The RSS Science Journalism Programme: educating the communicators

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

The RSS Getstats campaign aims to improve statistical literacy across the nation, from those in parliament to the children in our schools. But an important plank in this strategy is to also improve the understanding of those working in the media, who are often the brokers between the statisticians and the wider public.

This is why the RSS Science Journalism Programme was launched back in 2010. The aim of the project is to improve the scientific and statistical understanding of journalism professionals, and journalism students, through workshops given by science and statistics professionals themselves. The project has received funding from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to deliver the workshops at journalism schools and news organisations across the UK.

The programme was originally established as a recommendation of the Science and the Media Expert Group’s report Science and the Media: Securing the Future. The RSS agreed to host the programme on the principle that an understanding of statistics and science is fundamental to the needs of journalism training that were identified in the report.

The digital age has hugely increased the amount of information available to the public. But this proliferation in media outlets brings with it the added danger of misleading reports slipping through the net. Every day, newspapers carry thousands of words about the latest science findings, and a big result such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson, can expect to be reported across the globe. Likewise, the growing use of numbers in journalism, by different organisations, government institutions, as well as private and public sector organisations creates added pressure on journalists to ensure that data and science is reported correctly.

The workshops are delivered by professional volunteers who attend a ‘Train the Trainer’ session led by Vinet Campbell, the National Coordinator for Science Journalism Training at the RSS, with input from Robin Bisson (Science Information Officer at the Science Media Centre).

In these events, Vinet explains her approach to equipping the volunteers. ‘I try to ensure that the workshops are engaging and interactive. So I developed class games, and dynamic learning exercises to make the subject approachable and to enhance the learning experience for trainers.’

These games involve getting the volunteers to ‘step into the shoes of a journalist’ and look at the challenge from their point of view. So for example this involves learning the editorial hoops that journalists must jump through before an article is published. Another example involves judging a sample of scientific articles, without seeing the original paper or press release that the story is based on.

Vinet also adds, ‘As I am training our volunteers to deliver a specialist subject to non-specialist journalists and journalism students, it is all the more important to ensure that the science and statistics content is accessible to those without a background in statistics or science. And reminding trainers that at the crux of it, scientists, statisticians and journalists want the same thing: the art of journalism is a ‘method of inquiry’, a quest for truth and fulfilling a public duty by communicating that truth.’

What journalists really need is more confidence to question and scrutinize the science or figures before them. Vinet explains this point, ‘One of the most memorable moments came from one of our volunteer trainers, who summed up the key learning point for the programme: giving non-specialist journalists the confidence to question their science or statistics source with the same rigour as they would an interviewee.’

One of the most recent events has just taken place at the Brighton Journalist Works where RSS Fellows Simon White and Paul Askew presented a workshop.

Simon works as a Senior Investigator Statistician at the Medical Research Council’s Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge. He says he wanted to get involved in the programme so he could talk to journalists about statistics ‘not in a dry stats way but more in a conversational way’. So as he put it, ‘one of the things I hope to achieve is that when a journalist sees a story, instead of automatically thinking “that’s exciting”, is to think “actually, is this exciting?”’.

As a practical demonstration of this he cited one of the examples he would be talking about at his workshop. ‘Say there is a family that has three children, and they all share the same birthday. An initial response might be that this is really unusual. But actually when you work it out, there is the same number of third children born each year as the odds of all three children being born on the same day. So you would expect this to happen once a year. For the family it’s incredibly unusual, but nationally it’s not that much of a story.’

In this way he sums up the different way of thinking he hopes those attending his workshop to come away with, ‘it’s the subtleties of numbers I’m hoping we will be able to communicate’.

Further workshops are scheduled for 2014 in major cities including Aberdeen, Birmingham, Dublin, Londonderry, London, Newcastle, Portsmouth, and many more.


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