you have a good story or you have a bad story. We need to be more professional on our side. Additionally, there are an enormous amount of scientists who are really really good at this, and we need to be listening and learning from them.

SP: Should we be introducing this to students at an early age?

CR: Yes. In addition to the training I mentioned, I also set aside some research money to employ a communications officer and embed them at my center working alongside my researchers to help the scientist communicate their research. It’s about giving students experience, and getting someone to help you with that experience, and then building on that. We work in biology with things that are of enormous public interest. And because of that we have an obligation to communicate. So we need to step it up a little bit.

SP: Should there be a responsibility for media journalists who report science to have an understanding of the scientific methods as well?

CR: That depends. If they’re employed as a journalist within that specific area then yes. If they’re a journalist that covers international politics, I don’t think they need to understand this to the same depth, because they’re covering a much broader range, so you need as a scientist to be able to communicate with that person. I think it’s too easy to blame it on the journalist. They have hard deadlines, and a lot of preparation to do. I think we should focus on how we can become better at communicating given the conditions we’re facing.

SP: For those who don’t have the benefits of the training, what is your take home message?

CR: Before you go in and give an interview, outline the main point you want to communicate. Then outline two or three comments that will lead to that point, and stick to those comments. A journalist, if you have a good story, will basically just hold the microphone. And if you drift off it’s not the journalist’s fault, it’s your fault. When I have an interview, I always ask myself, “what is the main point I want to communicate?”. And I prepare to build up to that. Because if I’m unprepared, I’ll drift off, and then I’ll become unhappy with the interview.

SP: How did you initially go about building a relationship with the media?

CR: My first job was to be head of the Danish ringing scheme. At that time there was an enormous media outcry that banding and ringing birds was cruel. I was employed to look into that and see if we could modernise ringing activities. So from day one on my first job I was exposed to the media. And I think I made all the mistakes that you can make, and I learned painfully from it. What got me through was that I was seeking advice from other scientists that were experienced with the media.

We’ve been mentored all the way through science by supervisors. It’s the same here. Talk to people, try to get good advice. I got thrown into the deep end. And because all of my research today is on global agendas, I stayed in the deep end. So I had to learn from my experiences pretty quickly. I learned to set demands to journalists, so that I can say no to certain things. I can set up demands for what I want to talk about if it’s a sensitive topic. I want to know what I’m being quoted on. I can be pretty tough on journalists, which you have to be sometimes, because sometimes inexperienced journalists don’t want to play a cooperative game. I know who to trust and who not to trust, but that comes from experience.

SP: Have you been misquoted before?

CR: If a journalist writes something and it’s not completely accurate, I don’t mind as long as the tone of the story is right. If the minute details are wrong, maybe my colleagues and I will notice it, but the public won’t. And it’s the broader message and the impression it leaves that is important. So I’ve learned to be more relaxed about those things.

SP: If you’re in a situation where you’re contacted about something outside your level of expertise, how do you deal with it?

CR: I would say that three out of four times, I get called by national TV to go on the news, and I tell them that what they’re calling about isn’t my area, and I give them the relevant people to contact. Often when you first become known in the media that they ask you about anything, and I think it’s enormously important that you stick to what you actually are an expert in, and you don’t end up being someone that has an opinion on everything. So I say no a lot of times and try to direct them to people who are experts in the field. That’s my rule of thumb.

SP: If you have someone who is an expert in a relevant field, but you know to be quite poor at communicating with the media, what’s your approach?

CR: I know people that don’t like the media, and I’d never send the media to them. But it doesn’t take too long to figure out who is willing and who is not willing. Sometimes I send journalists off to other people anyway, because it’s ultimately up to them to decide. I do have a couple of colleagues that I know do not want to be in the media, so I don’t refer people to them.

Other times if it’s something I know something about, but other people also have expertise I’ll go down and discuss it with those people, so I can get their opinion. But I think it’s wrong to force people to talk to the media. Some people are interested in doing so but they’re insecure. So we need as a community to provide more training and guidance. But I think we have to respect that the individual is not obligated to communicate to the public, the field as a whole is obligated.

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