Its great news that the federal government no longer ‘muzzles’ its scientists. Now, any reporter in Canada can call any public service scientists for an interview. That’s as it should be. Surprisingly though, a recent survey shows more than half of all federal scientists still feel muzzled. The question is why. One answer is the news media itself.
In thousands of conversations with people in my coaching seminars, the vast majority say their engagement with the news media is one they fear and mistrust. Many feel their words will be misrepresented or distorted by individuals with an ax to grind or reporters assigned to finding a dissenting viewpoint, no matter where it comes from. Others are concerned about insufficient or selective fact-checking. Some talk about how their words will be taken out of context. And some express a concern that they’ll be made to look or sound different than they are and think this will come to haunt them, either with their bosses, their family friends or science peers. Thus, unsure of their capacity to control the outcome in a news interview, they muzzle themselves.
I sympathize with this. As a former journalist, I understand the pressure people feel when they are interviewed on-camera and worked to lower the tension. Most reporters do. And yet the perceptions persist and now are constantly reinforced by the fake news narrative driven by the Trump regime.
Reluctant scientists need to be offered the tools to overcome this narrative of fear. Good media training is a great tool to do so. As technology increasingly dominates our lives, it’s more important than ever that our science and research community engages with its publics. Becoming a credible science story-teller with a purposeful aim to deliver a memorable interview and to have it reported as closely as possible to its original intent is a trainable outcome. But it takes practice in a non-threatening environment to learn how to build the personal confidence to take charge of their story and who they are telling it to.
Sure, a few scientists are great story-tellers. They don’t need much media training. But most are not naturally so. Their peer reviewed science paradigm is a research paper where the lead is often buried at the end. Changing that paradigm in a news environment is a learned skill. Without it, many of our scientists will continue to feel muzzled, whether or not they actually are.