We placed some practising scientists at the heart of UK media outlets, in a year where science journalism has been thrust into the frontline. Here, they tell us what they’ve learnt.

In the second blog in our Q&A series, we asked two scientists who have been given the opportunity to work at UK media outlets as part of our Media Fellowship scheme about their experiences. We addressed the challenges of navigating the world of media and asking the ‘so what?’ questions.

Dr Priti Parikh has been placed at New Scientist and Professor Monica Lakhanpaul was placed at BBC Radio Science. You can find out more about the Fellows including a full list of their published articles here.

If you missed the first blog in the series, you can read it here ‘Media Fellow Q&A #1: Science journalism reaches new heights’.

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

Priti: A typical day at New Scientist was definitely very different from academia. On my first day, I was invited to join various team meetings to discuss topics like which headlines would make the cover page. Typically, the meetings were fast-paced and punchy but this meant a lot of ground would be covered. Each week, I would be given a paper or two; my job would be to write a short article highlighting the novelty, relevance and contribution of the work. The turnaround was 3-4 days in which I would interview the authors, identify and interview independent experts and submit a draft article for fact checking. The experts would often be in different time zones so arranging meetings required good planning skills. The first week felt very hectic!

Monica: I was at BBC Science, specifically working on Inside Health for Radio 4 and Health Check for BBC World Service. Overall, it was enjoyable, educational and at times, quite a surprising experience! A typical day involved working closely with the producers, where I learnt about how a radio programme is formatted and all the work that goes on behind the scenes. We also spent time identifying key stories, contacting experts for their contributions and listening in on interviews to provide comments and analysis.

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?

Priti: In academia, when writing articles or papers, we typically start with gaps in research, methods and then go on to discuss findings. Now, after my media fellowship, I’d start with a punchy headline, key findings and results before sharing the methods of my research. I’ve found this is a good way to bring audiences on board quickly. Also, the writing style in media is very different – it’s more accessible with less jargon, which is something I want to take back to my role in academia. 

Monica: If you want to make an impact, you have to keep your messages clear and short and to talk about your research in a way that is engaging and draws in the audience. I’ve learnt the importance of developing narrative hooks that will draw the public in and encourage them to engage.

What was the highlight of your Fellowship?

Priti: In my third week of the Fellowship, I managed to work on three articles in parallel – something I initially thought was not possible (in the first week, I struggled to meet embargo deadlines!) The first article I wrote focussed more on the methods the authors used for their study but as time went on, I started to better articulate the ‘so what?’ in my articles. The number of iterations required started to reduce and I finally felt that I was learning to write about science in a way that was engaging. In my final week, I was commissioned to write an article about my research – exciting! It has been an absolute pleasure working with the New Scientist team who made me feel welcome and part of their family at every step.

Monica: Throughout my placement, I had been learning about how radio worked and how to convey information from my research in a way that is more accessible and less academic. The highlight, then, was being invited onto Inside Health and Health Checks as a guest and getting the opportunity to put everything I had been learning into practice in relation to my own work and areas of interest. The fact that it went out to a global audience and old friends messaged me from years gone by was an extra bonus!

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

Priti: The most important lesson for me was to cut out the technical jargon – write in a way that is simple and accessible to someone who is not an expert in your field. In fact, I would go further and say write for a teenager who is interested in science. When I interviewed experts, I learnt how to ask the ‘so what?’ question to really understand why their research matters. This enabled me to communicate better with audiences who were not experts in the subject matter. The Fellowship gave me the confidence to write articles on topics outside my area of interest, including the use of fibre optics as earthquake sensors, mobbing flock of Lyrebirds, the food waste challenge, thermoelectric generator sensors, virtual unlocking of historical envelopes and the role of soil to filter human waste! This meant I could reach out to diverse audiences beyond my field of research.

Monica: As I work at the Global Engagement Office at UCL, learning more about reaching new audiences globally was particularly important to me during my placement. The main thing I learnt is the need for every story or piece to have a ‘hook’ that will resonate with the target audience and draw people in to engage with it. This has been quite a learning curve. Academics are all about data and evidence - it’s not usually necessary to amend your approach too much when engaging with academics in different fields but I have learnt that I have to put that aside.

What was the most challenging part about your experience?

Monica: Changing my mindset from that of an academic was the biggest challenge as I needed to start approaching things from a different perspective. In research and academia, I spend all my time thinking about evidence and data but those by themselves don’t sell a story. I sometimes even found myself feeling like I was failing by not talking enough about data, how important it is and what certain statistics meant, which is how I have been trained. However, the presenters and producers kindly nudged me in the right direction.

Do you think your media outlet learnt anything from having a scientist on board for a placement? If so, what?

Priti: I presented my research to the New Scientist team and suggested avenues for increasing coverage of research developed in Low and Middle Income Countries. This is something New Scientist are taking on board and they have requested me to link them with organisations and identify potential journals of interest. This was a proud moment for me in my Fellowship!

How was your experience working at a media outlet remotely?

Monica: Working with a radio team, remotely was not perhaps, quite as disruptive as it could have been for other placements, but there were still challenges and it was interesting to see how the team overcame them. The lack of a controlled environment like a studio means that ambient sounds like a doorbell or a phone ringing are an ever-present risk when recording, but the producers have developed ways to get around them. The biggest challenge was the difficulty in connecting with colleagues and also losing the experience of immersing myself in the environment.

Find out more about the BSA Media Fellowships scheme.