Annual Meeting Reports

Communicating through the Mass Media and Social Media: From Journal Page to Center Stage

Jim Handman, executive producer of “Quirks & Quarks” at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and a member of the editorial advisory committee of the Science Media Centre (SMC) of Canada, and Susan Murphy, a partner and digital storyteller at Jester Creative Inc and part-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, delivered tips and tricks on how publishers can successfully engage with both traditional and social media.

Handman spoke about engaging traditional media. He introduced the SMC, a valuable resource for science journalists and especially general-assignment reporters assigned to cover scientific stories. The SMC helps journalists by offering a weekly wire service, gathering expert comments on controversial topics, presenting Webinars and backgrounders, and providing a 24/7 telephone service. Handman explained the need for SMC as twofold: the recognition that science is in the news more than ever and the fact that journalism as we know it is currently under siege. He noted that staffing cuts and increased demands for copy have led to the development of “churnalism”, defined as the act of churning out copy that is based mostly on press releases.

He then asked the big question: Why should scientists bother to engage with the news media? He gave two reasons: because all Canadian scientists receive public funding, they should be accountable to report their findings to the Canadian public, which sponsors their research; and scientists are the subject-matter experts, and their refusal to engage with the news media allows others the opportunity to set the agenda, as was the case with the Greenpeace movement against genetically modified organisms.

Handman provided some tips for what makes a good story:

  • Make it really cool and/or really relevant.
  • Apply the rule of three (three ideas in 5 minutes).
  • Use analogies.

Murphy then turned our attention to social media. Scientists can learn a lot from Commander Chris Hadfield, she said. Described by Forbes as “perhaps the most social-media–savvy astronaut ever to leave the earth”, Hadfield has mastered the use of Twitter (more than 930,000 Twitter followers as of May 2013), Reddit, Tumblr, and YouTube. Space is a subject of great interest, but it is difficult to understand fully without first-hand experience. Hadfield successfully shared with the world his experience as commander of the International Space Station, and he did not do so in a didactic manner. Instead of writing a scientific paper for publication in a peerreviewed scholarly publication, he engaged with followers through social media.

“Listening is the most important thing that you can do with social media,” Murphy told CSE members. “Listen more than you talk. Twitter and Facebook are not broadcast channels. They are conversational channels.” For the Twitter averse, Murphy noted that it is possible to listen without joining by using News-aggregating sites, such as, were also suggested as a good way to see what’s trending.

A 2013 commentary in The Lancet asked the question, What is the purpose of medical research? And it suggested that “most people would hopefully reply: to advance knowledge for the good of society.” What better way to advance knowledge than to reach out to society through its media of choice, be it newspapers, radio, or social media? Thanks to the tips provided by Handman and Murphy, we should all feel a bit more comfortable in doing so.