Seniority, Self-Confidence Predict Whether Scientists Will Work With Media

21 August 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: Edward A. Hubbard.

While some scientists are happy to talk to reporters, many want nothing to do with news media. I’ve met researchers who think that talking to journalists is beneath them, and others who are clearly terrified by the very idea. What’s going on here? What makes some scientists agree to discuss their work with the non-expert public? Earlier this month I ran across a study that sheds some light on the subject.

I recently wrote about a 2013 study showing that researchers at universities with active public information officers (PIOs) were more likely to “go public” with their research (at least in Germany). That paper cited a 2009 article on factors that were predictive of whether scientists were willing to interact with reporters. I was intrigued, and looked the paper up.

The 2009 paper, “Socialization or Rewards? Predicting U.S. Scientist-Media Interactions,” was published in Journalism & Mass Media Quarterly by a trio of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In order to determine what factors encourage or discourage scientists from engaging with mass media, the paper’s authors surveyed a representative sample of U.S. stem cell researchers and epidemiologists between late 2005 and early 2006. (The total sample size was 363. Full citation for the paper is below.)

What Percentage Of Scientists Talk To Journalists?

The 2009 paper found that most scientists actually do interact with reporters. Sixty eight percent of surveyed scientists reported having been in contact with a journalist within the previous three years – and 29 percent of them said they’d been in contact with reporters more than five times during that period. (The 2013 paper I wrote about recently had a similar finding – reporting that 78 percent of university scientists had engaged in some form of media outreach.)

The authors of the 2009 paper also note that “this proportion [of scientists engaging with media] is identical to that found in studies from the 1980s, as well as to patterns unearthed in the 1990s.” In other words, most scientists are willing to talk to reporters. At least some of the time.

But what predicted those scientist-media interactions?

Things That Matter

For one thing, scientists who think that talking to reporters is beneath them appear to be way off base. The 2009 paper found that “status was positively associated with frequency of contact with media.” In fact, they found that it was the most powerful predictor for scientists engaging with reporters.

That does not mean that researchers gain status by talking to reporters. I think it more likely indicates: A) that reporters seek out senior scientists when looking for comment on science stories; and/or B) that senior scientists are more likely to be lead or corresponding authors of articles in high-profile journals that draw interest from reporters.

If scientists feel confident dealing with media, they will be more likely to engage with journalists. Photo: Holger Motzkau.

However, it does mean that senior scientists are willing to talk to the reporters when the reporters contact them. So, if you are a scientist who thinks talking to reporters is beneath you, think again.

And the study authors think that status may not always be a predictor for whether a scientist is likely to interact with media. This is because “universities charged with training the next generation of scientists are increasingly offering graduate students the opportunity to develop communication and outreach skills through courses, workshops, and certificate programs.”

Why is that important? Because “both formal training and a scientist’s perception that she already has the requisite [communication] skills predicted a greater number of interactions with journalists.” In other words, scientists who are confident in their ability to talk to reporters are more likely to talk to reporters. (And I’ll argue that scientists with media training are more likely to be confident.)

Ergo, the authors argue, the popularity of these training programs for young scientists “suggests that scientists-in-training may seek to make popular communication a part of their intellectual portfolio at the very beginning of their careers; if so, status could decline in importance as a predictor over time.”

Further, the authors observe that the high level of scientist engagement with media (more than 65 percent) over the past thirty years indicates that “cultural change with respect to scientists’ involvement in public communication has been under way for some time; these new skill-building components [for early-career scientists] may well serve to hasten it.”

Rewards

Do scientists talk to reporters because they think they’ll get something out of it? Yes, but probably not in the way you think.

The researchers found that scientists did interact with media for intrinsic rewards. That means scientists talked to reporters for the rewards they gave themselves – “personal feelings of being valued, of having made a difference,” as the paper’s authors put it.

Researchers did not interact with media out of any expectation of receiving extrinsic rewards – such as prestige or the possibility of a promotion at work. But the thought of extrinsic “negative rewards” (i.e., punishments) didn’t play a role either. Scientists didn’t avoid talking to reporters due to concerns that they’d be seen as self-aggrandizing or “unserious” about their work. The authors of the 2009 study note that this “is a bit puzzling, as the culture of science seems to believe strongly that those types of [extrinsic] rewards – positive or negative – are an influential part of the picture.”

My Two Cents

These findings are now more than four years old, and there is no way to know the extent to which the findings apply to researchers in fields outside biomedicine. However, I think this paper is important for two reasons.

First, it is part of a growing body of work showing that the majority of scientists are willing to work with reporters. Hopefully this will encourage other scientists to share their work with non-expert audiences (like reporters) – particularly early-career researchers who care deeply about how they’ll be perceived by their elders.

Second, it highlights the importance of media training (or outreach training, or whatever you want to call it). Scientists appear to be more likely to work with reporters if they feel confident of their ability to represent themselves (and their work) well. That is completely understandable, and I’ve written about it before (here and here). If you’re a scientist, see if your institution offers training. If you’re a PIO, make sure your scientists know that training is available. Again, this could play an important role in encouraging early-career scientists to engage with the public on their work.

Note 1: After reading the 2009 paper, I contacted co-author Anthony Dudo (now at UT-Austin) with a follow-up question. In the paper, the authors wrote “Future research should focus on analyzing the nature and content of scientists’ communication efforts and whether outcomes match the strategic goals scientists and their institutions set for these efforts.” I wanted to know whether he (or his co-authors) had pursued that line of research. I thought his response was interesting and worth sharing.

Dudo: My sense is that more of the “public engagement” research is heading in this direction. At the risk of oversimplifying, much of the engagement research has been focused on the first layer of the onion – that is, identifying factors that drive scientists to engage. But, as the research moves along, scholars are beginning to ask more granular questions about engagement behaviors. Ultimately, I think it's safe to say that the community of scholars working in this area is ultimately concerned not just with what factors lead to scientist-public interactions, but what these interactions look like and what can be done to make them more mutually beneficial. For example, I'm working with some colleagues right now to design and field a few national surveys of scientists to help identify their preferred communication tools for engagement (e.g., micro-blogs, social networking, etc.), the specific communication goals they have when they engage (e.g., defending science, strategic messaging and persuasion, trust-building, etc.), among other aspects. Together, these studies will (hopefully) provide an even richer sense of the engagement process and move us closer to the second layer of the onion – analyzing the nature and content of scientists' communication efforts.

Note 2: The paper is not open access. Citation below.

Socialization or Rewards? Predicting U.S. Scientist-Media Interactions,” Journalism & Mass Media Quarterly, June 2009, Sharon Dunwoody, Dominique Brossard, and Anthony Dudo. DOI: 10.1177/107769900908600203


One Response to “Seniority, Self-Confidence Predict Whether Scientists Will Work With Media”

  1. Elena Reply | Permalink

    Another thought about why seniority shows up as being related to interaction with journalists is that the first years of getting a lab up and running, at least for most natural science professors I know, is incredibly, gut-wrenchingly busy. It seems like all of one's time goes to just managing the basics of getting the lab going -- hiring and mentoring students, managing budgets, writing grants and papers, figuring out teaching. I wonder whether we just don't have time for what are perceived as 'extras' like interacting with journalists at that point in our careers. Later, when we have more seniority, we also often have more time (and some of us are wondering what life is about) and are thus looking for new challenges, like interacting with journalists. No evidence to back that up, just a thought spurred on by the fact that most of the students I know are passionate about engaging; this seems to take a dip for junior professors, and then re-emerges for those just post-tenure.

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