PolicyNet: Science and the media

Today the Royal Academy of Engineering hosted this months PolicyNet event, bringing together those working in science-policy to discuss the subject of how the new media has affected science conversation.

The talk was led by Andrew Cohen, Head of Science at the BBC and Michael Kenward OBE, Science Writer and former Editor of New Scientist. Both speakers talked on the subject before addressing questions from the audience.

Andrew Cohen began the talks by highlighting the powerful impact the new media has had on science communication over the past decade. In a positive light, science issues can now be broadcast to a far greater audience. The use of BBC iPlayer for example, can generate up to one million extra viewers post broadcast, while the development of interactive applications engage wider audiences with science. Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook also facilitate discussion, allow for the creation of media hype and provide immediate feedback. Cohen ended by speaking of the importance of ‘old journalism’, and reminding that science needs charismatic and engaging spokesman like Prof. Brian Cox to represent science to the public more than ever before.

There is however a downside; many conversations about science via the new media can be sensationalized and misleading. Those responding to stories represent only a small sub-set of society – yet broadcasting these views over the internet can distort reader opinions of science as they tend not to provide a balanced argument. Responding to such criticism represents a challenge for organsisations which is further complicated by the merging of people’s personal and professional opinions that are often best kept separate.

Michael Kenward supported Cohens views of ‘old journalism’ and spoke of the frustrations associated with the abundance of poor quality information becoming so widely available via new media streams. Kenward pointed out the need to develop new ways to improve our usage of new media in order to obtain relevant information. The science writer recommended that to tackle this issue we should start by encouraging scientists to provide input into widely used resource websites such as Wikipedia. Scientist input to such sites to check for quality and accuracy would then provide correct information to those seeking it. He also warned of the lack of people older than 35 using new media technology and the need to engage them.

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