Original post date: Oct 7, 2010
Perhaps I peaked too early. My first paper in grad school was accepted with minor revisions to a NPG journal that let me know soon after I'd sent back the proofs that they'd be putting out a press release. I didn't really know what that meant as far as I was concerned, but felt happy that the higher-ups thought my research would be interesting to the public.
"Becca," my PI warned me, "I don't like that this is your first experience, because it is not usually this easy. Enjoy this, but know that in the future, getting your work out there is going to be much more of a struggle." She is clearly a very smart lady. I, of course, was all "uh-huh?" and waited for the phone to ring. Which it did. A lot.
First there was WebMD, and then a couple of newspapers from my grad school city, a newspaper from a nearby city, a few lesser-known websites, and Ladies' Home Journal (my work happened to be in female rats). I started to feel like Tom Hanks in Splash when he gets to work and his secretary's like, "you had calls today from NBC, CBS, ABC, Newsweek, Sea World, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Mrs. Paul." Except I didn't have a secretary, obviously.
The highlight of the whole experience came when I got calls from two local news stations that wanted me to come in for a live on-air interview. As in, ON TV.
I was nervous as fuck, but the day before my small screen debut, the station emailed and asked me to send them questions for the anchorperson to ask me. PERFECT, I thought, and emailed back what I thought would be easy questions to help them walk me through my research:
1. Why did you do these experiments?
2. What were the results of your experiments?
3. What are the implications of your findings?
Piece of cake, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHLOLOLOLZZZZ.
When I got to the studio bright and early, the news people were like, "Oh hai. The anchor lady is up in Capital City, so what we're going to do here is put this Secret Service-style thingie in your ear, and you can see her on the monitor and hear what she's saying through the earpiece. There may be a tiny delay, mkay?"
Mkay. No problem, I'm thinking, since I gave them those questions. I am totally prepared for this!
But when we finally went LIVE ON AIR, the anchor person looks at me (or rather, my face on a monitor), and in my ear she basically says, "So! Your research [which remember, was in rats] shows that estrogen is like, really bad for women!" And over the course of the next 1.5 seconds, my brain went, Gah! NO! Remember how I gave you those questions to ask me? But I obviously couldn't say any of that out loud, and so my next thought was OK, let's just pretend she asked you the questions you gave her. So I said something like, "well, let's back up a bit and I'll tell you why we did these experiments."
And so on. The anchor lady kept trying to get me to say these really crazy things about women and how screwed they were because of my research, but each time I only told her the truth about my research in rats. When I got back to lab, my advisor was sooooo proud of me. "All the media want to do," she said, "is turn your research into some exciting little snippet for their viewers, when in reality it's of course so much more complicated than that. Nice job not letting them run away with it."
I was reminded of this story by Scicurious's recent post about a horrid piece in Scientific American that spews a whole lot of scare-mongering hyperbole about how the birth control pill is OMG changing the structure of your brain. Go read Sci's analysis, because she lays the smack down. And if you have the opportunity to talk to the mainstream media about your own research, keep them on track as best you can! I'd imagine this group whose work appears in SciAm is getting tons of angry and/or scared emails right now, and all for a paper whose implications for the general public are actually pretty nominal. I'm not saying that any of this is their fault--for all we know the SciAm writers got a 2-minute phone interview and did the rest on their own interpretation. But still, maybe if they'd requested to see the piece before it came out they could have helped tone it down a bit, and get it focused on what the public should actually take away from their work. As scientists, I think we have a certain degree of responsibility for helping the mainstream media--and even science journalists--portray our research as accurately and hype-free as possible.
Oh, and somewhere buried deep in the bowels of my apartment, there's a VHS tape with the very excellent and very hilarious interview on it. Good god but I'm lucky all this went down a year or two before the advent of YouTube.