By Thomas

We all know the saying “Bad News are Good News”, usually used by/for the media, referring to the phenomenon that “Bad News” normally get much more attention than “Good News”. Over the course of the last few weeks the plane disasters in Ukraine, Taiwan and Mali and the subsequent media coverage attest to this.

If our loved ones are on a trip, we might rather think of the saying “No News are Good News”, especially if they travel in region that doesn`t allow them to have 24/7 access to Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to do a job, the principle is again a bit different. And while “Good News are Good News” is hardly a saying, it pretty much sums up the desired outcome that everyone hopes for when there is work in progress. Science is no different in this respect.

As a scientist you want to announce the discovery of the Higgs Boson, rather than explain to the citizens of several european countries that they paid 7.5 billion Euro for a machine that created a black hole that is now swallowing up Switzerland.1

As a scientist you want to announce, that the planet your curious rover is driving on has some interesting features. In the best case something that can be interpreted as possibly indicating that there was an environment on this planet that could in theory have hosted life. You don`t want to tell them that your orbiter crashed on the same planet, because someone thought “pound-seconds” is a sensible unit.2

As a scientist you want to tell your boss that you created a cure for Alzheimer, rather than a virus that will wipe out most of the human population, while at the same time creating highly intelligent apes, that will wipe the floor with the few human survivors. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: What is better than apes on horses? Apes on horses with guns!
Gee, how are they planning to top that in the next movie? Apes on motorbikes?
Source: Hollywoodreporter

If you find the Higgs Boson, Life on Mars or a cure for Alzheimer’s – your “Good News” will be so good that you will have no problem to compete against all the “Bad News” in the newspapers. But what about all the “normal” research? You know, all these small steps with which science normally creeps forward and which bring the community as a whole to a point from where the right person(s) in the right moment can make the giant leap.

In other words: What about your research?3

You know it is great. Your supervisor knows (let`s hope) that it is great. The people in your field know it is great.4

How do we let the rest of the world some more people know how great it is?5

We have to get it into the mainstream news. And to do that, it is good to know how the “news-game” is played. If you know how a news article about science is written, you know which kind of information you have to “get out there” (e.g. via a press release or by sending a pre-written news article to a journalist) to wake the interest of the right people (i.e. science journalists).

Some of us took part in the “Science Communication Workshop”6 at ANU a few weeks back.7 And one part of it is exactly about what is important when it comes to science news articles.

We learned that you have to focus on the questions Who, What, Where, Why, When and How.

We learned that it is very good if some of your answers to these questions can catch your audience with things like proximity (“Hey, the guy living next door to you just cured  …”), a strong impact on society (… cancer! …), prominence (“… btw, he`s the great grandson of Albert Einstein …) and/or novelty (“… and he did it two hours ago”).

We learned about the structure of news articles: Have a hook to ensure people read on. Bring core information first and get more detailed later. Consider that the editor might delete your last paragraph(s) to get the article to the size he wants it. Use quotes of people involved.

And then we had to have our go to write a fictive news article about our research with about 250 words. As most of us are not finished (some even just started) we had to “get a bit creative” when it came to the results that the news articels “were about”. In the coming weeks we`ll post some of those articles here on the blog, to give you examples for the “rules of news article writing” and to give you some overview over PhD student projects currently on the way at RSES.

BUT please keep in mind that the results described in those “news articles” are by no means final and can be described from “That`s my current interpretation of my data that I came up with last night and I haven`t tested yet” to “Wishfull thinking”.

1 The “LHC could create a black hole” idea was ridiculous.

2 Which is what happened to the Mars Climate Orbiter

3 If you just achieved some remarkable feat, I apologize to brand your work as “normal” science and I congratulate you. In 99% (or so) of the cases the sentence will probably be correct.

4 Well, some of them …

5 Obviously, the first thing to do, is to write a blog post here!

6 Delivered by the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science

7 I can recommend it. The two and a half days are very well invested time, especially if you would like to improve on giving talks.