December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This is part of a series of reviews of the sessions held by the Science Communication Group on 13th September, in celebration of 21 years of the Science Communication MSc at Imperial College. We will be putting up reviews of each session over the next couple of weeks. If you went to the celebrations and would like to have your say, please get in touch: @I_science_mag, or via the contacts page.

Science News: Journalism or PR?
Chair: Felicity Mellor
Panel: Martin Bauer (Prof of Social Psychology and Research Methodology, LSE), Alok Jha (Science and Environment Correspondent, The Guardian), Natasha Martineau (Head of Research Communications, Imperial College London), Deborah Cohen (Investigations Editor, BMJ)

The past two decades has seen a rise in science journalism, as well as press relations offices springing up in many scientific institutions. This session, chaired by Felicity Mellor, looked to discuss the relationship between the two: the benefits and the distasteful idea of “churnalism”.

Prof. Martin Bauer started off with an entertaining presentation on the cultural effects of the rise in scientific innovation. A highlight was his comment that the private patronage of science and innovation by corporations will require us to employ so-called “bullshit filters”. Always fun when a lecturer uses such a technical term.

Next was Alok Jha, from The Guardian, describing his preference for only using press officers he knew personally and trusted. He also mentioned how The Guardian science team makes a point of trying to research stories and write the “canonical piece”, rather than fall into the easy pattern of sitting at the media conveyor belt and recycling the same stories circulated by all papers.

This was followed by Natasha Martineau, Imperial College’s Head of Research Communications, and then Deborah Cohen, Investigations Editor at British Medical Journal. While Natasha was the session’s sole representative from the press officer camp, Deborah continued the talk’s general theme of bemoaning the dangers of putting too much faith in press releases.

In fact, it was only at the very end of this arguably anti-press-office session that the reverse side of the coin, the situation of the press officers, was really defended. Fiona Fox – from the Science Media Centre – spoke out as a member of the audience, suggesting the multiple pressures press officers might face in writing their press releases. However, though eagerly anticipating a response from the panellists in this sudden change of pace, the audience had to make do with their imaginations, as the talk had overrun its allocated time.