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Media: friend or foe?

There have been some examples of excellent, balanced coverage in UK media in recent months:

  • The Sun: CAN RATS CURE FAT EPIDEMIC? We go behind the scenes at the animal research facility that could hold the secret to ending obesity – award-winning story featuring University of Leicester research
  • BBC Three: The Monkey Lab – linking stories of real patients with researchers, protest groups and animal research facilities

However, other examples still exist where media have taken an easy story, or used a picture that portrays a particular negative message.

Some science journalists – including at some at influential titles and agencies – have personal viewpoints against animal research that could colour the tone of their reporting.

While some institutions avoid mention of animal research in press releases, removing reference to animals can conversely lead to more inaccurate reporting – such as people gaining ‘false hope’ from results from early stage studies in animals that may not translate to people. This was highlighted by the Cardiff journalism school BMJ report on exaggeration and over-simplification of science reporting.

Scientists in the past needed a lot of reassurance to do any media engagement – not just that involving animal research. But this is now less of a problem – media engagement is not just restricted to ‘media tarts’. There are many examples of grants, career progression, and general research dissemination that benefit from strong media engagement.

The media stories of the future

Media coverage has come a long way in recent years – with previous types of stories focusing on statistics or one-sided arguments against the use of animals.

So what are the media stories about animal research in the future?

  • Results focus: We are reaching a stage where science stories in media are focused on the research itself – not just the fact that they involve animal research. The methods are important – but they are no longer the story.
  • People: Stories are now focusing more on the people – the patients requiring treatments; the researchers; the protesters.
  • …but beware the headline: Journalists – and particularly editors and sub-editors – will still be attracted to a sensationalist-sounding story, or give an otherwise straight report a sensationalist headline

To change perceptions about animal research, attitudes in the media and general public need to change still further about the reality of the process.  This means there’s still a lot of engagement that needs doing, and requires the willing participation of researchers and others in positions of authority – yet there are still barriers from various quarters:

  • Scientists and technicians – particularly some more experienced staff who have suffered from bad experiences in the past – are sometimes still reticent to tell people about where they work or ‘put themselves at risk’
  • Leaders of research institutes can have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that means there isn’t clear leadership from the top – and an assumed bias against openness
  • Communications staff and press officers can sometimes not want to take the risks of putting potentially contentious stories out into the hands of the media

Strategies for encouragement

What can research institutions and organisations do to encourage more enthusiasm and be more open with the media?

Experience from leaders in the field – such as Leicester – has shown that institutions that have a proven track record of communications success have built up strong relationships and trust, both internally (with their own staff) and externally (with the media, and other supporting bodies).

If staff are reticent about having complete strangers from the media visit, asking questions, taking pictures and filming, an institution should consider taking baby steps first before inviting in the journalists.

  • Internal first: A first step might be to have more visits internally from media officers – and perhaps allow filming and photography by internal staff – with a view to make an internally-controlled film or other materials. This can provide the reassurance that a story could go ‘out of control’ or otherwise put staff in a difficult position.
  • Taking pictures: Researchers could also be encouraged to take their own pictures or film at several stages of the research process, so that images can be shared later, perhaps when results are published. This helps to normalise the methodology and unveil some of the veil of secrecy that exists.
  • Stick to the job: Universities and research institutes should be clear that their responsibility is to do research, and explain it to the public – not to become documentary makers or journalists themselves.
  • Show the value: To get buy-in from leaders, it is helpful to show them the evidence of the value of openness. There are also other purposes for openness – such as helping to encourage a new generation of technicians and research staff to apply for vacancies, as the older generation approaches retirement in large numbers, risking a loss of experience and knowledge.

Final things to consider

  • Trade press: sometimes targeting a specific trade audience, such as farming media or industry-specific outlets, can be more beneficial than just general public-facing consumer media. Lots of people have little knowledge about where their food comes from, or standards of welfare on farms, for example – yet are set against any standards of welfare in animal research.
  • Undercover filming: while mainstream media may be less interested in stories from ‘fishing expedition’ from undercover filming (such as CFI filming at Imperial), they are more often targeted at an audience of supporters who already hold strong opinions. This means people holding these opinions may be susceptible to propaganda
  • Overseas collaborations: while the UK has strong standards for animal research, standards are not equal worldwide. This leads to a risk that either difficult areas of research are exported overseas, or it is perceived that this is happening – potentially leading to poorer animal welfare overall
  • Bad science: openness helps to prevent poorly-designed studies from happening; public scrutiny should improve scientific scrutiny, and could help with the reproducibility crisis
  • Statistics: changes in reporting criteria mean that it appears numbers of animals used are going up each year – so it’s important that context is given behind statistics
  • Types of animals: there tends to be more backlash against ‘cuddly’ or companion animals – with less opposition to non-mammals, mice and rats
  • Who tells the story: are some institutions better bearers of research stories than others? Are medical charities (who are perhaps perceived more as acting in the common good) better advocates than profit-driven companies, learned bodies, or universities?

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