Let’s say you’re approached by a journalist working on a story, and he or she asks you to talk about your research. What is the single most important thing to keep in mind if you want to be realistic and fair? Spoiler alert: it’s not about jargon…

No, the main issue to keep in mind is how you are going to fit your research topic (or field of expertise) into the scope of the story of the journalist. It doesn’t matter much if it will be written or for radio or TV; the journalist will have an angle, a question or something that makes him or her want to make this story. In most cases, the scope of the story will be much bigger than the topic you’re working on.

The journalist asks what will stop climate change, and you are busy developing a new type of connector that will facilitate more efficient solar panels. Or the journalist wants to know what the future will look like for cancer patients. Meanwhile, you are working on in-silico models that will one day help select the most promising candidate medicines. This is obviously not wrong, but there are right and wrong ways to connect those two different levels of scale or magnitude.

Your research field versus the scope of the article

Let’s look at it visually. Here’s a conceptual representation of a story, a field that is relevant to that story, and then your particular research. As you can see the story is the biggest and encompasses your field, which in turn encompasses your individual topic.

Let’s skip the level of the field (although the same principles apply), and focus on your research. Once the journalist comes to you and starts asking the questions that are relevant to the article, you notice the difference in scope. But here it is: you like him or her, and you want to help out by ‘solving’ the issue at hand in the article. This can be a very subconscious process.

The result is, however, that you’re inflating the importance of your own topic to help the journalist answer his question quicker. “But of course, this new connector will make the solar panels so much more efficient! It will make electric cars virtually free for everybody!” Yes, maybe in a lab setting… But you’re skipping the part where the connector actually has to work! It has to be manufacturable, affordable, and has to also be applied in new, and maybe even replaced in old solar panels for that to become a reality.

Are you adding bravado to your story?

What you have done is blow up your research to fit the scope of the article. This is what we call ‘adding bravado’. You are solving the huge issue of climate change with one little invention. Obviously, this is not realistic, so try to avoid it. No bravado! It’s not fair towards the journalist – or his or her audience – and may generate some nasty backlash in some cases.

So how should you talk about your own research?

Preferably, you add context to bridge the gap between your narrow research topic and the broad scope of the story. If you are asked what your work on in-silico models for candidate medicines will mean, you state the unknowns, the what-ifs and the conditions that need to be met for consequences to be significant – or even just existent. For example: “if my model is validated, it can create more candidate medicines in a shorter time, which increases the chance that a proper cure is found.” Or: “My model will help the development of treatments for this and that certain type of cancer.”

These statements still make the connection between your topic and the scope of the article, but without overselling it, or generating false hope. It has integrity and realism. How to look at that visually:

Afterthought: a lot of pseudoscience is out there because of false promises and overselling and overstating the importance of certain processes/topics. If we want a society with rational decision-making and quality of information, we can start by how we portray what real science looks like. Again, most of the time adding bravado is an unconscious action and not malicious intent. But being aware of it is the first step to overcoming it. If you’re ready for the next step, choose our workshop Science in the Media and learn more about this. And if you need any other help with this, we’re there for you!

About the Author: Stephan van Duin

Stephan enjoys the process of understanding complex matters and being able to present them in a comprehensible way. His vision is that science and society can benefit from clear science communication, and that technology can aid this development in various ways, from science websites for the public to academic e-learning for students.

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