tonight i went to a nice dinner gathering, with various people involved in science communication and public outreach organizations from around the UK in attendance. i got a bit dressed up and walked across town in the rain in my fancy shoes, only to notice that i wasnt as dressed up as everyone else. oh well.
the more official discussions that occurred over dinner were quite enlightening to someone who has been bottled up in academia and has only recently broken out into the realm of public outreach! there isnt really a defined career path for "science communicator" it seems, and i find that rather unfortunate. the overwhelming opinion was that it is best for science professionals to communicate with schools and the public, because they are the most knowledgeable about the cutting-edge science being conducted. but its also true that there are many people eager to communicate science to the masses who lack direct avenues to pursue this goal. i agree that it is excellent for scientists to communicate directly with schools and the public at large, but its not great that most professional scientists have had no proper training in media relations or public communications.
in the US, we spend some time during our graduate student careers as teaching assistants, but for the most part this is not mandatory. in the UK, the time spent in graduate school is so short, and the financial resources are so limited, that most students dont get in front of a classroom until they are lecturers or professors. by that time in a career, one is so busy advising students, preparing lectures, grading tests, doing science, and participating in committees, that the lack of recognition for public outreach activities makes the exercise more work than its worth - unless an individual is naturally enthusiastic about the pursuit.
so - i think universities should put in a little more effort in training students and staff in public and *media* communication. this is beneficial because professors and lecturers might be more willing to engage the public if they get some sort of professional credit for their efforts, and its also positive considering the types of stories often picked up by media outlets.
one example i can think of right now is the large hadron collider (LHC). popular news media outlets necessarily try to appeal to the masses thru catchy headlines. things like "Black Holes Created by LHC Will Destroy Earth!" can get decent newspaper attention, even though the reality of that happening is ridiculously unlikely and only a couple people amid all of humanity are spouting off such silly things to the media. unfortunately, those headlines seem to be a lot more exciting than the majority of stories coming from scientists involved who are talking about quantum mechanics and fundamental particles. scientists make a huge effort to be completely accurate in all information disseminated, of course! but sometimes in an effort to be absolutely "correct," they will sacrifice flashy language that might otherwise appeal to the media and the public. hence the need for media training for current and upcoming scientists!
in my opinion, its not always about being absolutely, positively accurate in every word that comes out of your mouth... its about engaging people with the simple and exciting information that will get them curious enough to think about the subject more!!!
yet, in a time of facebook, youtube, twitter, and other sources of immediate (and not always accurate) online news... what will be the future of traditional media sources in 5, 10, 20, 40 years?? will we bother printing newspapers? will anyone be able to sift thru all the junk to get to the "real" information? will the appeal of the unobstructed internet eventually extinguish, leading us to a renaissance of tangible reading materials? after all, i think most people that still read novels like to read real books with paper pages.
with how quickly media sources and internet fads are changing, and how unexpectedly certain websites are gaining popularity, i hesitate to predict anything about how information will be distributed by today's youth in even a few years time.
these are my late night ramblings... i'm curious about the thoughts from my media-savvy audience.