Most of the work we do as scientists remains within the scientific community but now and again certain topics, for whatever reason, seem to capture the public’s attention. This is happening more and more with platforms like IFLS, Radiolab and ‘celebrity’ scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson making a big contribution to that. A recent paper I was an author of got a lot of media attention over the Christmas period. I was asked to write a short piece reflecting on why I think the media interest came about, how the work was interpreted and maybe some lessons learnt. The paper in question is entitled “A virtual water network of the Roman World” and was published in the journal Hydrological and Earth System Sciences.
The media attention all started when the paper caught the eye of the media and communications officer at the European Geosciences Union (EGU). We bounced a draft of the press release back and forth about 10 times until we got a piece we were both of us were satisfied with. The EGUs’ process for drafting the press release impressed me immensely and the quality of the press release was the key to resultant media attention the article received. The EGU even prepared a kid’s version!
I was completely taken by surprise with the coverage our press release received. The quality of the resultant articles varied widely. Many just printed the press release verbatim, which is great because then you’re assured that the precise message you wish to communicate is published. Some went further and expanded on the theme of the article in very interesting ways. The best article in my opinion was one by the Smithsonian online where the journalist interviewed me for over half an hour and asked follow-up questions over email. She then went on to interview other scientists to get their opinions on the work. Many other media outlets summarised our press release and in the process often introduced inaccuracies or oversimplifications of the work. To be honest I was quite relaxed about that because almost all reports provided a link to the original publication so people could read the full article if they wanted. Critically, all EGU journals are open access, which obviously helps massively in increasing the amount of people who can read the original article. Many of the other pieces weren’t in English so I can’t really comment on their quality but it was nice to see it picked up in so many countries.
Once online, the article received a host of positive and negative comments on social media and in the comments sections below reports (see opposite). It was a lot of fun to see the reaction which was almost exclusively in response to the report on the article rather than the original article itself. The colour of the comments was invariably influenced by whether the publication was politically left or right wing or whether the article was well or poorly written.
From the whole process it became clear that there are some things you have control over and some things you don’t. As I said in the beginning, the quality of the press release was critical to our article being picked up by the media. Journalists are delighted if they have a fully formed article sent to them that they and their readers understand and find interesting. In our case, people still seem to be fascinated with the Romans and that helped a lot. Once the article went online I got called to give interviews. I learned that it is essential to prepare two or three simple and interesting points about your work. I failed to do this in my first interview and it was very difficult to prevent the journalist pulling me in the direction they wanted the interview to go. Also, it’s important to anticipate questions the journalist might ask. Often these will be questions that have relevance to some topic of current affairs (see video below).
The thing to be aware of is that the moment your press release goes online you more or less lose control over how your work is communicated. You also open yourself up for much more criticism than you would otherwise receive within a scientific debate. But like they say, the haters gonna hate. The upshot is that many more people will be aware of your work than would otherwise be the case. And at the end of the day isn't that what all scientists hope for: that others will read our work and maybe even build on it.