The avalanche of scientific news this past year has emphasised the importance of collaboration between scientists and journalists to pass on crucial, accurate information to us all.

This has been a longstanding area of work for the British Science Association (BSA). Our Media Fellowship scheme provides a unique opportunity for practising scientists to work at the heart of the UK media at print, broadcast and online news outlet. The scheme aims to increase trust and mutual understanding between scientists and journalists, as well as maximise the diversity of people who can contribute to science in the media.

Despite the unexpected challenges of remote working and social distancing, this year has been no different. We supported six scientists embarking on their media journey with some excellent placements. How did they manage? We asked two of the Media Fellows about their experience.

Dr Richard Colchester has been placed with WIRED UK and Dr Martin Khechara was placed at The Naked Scientists. You can find out more about the Fellows including a full list of their published articles here.

Tell us a bit about your overall experience at your media outlet. What does a typical day look like?  

Richard: Every day has been a little bit different - and very different from academia! It has been a whirlwind of firsts. On the first day, I went into the pitch meeting (fortunately, I was forgiven for not having anything to pitch). The team at WIRED UK has been fantastic in involving me in lots of meetings to see how the inner workings of the magazine function. Articles here are decided on a little in advance, giving more time for research, interviews, and writing. My days have been spent searching for information to back up stories, contacting and interviewing people, and then forming articles. Working with the Editor has made the writing process smooth and enjoyable (needless to say, their feedback was needed and invaluable).

Martin: Every Monday, the team gets together for a weekly news meeting. Everyone on the team, including myself, chooses and presents stories that might be of public interest. By Monday afternoon, online interviews are booked where it’s time to practice the interview skills I have learned. After recording the interview, it’s my job to use my brand new and shiny sound editing skills to edit down about 16 minutes of content to less than5 minutes, for an accessible and interesting news section ready for a Thursday lunchtime deadline. Meanwhile, I’m also writing a piece for the website based on the research, which goes out on a Friday. It can be a hectic week, especially when you are interviewing people on the other side of the world but it’s worth it when something you have made makes it onto the radio or the podcast that they are so famous for. 

What was the highlight of your Fellowship?

Richard: Having my first article published! This went online at the end of my second week at WIRED UK and was the culmination of seven interviews. It felt great and really rewarding after all the hard work that went into it. Not to mention, it has now been read by many more people than any of my academic work!

Martin: Curating my own section of a radio programme and podcast. I suggested a topic and with the help of the team, put it together into something the public might want to listen to. As a scientist and educator, I chose the impact of the COVID pandemic on learning, with a focus on higher education and STEM. I also explore the impact of neurodiversity on learning in the pandemic and lifelong learning. I wanted to highlight this as it’s important to those who are re-entering higher education after losing jobs due to the chaos the virus caused which has rarely appeared in the mainstream media. At the time of writing, I am preparing to choose guests for the programme; it has been a pleasure talking to so many fantastic and enthusiastic researchers from all over the country about my ideas.

What has your Fellowship taught you about reaching new and different audiences?

Richard: It has taught me the importance of connecting to people on a personal level to engage them in research and also, how to strike a balance between informing people but not overwhelming them with irrelevant information.

Martin: The Fellowship has taught me really to put myself in the mind of the listener or reader and to ask the questions that they might ask. As an academic, you think like an academic and ask the questions that an academic might ask but that just isn’t normal for the public really, is it? The Fellowship has taught me to think about what an audience might want to hear or read and importantly, how to make things accessible for everyone, especially in writing.

What is the most valuable skill, insight or piece of advice you’ve developed or come across on your Fellowship that you will take back to your job in academia?

Richard: That if you want to talk to someone, just reach out to them. If they are interested, they will be keen to respond. I think this goes beyond just asking people for interviews for articles, but all the way to collaborations, public engagement, and much more.

Martin: Firstly, the technological expertise I have developed in editing and producing content for broadcast using industry-standard sound editing software is invaluable. These skills are going to benefit my role in academia as a public engagement practitioner and science communicator by allowing me to make content to promote research in my institution immediately on my return. On another side, better awareness of the audience that I am speaking to and how to translate research into something that anyone can understand. I thought I was a good communicator but after I met the Naked Scientist team, I realised I had a lot to learn!

What was the most challenging part about your experience?

Richard: Conducting my first interviews. I spent lots of time preparing and making sure I had things ready for recording, getting my questions prepared and just making sure I was comfortable. It was such a new experience that I honestly think I was more nervous than any of the people I interviewed. They were all great!

Martin: I think the most challenging part of my experience was the first few days. It’s always difficult to join a new team and hit the ground running so to be an academic one day then an associate radio producer on the next, it was difficult at first.

What did learn about the media that you did not know before?

Richard: It’s been amazing to see how quickly something goes from an idea to a finished article. Sometimes, something would be mentioned in one pitch meeting and then within a few days there would be a complete article, research done, interviews done, everything! It’s a completely different pace to academia.

Martin: The sheer complexity and skill it takes to put a radio show together. You never really realise just listening, all the work that has led to the final product, but I have a better appreciation of that now. I even listen and start to criticise the editing or questioning in an interview now, and can almost hear when things have gone well or have had to be fixed!

To read the second blog in the Q&A series, visit 'Media Fellow Q&A #2: Headlines and deadlines'

Find out more about the BSA Media Fellowships scheme.