Do scientists need better media training?

The Sunday Times has published a new interview with Prof. Phil Jones, the scientist at the centre of the University of East Anglia hacked email ‘scandal’. In a sensitive interview, Prof. Jones reveals how the aftermath of the media attention and the attendant opprobrium, have affected his health. One thing that struck me is the difference in tone used in the article. It is a world away from the hysteria that followed the leak of emails from the UEA and the vitriol on the sites of climate sceptics.
                             The whole mess was followed by revelations regarding the IPCCs latest report which alleged Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. In the following storm few took a moment to notice that it was the glaciology community that revealed the incongruity of the claim and then tracked down the source of the error. The fallout from the IPCC glacier issue is not yet settled with calls for the resignation of the IPCC Chairman and/or reform of the panel appearing in several newspapers.
                             These ‘scandals’ share something in common: a poor understanding of proper crisis and media responses on the side of the scientists. That is not to say scientists should resort to spin in their relationships with the media: as the interview with Prof. Jones shows there are plenty of journalists out there who understand the issues and relate well to their subjects. However, things could be handled better. Prof. Jones makes the point that he is a scientist and has no media training. That is changing: young scientists in particular are being offer media training in order to better communicate their science to the public. This may help in times of crisis, but I still wonder how much. In the UEA situation the damage was done when the emails were written and the sceptics made sure no amount of media training would change that. In the case of the IPCC Chairman, a more open and humble approach may have helped. Emphasising the role of the scientists themselves in the rectification of the published error could have limited the damage.

At the end of the day Prof. Pachauri, despite being head of the IPCC, has a very limited publicity machine. Journalists expect personal access leading to the risk of negative personal exposure. In contrast senior politicians have experienced media handlers who have the resources to maintain personal contacts with key journalists. They are largely forgiven for avoiding direct questions and employing spin; it’s actually expected. Large businesses have large PR machines to protect their brand. Scientists, have a couple of days of media training if they’re lucky and a publicity office more designed to attract students and communicate the latest scientific results than to shelter exposed researchers. Scientists, by and large, still have the faith of the public and hence scandals appear to hit harder. It also means they are expected to conform to a higher ethical code. The residual respect the public holds for (underpaid) scientists means that these recent setbacks are not likely to result in permanent damage to the credibility of international science. The UEA emails have fed the trolls; the IPCC report error will no doubt confirm the opinions of those who UN climate panel as a pseudo-socialist/internationalist conspiracy or an affront to national sovereignty. However, for the majority of the news-reading public these events will blow over. Between now and the next scandal though university’s need to review their media policies and crisis handling procedures. Scientists, you need to realise that emails, forum comments, reviews and all other written material are in the public domain.

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