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Talking Headlines with Andy Cassell

by on 2017/05/17

Andrew Cassell is the former TV correspondent covering Scotland for the BBC’s One, Six and Ten O’Clock news bulletins. He started on a local newspaper and in a 30 year journalistic career he has worked for STV, local radio in England and Northern Ireland and the BBC’s World Service.  He also presented Radio Scotland’s flagship news and current affairs programme Good Morning Scotland.

I recently met Andy at a media training session for scientists. I have learnt a lot about the process that goes from science publication in specialized journals to headlines in the media. So I thought to ask Andy whether, for once, he would be prepared to be on the other side of the microphone.

Andy, you have been in this business for quite a while. Can you tell us a bit how science reporting has changed through the years?

There is certainly more of it than there used to be, both in what we might call the mainstream media (broadcasting and print) and on the web. This reflects a gradual realisation on the part of news desks that scientific research – especially that which impacts upon medical issues and our health and wellbeing – offers a rich seam of potential stories that can attract readers or viewers. These are sometimes characterized as lifestyle stories and appear to have a growing audience both in the mainstream media and online.

It’s also because professional Journals, seeing a way to increase their own profile and importance, have become increasingly adept at co-ordinating the public release (usually under embargo) of research findings and publicising them in a manner and style that will get the story noticed by the mainstream media.

As a result the nature of the reporting of science has changed, too.  These days there’s a bias towards presenting scientific research and advance in a way that makes it relevant to everyday life and therefore of interest to the lay viewer, listener or reader.

This is in part because ‘science’ stories are no longer seen as the preserve of specialist correspondents who are either becoming more rare in the mainstream media or being required to cover multiple briefs.  As a result such stories are increasingly being covered by what one might call ‘general’ news reporters who are used to covering issues in a straightforward and bite-sized style: they rely on attention-grabbing ‘hooks’ to draw attention to the story and do not have the time or space to dwell on subtleties or caveats that might complicate the point they’re trying to get across. This is the process that many, and not just scientists, regard as sensationalism or dumbing down!

The trick is to get the balance right, to exploit this ‘bias’ to make scientific research readily comprehensible to a non-expert audience whilst maintaining the cautionary and evolutionary nature of most scientific work.

It’s a major challenge and, whilst journalists must bear some of the responsibility, I would urge scientists – if they want the wider public to appreciate the value of their work – to engage and take up the challenge. It’s a process that will undoubtedly be frustrating and at times apparently futile, but only by engaging with journalists can they hope to influence the way science is reported and to achieve better informed coverage of their research in the future.

Has technology played a significant part in this process?

Yes. The development of digital technology has been central to the process.  In broadcasting this has generated more and more channels many of them dedicated to specialist interests including science.  The growth of these channels has therefore generated an ever-growing demand for material.

Then, of course, there’s the Internet and social media, an unrivalled space for discussion and publication of scientific matters.

On the plus side a web presence can attract potential readers to the original research material and if they’re savvy or determined enough they can sometimes gather enough information to make up their own minds about the validity or relevance of the findings. The web can also be used by scientists to publicise their own work, by-passing what they might consider to be the distorting effect of mainstream media coverage, assuming they have the time or inclination to do so. Social media is another route for direct contact and communication with those interested in science stories.

But many of the difficulties that apply to mainstream science reporting also afflict internet coverage. The need for definitive, one-off eye-catching conclusions or headlines in order to attract readers and thereby boosting mouse clicks and advertising revenue is only the most obvious one. Often the findings of scientific endeavour are contested or are inconclusive, leading to endless links to bloggers, commentators and sites peddling different interpretations or views on the validity of that work. Either way the problem is the same: how does the average reader make sense of it all?

What happen when a press release arrive to the newsroom?

However, it arrives, whether by old-fashioned post or more usually these days via e-mail or an electronic wire service, a press release becomes part of the newsgathering sifting system of the news organisation receiving it.

The details vary according to which organisation we’re talking about – whether it’s a newspaper, broadcasting or a freelance news agency – but essentially it’ll be assessed for news value (i.e., is it interesting/important/relevant to a trending issue/fun/entertaining/etc.).

If it is deemed newsworthy it’ll get on a daily diary (i.e., a list of news prospects) that is considered by members of the editorial team at the regular production meetings that are held during the day.  If the editor of the output wants it covered the story will be assigned to a reporter/correspondent and a decision made where it might appear in the paper and in what form or, in the case of broadcasting, where the story will appear in the running order of the bulletin and how long it’ll be given.

Of course if you have a relationship with a journalist or a science specialist you can send the release to them and they may be able to use their influence to get it on the news agenda.

What are the chances a PR gets selected?

The main problem is the sheer volume of electronic information being received by news organisations every minute of the day, especially if they subscribe to government information services and news agencies like the Press Association.  These days information is almost exclusively received via computer and the screens are continually scrolling with press releases, news flashes, information snaps, advisories and copy and information from their own staff.

All this has to be monitored and assessed. Depending on the size and nature of the organisation, this can be an individual (traditionally called a copy taster) or a team of such people.  There may also be a forward planning unit to do a similar job for stories that are not on-the-day events but may be of interest in the future.

It is by no means a perfect system: leaving aside the potential for an individual simply missing a potential story it is also a somewhat subjective process; what interests one copy taster may not interest another.

The key is attracting attention long enough to get on the list for editorial consideration or to get the journalist you know interested enough in the story that that they will lobby to get it covered. And the key to that is impact in the first sentence or paragraph; what is the hook that will get it noticed? The hard fact is that most press releases get ignored because they fail this basic test.

How can we draw the balance between newsworthy and scientific accuracy?

It’s difficult because news likes certainty, quick results and definitive explanations. Research, however, does not always offer such helpful solutions.

Even so, in my experience of working with scientists over recent years there’s rarely been a time when I couldn’t tease out an aspect of the research that wouldn’t be of interest to some news outlet.  It’s a question of presentation: scientists I think are cautious because that is what their discipline demands of them but sometimes I feel they’re over cautious; where caveats need to be made by all means do so but don’t undersell the progress you have made and why that progress is beneficial or useful to a wider world.  This can be difficult because within a culture of peer review and validation the blowing of one’s own trumpet, as it were, is frowned upon (leaving aside the issue of professional jealousy!).

It is great to hear there is an increasing interest in science, but do you think scientists are doing enough to communicate their work?

I think they’re doing a great deal to publicise their work and I applaud their efforts but there’s rather less emphasis on effectively explaining it to a non-scientific audience – either in the mainstream media or online.  That’s because their expertise is in their scientific field not in communication skills and because I think they assume too much knowledge on the part of the general reader or viewer.  I think if they spent a little more time considering how to express their findings in everyday language (not easy I know) or seeking help in doing so then it will help improve the quality of media coverage.

It might also help for scientists to draw attention to trends behind individual research findings, which might help wean journalists off the need for immediate headlines and encourage them to cover the bigger picture.

Finally, we know we should not believe everything that appears in the news; but do you have any tip on how our readers can protect themselves from fake news?

It’s certainly a growing problem, as events in the United States illustrate perfectly. I wish I had the answer as I could probably make a lot of money!  The only thing I can suggest is to use common sense: don’t take all statements at face value and try to seek out original sources for the information or facts that are being reported.

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