ENU Research &  Innovation Blog

British Science Association Media Fellowship: My experience working with BBC Scotland – By Dr Peter Barlow

Dr Peter Barlow (SAS), Edinburgh Napier University BSA Media Fellow 2018. Photograph by Ashley Coombes (https://www.ashleycoombes.co.uk)

As an immunologist, I have always had a strong personal interest in how the media can shape a national or global conversation around topics such as vaccination, disease outbreaks or immunotherapy breakthroughs. Media reporting can, in quite a tangible manner, change the behaviour or perceptions of an individual in the context of health and disease, and therefore can shape our society for better and for worse.

It is critical therefore, that scientists have voices that are heard by the public, and by policymakers, in making an informed contribution to these local, national and global discussions. Presenting a balanced perspective on multiple fronts is essential for ensuring that misinformation or ‘fake news’ is not the only voice that is heard. For the past few years, I’ve been honoured to be given the opportunity to act as a media spokesperson for the British Society for Immunology, a role that has given me the chance to contribute to discussions and news reporting on topics as diverse as influenza vaccination, the devastating effects of Zika virus infection, and potential cures for the common cold.

Last year, I was thrilled to be awarded a British Science Association Media Fellowship in the summer of 2018, and even more delighted to find out where I would be undertaking my placement.

Essentially, a BSA Media Fellowship can offer academics, at any stage of their career, the opportunity to spend between two to six weeks embedded within a mainstream media outlet. Some of the organisations that take part in the scheme include Sky News, the Guardian, and the Financial Times. I was lucky enough to be placed within BBC Scotland, based at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.

The fellowship is designed to give scientists and academics training and mentorship from professional journalists, with a focus on how to engage the public with science, and how the media and scientists can work together to ensure facts are at the forefront of a story. As a highlight, fellows also attend the British Science Festival and work within the press room, reporting on some of the highlights from the festival.

As part of my fellowship, I rotated around three areas of the news teams that are housed within BBC Scotland; BBC News online, BBC Scotland television news and BBC Radio Scotland. I spent a brief period with the individuals in each of these teams and worked alongside the journalists, the presenters and the producers, who work together with the rest of the production team to deliver the final output.

I reflected on some of the ‘lessons learned’ from my fellowship, and the experiences that changed my perception of the BBC in particular, but also changed me as a researcher and a science communicator. I felt that these could be distilled into areas such as journalistic integrity, attention to detail, as well as the requirements for a good science story, and the enthusiastic appetite that the public has for new discoveries as a result of cutting-edge research.

In terms of integrity and detail, the journalists, particularly those in the online team, pay incredible attention to detail in terms of how articles are worded, and are fastidious about how facts are verified. I was proud and gratified to be able to see this first hand, and noted that all discussions around a news story were discussed in an open manner. The senior journalists I worked with gave me the opportunity to attend the ‘morning meeting’ where all the stories of the day were discussed, and it was fantastic to see how they found the most interesting aspects of each potential news item, and discussed how it would fit in, particularly in the context of other ongoing news items.

In the context of how science was presented to the public, this was one of the most eye-opening parts of the fellowship. I learned that the medium could emphatically dictate how a story was presented, and how much effort and time would be spent piecing together a cohesive narrative that gave the science a chance to shine. Journalists have to absorb a significant amount of information very quickly, and decide whether there is a story there, and if so, how to present it to the public. This is an extraordinary skill.

For example, many of the senior journalists were very experienced at putting together story packages that could be used for radio, for television and for print media. The BBC Scotland science correspondent, veteran journalist Kenneth Macdonald, was very generous with his time and took me through his process for putting together a story on using satellite imagery to track wild fires from space. He emphasised that, in the case of television, the visuals for a story were particularly important. For radio, this emphasis could shift somewhat, and become an informed discussion between the researcher and a reporter or presenter. For online content, a blend of text and visuals, as well as links to further sources of information could be presented.

It was incredible to watch the journalists at work, piecing together a coherent narrative for the story, writing the copy and editing the video, all within the space of just a few hours.

In terms of how this experience directly influenced my work, my group has made subtle changes to how we capture and present data. For example, if we were using microscopy to image proteins inside cells, we would now perhaps go the extra step in addition to capturing a selection of still images required for quantification. For example, we might create a 3D representation of the cell, not necessarily because we need it, but because it might look great on TV. It also doesn’t look too shabby in conference presentations either!

In the time since I completed my fellowship, I have continued to work with some fantastic colleagues in the media, and to encourage some of the researchers in Edinburgh Napier to do the same. It’s such a rewarding experience to see your own work, and the work of your colleagues, presented in the media, and I’ll continue to encourage and support those individuals who are thinking about how they could reach a wider audience.

Note: This article has been written for the British Society for Immunology (BSI) magazine ‘Immunology’ and for the Edinburgh Napier University Research and Innovation Office Blog.  Ms Jennie Evans, Head of External Affairs for the BSI contributed to copyediting.

Interested in applying to be Edinburgh Napier University’s 2019 BSA Media Fellow?

Applications are now open for the University’s internal selection process for the 2019 BSA Media Fellowship.

An internal selection process will select candidates to be shortlisted for the BSA. The BSA will then conduct a telephone interview with each shortlisted applicant before deciding on this year’s fellow.

Applicants must:

– be a practising scientist, social scientist, clinician or engineer and have a minimum of 2 years’ experience in your field following your highest degree. PhD students are eligible although we don’t recommend it due to the heavy workload
– be employed, and based, part or full time in the UK
– work at any level in an academic or research institution, industry, civil service or any other similar organisation
– have your school’s consent to be released on full pay for the period of the Fellowships. Annual leave may be used for part of the placement.
– agree to all the terms and conditions of the fellowship, including mandatory attendance to the training / leadership days and the financial support provided.

You can read more about the scheme on the British Science Association website, or you can watch a short film on their YouTube channel.

Dr Peter Barlow will also be giving a short talk on his experiences on Tuesday 5th March in room 3.D.12 Sighthill between 2pm-3pm. Book your place here:
https://staff.napier.ac.uk/learningevents/Pages/EventDetails.aspx?EventID=9760269bmo.

If interested in applying, please contact your School Director of Research, or Alisdair Stapley at a.stapley@napier.ac.uk for more information.

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