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Inside the Symbiotic Partnership of Scientists and Journalists in Media Spotlight

Title: “It's my job'': a qualitative study of the mediatization of science within the scientist-journalist relationship

Author(s) and Year: Laura L. Moorhead, Alice Fleerackers and Lauren Maggio, 2023

 

TL;DR: This study interviewed 19 scientists to explore how they engage with the media and interact with journalists in the context of their research. The researchers identified that the traits of adaptation, adoption, and affiliation were seen in these scientists. Additionally, they identified 4 scientists’ personas when engaging with journalists, which are 1) Constrained Communicator, 2) Ambivalent Media Source, 3) Strategist, and 4) Media Enthusiast.


Why I chose this paper: As a scientist and science communicator, I am interested in learning about ways to foster dynamic professional relationships between scientists and journalists. This study reveals insightful results on personas that can assist science communicators in their interactions with scientists.

 

Background

Much like how flowers rely on bees to blossom, the bees depend on flowers for their survival. These symbiotic relationships are an integral part of growth and life. At the core of many impactful science communication efforts are critical partnerships between scientists, who are experts in their niche fields, and communicators such as journalists, who can help spread the information to the wider audience. For journalists, the collaboration with scientists can enhance the overall quality of their science communication work. Hence, both roles are important in bridging the gap between complex research findings and the public's understanding by making intricate concepts more accessible and relatable.


The Study

The goal of the research study was to understand the relationship between scientists and journalists. Moorhead et al., examined the mediatization patterns as the conceptual approach to this study. The two key questions that the authors investigated were: 1) What factors can describe the patterns of scientists involved with media journalists? and 2) What types of personas can be derived from these factors?


Methods

Nineteen scientists (see Table 1 for demographics) who appeared in news articles between March to April 2021 were randomly contacted for an online interview. The 60-minute semi-structured interview through Zoom involved questions about the scientist's experience with journalists. In the interview, the scientists verbally recounted their experience with a news story. During the analysis, the 3 researchers independently coded the transcripts and identified similar patterns in the scientists. From these patterns, the researchers grouped similar profiles (demographic information) together to create personas (representation of the scientist).

A table listing the scientist code, country, experience, institution (type), field and number of journal articles published in the past year for 19 scientists participating in the research study.
Table 1: Demographics of 19 scientists recruited in the study. Nineteen scientists participating in the interviews represented a diverse range of fields, with the majority having backgrounds in medicine and public health.

Results

Researchers analyzed the data in accordance with the Olesk’s framework, which is a theoretical framework that explores how media and communication impact society. The researchers identified three patterns related to scientists' use of media logic, which is a form of communication. The first two patterns, adaptation and adoption, align with previous findings. Adaptation is the ability to convey complex research in a compelling and straightforward manner. The second pattern, known as adopting media logic, centers on actively and strategically managing media interactions by proactively using media logic to achieve specific goals. These patterns relate to how the scientists either react or proactively manage media interactions. The third pattern, affiliation, is a new discovery, where scientists actively contribute to journalists' work and have a strong desire to engage with the public through media outreach.


Furthermore, the study identified four personas that shed light on the roles scientists play in their interactions with journalists.


These 4 personas are:

1) Constrained Communicator: mainly early career researchers or senior scientists, expressed frustration with the research publishing and promotion process as it is out of their control. Their academic institution will often connect them to press officers and journalists.


2) Ambivalent Media Source: typically mid-career scientists who have more negative feelings towards the scientist-journalist relationship. They fear misrepresentation and seldom engage with journalists due to time constraints and energy limitations.


3) Strategist: recognizes that media coverage can be useful career advancement. They see the scientists-journalist relationship as leverage and are willing to dedicate time to interact with journalists. They are selective on which media they interact with and often will favour big media publications outlets such as the New York Times.


4) Media Enthusiast: genuine interest in sharing science, so they enjoy working with journalists. They actively engage with journalists through activities like having lunch, sharing story ideas, and actively seek ways to grow their social media following.


Takeaway

As science communicators, this study is helpful to delve into the intricate relationship that communicators develop with scientists. We can begin to understand motivations and barriers scientists experience when interacting with journalists or reporters. The personas mentioned in this study can equip science communicators with a deeper understanding on how to approach scientists and align it with the correct communication style.

For instance, when working with Constrained Communicators, a strategic approach would involve dedicating time to explain the perspective and procedures of science communicators. This allows the scientists to gain a comprehensive understanding of the interview process and its outcomes. In contrast, with a Media Enthusiast, the emphasis may shift from explaining the interview process to fostering an ongoing professional relationship, which could potentially lead to future collaborations. Thus, understanding the motivations of scientists will help science communicators effectively convey accurate scientific information to a wider audience.


Edited by: Mahima Samraik and Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: Harpenz on Pixabay.com

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