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Can scientists be storytellers?

Researchers are experiencing first-hand what journalists are looking for in a good science news story.

Scientists and researchers across New Zealand are getting a crash-course in how to get their point across clearly to the media and show them that what they do is important for improving New Zealanders’ lives.

The communications workshop that the researchers attend, called Science Media SAVVY, can be done as a 15 minute ‘taster’ at conferences, a day-long specialist workshop and a full two-day course.

The two-day workshop is by far the most popular. It runs several times a year in different locations around the country and, with only twelve participants per workshop, is always oversubscribed.

Camera interview practice

The workshops are run by experienced journalist Peter Griffin and former journalist Dacia Herbulock from the Science Media Centre, with help from media veteran Michael Brown.

The trio also runs workshops for Māori researchers with Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga. This workshop incorporates tikanga and kaupapa Māori, and seeks to boost the number of Māori researchers covered in the media.

Over the two days, participants learn how to clearly explain why their work is important, visit a media organisation to get a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of how it works, deal with challenging questions pitted to them while on camera, and pitch their research as a story idea.

Visit to Radio New Zealand

“All of us have walked away with a kete full of new skills,” says Yvonne Taura (Ngaiterangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Hauā) a researcher at Landcare Research whose work weaves together mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) and science in protecting our wetlands.

“Sitting in front of a camera wasn’t natural for most of us but given the safe environment, we all gave it a go and discovered it wasn’t too bad! I’ve now got a new appreciation for media and reporters, and how important it is to communicate our research projects to the wider communities.”

The latest workshop was held in Wellington and included a visit to Radio New Zealand, which was a highlight for John Cockrem, a professor at Massey University whose expertise is in hormones.

“It was brilliant!” he says. “It’s also been especially good having a mix of old and young scientists from different fields and hearing their honest feedback when we were doing the video exercise. This is definitely worth the time invested!"

Advice during camera interview

Interview on camera

Dacia Herbulock explains that SAVVY goes much further than just helping researchers communicate more effectively:

“Through SAVVY, we’re encouraging and improving how scientists and media interact in the real world, which ultimately helps to make science easier to engage with and more relevant for the media and the public,” she says.

Lucy Telfar Barnard, who investigates rental housing quality and health at Otago University, tells us that her favourite part was the filming.

“It was so useful to see how you present yourself on screen and find out from the watcher's point of view what you need to work on,” she says. “It’s helped me to really think about and refine what I’m saying, which I haven’t done before with speaking.”

 Watching the playback

At the end of the second day, the researchers met four journalists and asked them questions, before practicing their newly honed skills by pitching to the journalists a story about their work.

Alison Ballance, producer and presenter of Radio New Zealand’s Our Changing World programme tells us that this component is particularly good because it lets the researchers see the faces behind the names and helps them to get the courage to pitch a story idea to journalists in the future.

“The scientists also get to see that journalists do different types of coverage – including long-term programmes and long form articles – and not just fast news,” she says. “This is a great opportunity for me too, as I get to make connections and hear about research that I can sometimes use in my stories.”

Pitching a story to journalists

“This has changed how I see journalists,” says Jocelyn Turnbull at GNS Science, who is researching how the Southern Ocean ‘mops up’ the greenhouse gases we emit. “I thought they were always looking to find fault with my argument, but actually they are just real people doing the best to do their jobs!"

TVNZ 1 News reporter Briar Wells adds, “I think it’s important for scientists to meet journalists because it helps them realise that we're all just normal people who are genuinely interested in hearing about their work.

“It’s been exciting to see such a diverse range of topics that these people are looking at, as well as find out what's happening out there and how these researchers are trying to create a better New Zealand.”

Pitching a story to journalists


SMC logo

SAVVY logo

The team are running video-making workshops in Auckland and Wellington in March. 
In April, they will be running the SAVVY two-day workshop in Dunedin.

Visit the Science Media Centre website to find out more.

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