GeoLog

GeoLog

Stop the press!: How to pitch your research to a journalist or editor

Stop the press!: How to pitch your research to a journalist or editor

Why does some research make it into the main stream media, while so many stories languish in the expanse between the lab bench and research papers? The answer isn’t straightforward. A variety of factors come into play: is the research newsworthy; is it timely; does it represent a ground-breaking discovery; or is it of human and societal interest?

Newsworthiness isn’t the be all and end all. Sometimes, you’ve got to be proactive about getting your research noticed. If you think your work features a story worth telling, it might be time to dare and pitch it to a journalist or editor.

Most researchers aren’t familiar with how the media works, let alone how to contact and persuade a journalist that their research is worthy of a news item. At this year’s General Assembly we hosted a short course on this very topic. It featured a panel of science journalists and a scientist with media experience who shared their views on what makes research newsworthy and how to get your work noticed. Here, we share a few highlights from that session.

Is my research newsworthy?

While what we said in the introduction stands, i.e. newsworthiness is not the be all and end all, the fact remains: there has to be something about your research which makes it interesting to the general public and worth reporting about for a journalist.

Ground-breaking findings instantly tick the box, but the media will also be interested in results which have a big impact on people’s daily lives, relate to current events and/or include striking images or videos (among others). Scientist-turned-journalist Julia Rosen has a comprehensive list of what does (and doesn’t) make research newsworthy. When trying to decide whether your research fits the bill, you might also find this EGU guide useful.

The process of doing science is often the key to a great story but it is often overlooked.

“Don’t take your methods for granted,” says freelance journalist Megan Gannon, “fieldwork and lab work is inherently fascinating to people who have never done that.”

This GeoLog story, featuring PhD student Thomas Clements and his study of decaying fish guts, livers and gills, to understand how organisms become fossils, is a perfect example. Thomas presented new results at a press conference at the 2016 General Assembly, but his research methodology was just as fascinating as his data and became the focal point of the story.

The impostor syndrome

Even if a scientist knows (or has an inkling that) their work is newsworthy they’ll likely be faced with an age-old fear, rife among academics: am I smart or talented or deserving or experienced (insert an alternative synonym of your choice here) enough to put my work forward to a journalist? Is the work itself good enough?

The fear of being found out: is my work good enough; should I really be putting it out there? Credit: modified from original by Rhian Meara

The fear of being found out: is my work good enough; should I really be putting it out there? Credit: modified from original by Rhian Meara

Rhian Meara, a lecturer in geography and geology at Swansea University, recognises that this is a common feeling that she’s experienced many a times, both on location filming on TV and when asked to take part in the short course, but one which shouldn’t hold you back. As an expert in your area you are best placed to tell the story of your findings and work.

Overcome that fear by playing to your strengths and use them to your advantage. For example, are you fluent in a language other than English? This skill might mean you could become the go-to-scientist for coverage of Earth science related stories in your local area and/or language.

Working with the media

Convinced that your research is newsworthy and armed with the courage to take the next step? Before you do, there are a few, final, things to consider.

When approaching a journalist or editor about your work, “you need to pitch a story, not a topic: give journalists stories and context. Getting news across to readers requires giving it a deeper meaning and setting it in the big picture,” Megan points out.

Simply laying out the facts won’t cut it. You need to make your research come to life so it gets noticed.

There is also a reality you need to reconcile if you are planning on pitching your research to the media. Journalists serve their readers, not the scientists whose story they are telling.

“Even if scientists want to promote their research by reaching out to journalists, they should be aware that our role is not to promote their agenda, but to inform the public in an objective manner,” explains Megan.

But that doesn’t mean they will set-out to misrepresent your work either. Be patient with journalists if they ask questions, sometimes repeatedly, about your research. They may not be familiar with the subject, but importantly, they are trying to capture the essence of the science and make it accessible to a broad audience. To do this, they need to ask questions; sometimes, lots of them.

Communication issues

Precisely because the media needs to serve their readers and viewers, there is no doubt that there might be a clash when it comes to reporting particular findings. Being aware of it is important, but there are ways you can prepare in advance to minimise misunderstandings.

“Be careful of promoting unpublished results,” warns Andrew Revkin, a science and environmental writer for The New York Times (among others).

Your unpublished study has the potential to attract a lot of media attention, but what happens if the paper requires major revision, or worse, isn’t published?

The use of jargon can also lead to misinterpretation – “words that mean something to scientists might mean something entirely different to the public and reporters,” Andrew points out.

The obvious ones, say for instance (climate) model vs. (fashion) model, can usually be easily clarified. It’s the more subtle ones which present the biggest challenge: uncertainty, risk.

A challenge for scientists, and science journalists, Revkin said, is conveying that, in scientific analysis, bounded uncertainty is a form of knowledge. For more ideas, read a lecture he gave in 2013 in Tokyo: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities in the New Communication Climate.

Communicating the nuances of what is meant by such terms is difficult; it’s best to consult a media expert for alternatives rather than risk amplifying misunderstanding.

A little help

Still nervous about the process of pitching your research to a journalist or editor?

Rhian Meara during her presentation at the EGU 2016 short course

Rhian Meara during her presentation at the EGU 2016 short course. Credit: Andrew Revkin

Scientists needn’t embark on the venture on their own. In all likelihood your research institute or university will have a press officer: someone who has expertise in dealing with the media, pitching stories to journalists, and knows what makes for newsworthy research. Failing that, approach your funders who will likely have a media relations team.

If you think your research has the potential to be newsworthy, get in touch with them! They’ll be able to help you find out whether indeed your research could interest journalists, and with all the steps we touch upon in this post and more!

More and more, the ability to communicate science is becoming a priority for researchers. If this is the case for you too, but you aren’t sure how to get started, there are a number of resources and courses which can help you develop your media skills. This post, in the blog Geology Jenga, has a list of some courses and resources available.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer (with thanks to Megan Gannon, Rhian Meara Andrew Revkin and Christina Reed)

This blog posts based on the presentations by Megan Gannon, Rhian Meara and Andrew Revkin at the ‘Short Course: How to pitch your research to a journalist or editor (SC45)’ which took place at the 2016 EGU General Assembly in Vienna and was moderated by Christina Reed. The full presentations can be accessed here.

Imaggeo on Mondays: the rocks that look like Swiss cheese

Imaggeo on Mondays: the rocks that look like Swiss cheese

Over the course of centuries and millennia, the force of winds, seas, ice and rains, sculpt rock formations around the globe. From the world-famous glacier carved landscapes of Yosemite National Park, to the freeze-thawed hoodoos at Bryce National Park, through to the wind battered stone pillars of South China Karst, boundless geological formations have been transformed by the power of erosion and weathering.

When the force of winds and salty waters combine, their effect on the surface of rocks is quite unique. In some costal environments, a network of holes, of all shapes and sizes, puncture otherwise smooth and silky rocks. This form of weathering is aptly known as honeycomb weathering (though some of you might be more familiar with terms such as cavernous weathering, alveoli/alveolar weathering, stone lattice, stone lace or miniature tafoni weathering). Limestones, sandstones and granites are most affected.

Exactly how the interaction of the sea breeze and the salt in ocean waters results in the distinctive ‘Swiss cheese’ weathered pattern remains a bit of a mystery.  One of the front running theories proposes that it is the culmination of physical and chemical weathering.

Evaporation of leachate causes a deposition of the rocks minerals on its surface which leads to a decomposition of the rocks interior. Additionally salt weathering caused by oceanic brackish water as well as temperature changes support the formation of this feature,” explains Michael Grund, a researcher at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

In Corsican, Tafoni, means hole or perforated rock, so it is not surprising that this form of weathering sometimes takes its name after the Tafoni rock formation on the southern coast of Sardinia, where Michael snapped a superb example of the potholed intrusives which dominate the area.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

GeoTalk: Investigating the transport of plastic pollution in the oceans

GeoTalk: Investigating the transport of plastic pollution in the oceans

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the Grantham Institute at Imperial Collage London, and winner of the 2016 OS Outstanding Young Scientist Award. As an expert in understanding how oceans transport all kinds of materials, from water and heat through to plastics, Erik has gained detailed knowledge about how water masses move, particularly how they travel from one ocean basin to the next. He has applied his knowledge to understanding problems with societal impacts, such as what dynamics govern drifting debris that collects in garbage patches and the pathways of the Fukushima radioactive plume. 

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am a physicist by training, with an PhD in Physical Oceanography from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. After finishing my PhD in 2009, I did a two-year postdoc at the University of Miami. In 2011, I became a Fellow and lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. And then in early 2015 I came back to Europe, as a lecturer at Imperial College London. So I’ve been moving around a bit, living and working in three different continents in the past 5 years. It’s been a fantastic journey and I’m really happy to have lived in such beautiful and fun places.

During EGU 2016, you received the Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the Ocean Sciences Division. You presented your recent work on modelling the global distribution of floating plastic pollution in the oceans. How big a problem does plastic pollution present to our oceans and why should people care?

It’s shocking how much plastic there is in the ocean. Quite literally these days, it’s hard to go to a place in the ocean and not find tiny pieces of plastic. In nearly every surface trawl, sediment sample, or biopsy we take, we find plastic.

However, while we find  plastic everywhere, we have no idea what its global extent is. There are really only two numbers that are known with some confidence in the global ocean plastic budget: the total amount of plastic floating at the surface today is in the order hundreds of thousands of tonnes. And the total amount of plastic going into the ocean in a single year is in the order of 10 million metric tonnes. So the flux is 2 orders of magnitude larger than the stock. In other words, more than 99% of the plastic in the ocean is not at the surface!

How, exactly, do you go about building the  models which help you investigate where the plastic in the ocean waters is?

My research tries to find out where all this plastic is, by tracking it virtually in high-resolution Ocean General Circulation Models such as NEMO.  NEMO is a large European computer simulation that replicates the movement of ocean water around the globe. Within this oceanic flow field, we’re literally tracking billions of virtual plastic particles, from their sources on land as they are carried around by the ocean currents.

The difficult bit is to make the virtual particles behave like plastic. In order to realistically simulate the pathways and fate of the plastic, we need to simulate fragmentation (how plastics break up), ingestion (animals who eat plastic), biofouling (how algae grow on the plastic), beaching (how plastic particles end up on coastlines) and a dozen other processes that happen to plastic in the real ocean. That’s what my team and I are working on!

Then, once we can track the plastic within models with reasonable accuracy, we can start asking important questions like: Where are ecosystems most at risk? Whose plastic ends up where? And where can we best clean up the plastic?

Erik, along with colleague David Fuchs, created Plastic Adrift.com. A page which models the journey of plastics in the oceans. The research used to create the page is described in this IOP paper: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044040/meta;jsessionid=3C17B7D3F10B29C6CCF1BD2BA132BF76.c5.iopscience.cld.iop.org

Erik, along with colleague David Fuchs, created Plastic Adrift.org. A page which models the journey of plastics in the oceans. The research used to create the simulation is described in this IOP paper.

So, are you at a stage where you can reliably track particles of plastic in your simulation? And if so, what can you tell us about the distribution of plastic across the world’s oceans?

No, we’re not nearly there yet. We’re just beginning with this exciting project, which was awarded a large European Research Council Grant this year. Ask me again in five years 😉

The outlook isn’t positive, so, how can we go about mitigating the problem?

The situation is pretty dire, indeed. Global plastic production has increased exponentially over the last decades, and there is no reason to think that exponential growth will slow. So the main aim should be to prevent plastic from going into the ocean in the first place.

Last May, I was invited to the UK Parliament to give oral evidence to a Select Committee about my thoughts on a country-wide ban on microbeads used in cosmetics (an issue which has been in the news recently). Such a ban is now supported by the UK Government, which is fantastic news. But microbeads from cosmetics represent only 0.1% of all plastic entering the ocean from the UK. There is really much more work to do. We need better filtering of plastic particles and fibres in sewage treatment plants. We need much better recycling techniques. We need innovative new plastics that are less harmful.

And we need a better understanding of how the plastic in the ocean interacts with marine life, from charismatic megafauna down to phytoplankton and microbes. In particular, I call on EGU’s ocean biogeochemistry community to take up the challenge of understanding the interactions between plastic particulates and biofouling. There’s such an enormous knowledge gap there, and we need all the help we can get.

Given your experience advising the UK government on a matter as significant as plastic pollution in the oceans, how important do you think it is for early career scientists to play a role in advising policy-makers when it comes to environmental issues?

Meet Erik! Credit: Erik van Sebille

Meet Erik! Credit: Erik van Sebille

I think it is extremely important to make sure that your research gets out to the people who can use it to make decisions. Politicians and other stakeholders are always keen to hear about the latest science; they don’t have time and expertise to read through all of the scientific literature so it is partly up to us scientists to point them to the latest findings. It doesn’t matter whether you are an early career researcher or a seasoned senior professor, if you are funded by public money then you have a duty to give results back to society.

For the past twelve months the EGU has been working on developing its science for policy programme. ‘Science for policy’ involves applying scientific knowledge to the decision-making process to strengthen the resulting policies. If like Erik, this is an area you are interested in, or one where your research findings could make a difference, why not visit our policy pages on the website? They include  a range of resources aimed at informing scientists about the world of science policy and initiatives to help you get involved.

Erik, thank you for talking to us today. Our final question of the interview is, perhaps a little simplistic given the scale of the problem, but is there anything everyone could be doing at home to minimise the amount of plastic that makes its way to the oceans?

I think it starts with awareness. Be aware what you do with your used plastics. Don’t just chuck it out. And discuss the issue with your family and friends. I think that a great deal of progress can be made simply by being more careful how we discard our plastic waste.

Imaggeo on Mondays: The road to nowhere – natural hazards in the Peloponnese

Imaggeo on Mondays: The road to nowhere – natural hazards in the Peloponnese

The Gulf of Corinth, in southern Greece, separates the Peloponnese peninsula from the continental mainland. The structural geology of the region is complex, largely defined by the subduction of the African Plate below the Eurasian Plate (a little to the south).

The Gulf itself is an active extensional marine basin, i.e., one that is pulling open and where sediments accumulate. Sedimentary basins result from the thinning, and therefore sinking, of the underlying crust (though other factors can also come into play). The rifting in the region is relatively new, dating back some five million years, and results in rare but dangerous earthquakes.

The active tectonics result in a plethora of other natural hazards, not only earthquakes.  Minor and major faults crisscross the area and have the potential to trigger landslides, posing a threat to lives and infrastructure. A road, swept away in a landslide, in the northern Peloponnese (along the southern margin of the Corinth rift) is a clear example of the hazard.

“This photo was taken in the Valimi fault block [editor’s note: a section of bedrock bound on either side by faults], east of the Krathis valley. West of this valley, the landscape is characterised by  narrow and deep gorges as the present day rivers cut into the well-consolidated conglomerates deposited during the active extension of the basin,” explains Romain Hemelsdaël, author of this week’s imaggeo on Mondays photograph.

Characteristically, sediments deposited in actively extensional rifts where the Earth’s crust and lithosphere are being pulled apart, as at the Gulf of Corinth, change in size (both horizontally and vertically) and composition. To the east of the Krathis valley, the sediments are being uplifted and are dominated by less competent sandstones and siltstones, as opposed to the conglomerates found in the Valimi fault block.

“The present landscape along this part of the rift margin forms large valleys covered by active landslides,” clarifies Romain. “In this photograph, the road was initially constructed directly on silts which were deposited by lakes and rivers. Up the hill, a temporary track currently replaces the road but this track still remains within an active landslide.”

 

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: