Nutrition Society member Dr Emilie Combet, Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, was the recipient of one of last year’s BSA Media Fellowship awards, a partnership between the British Science Association (BSA) and the Nutrition Society. The fellowship offers practicing scientists the opportunity to spend two to six weeks working at the heart of a media outlet such as The Guardian, BBC Breakfast, or The Londonist.
Selected Fellows are mentored by professional journalists with the aim of enhancing the Fellowship recipients’ confidence and willingness to engage with the media, tackle issues of mistrust and misrepresentation, and support their colleagues to do the same. In turn, fellows provide journalists with access to new scientific expertise. Dr Combet spent 6 weeks in 2018 at The Herald, based in Glasgow, Scotland.
Ahead of the 2019 fellowship, Dr Combet reflected on her experience as a fellow on the scheme.
What made you apply for the Fellowship?
I wanted to further my engagement with science communication and stakeholder engagement. As a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Young Academy of Scotland, and the current theme lead for Health, my ambition is to establish a strong voice for nutrition and its relevance to health in the broader sense. Through the fellowship, I wanted to find out more about how to represent food and nutrition research effectively, highlighting that it is important and relevant to a broad range of disciplines.
What was the most important lesson you learned?
Before starting at The Herald, I was fairly unaware as to how journalists received information about new studies, and what they would consider newsworthy. During my placement, I was able to find out how different press offices operate (which varies widely between universities, in terms of volume and quality). I also became more aware of how lobbyists operate, and how they influence science communication through pathways not usually used by academics.
Why is working with the media important to you?
The relationship between nutrition practitioners and the media should be able to deliver more; specifically to frame better debates and for advocacy. Food is often what brings us all together – diet and nutrition are often reported and discussed in the media, and split opinion. The relationship between readers, journalists and scientists can be tense, which is unfortunate when research impact is so critical. Building relationships with media outlets is essential for food and nutrition advocacy – in term of developing both a voice and a platform.
What was your greatest achievement during your Fellowship?
I was fortunate to work with the science correspondent at The Herald, and got to work on several science-related articles. Some were published in the online version of the paper and a few were printed, including one exclusive, which was published on the front page. I also got the opportunity to cover the 2018 Science festival in Hull and liaise with my host.
What is the main difference between your work as a scientist and your experience of being a journalist?
As an academic member of staff at the University of Glasgow, I am responsible for very diverse projects, tasks, and activities and appreciate the flexibility of our work. During the fellowship, I enjoyed focusing on reading and writing, which I wish I could spend more time on. I also got the opportunity to discuss very varied topics with the other reporters and editors which gave me a broader perspective on what is identified as being “of public interest”. There is a creative license in journalism which is very appealing, as it combines research with storytelling.
What difference will this make to your research/practice?
I am now more aware of routes to disseminate my research, but also barriers to effectively disseminate nutrition research findings. As a result, I am now considering pro-actively how to best disseminate studies, through better use of my networks and more varied platforms.
What are you going to do to act on the things you learned during your placement, or to share them with others?
I have started conversations with colleagues here in Nutrition at the University of Glasgow on how we can better support each other when disseminating our study findings. The fellowship, and conversations with other fellows (during the training days and at the festival), sparked my interest in a different, co-productive and collaborative leadership model in nutrition dissemination.
As a member of the Nutrition Society Strategic Communications committee, I am contributing to the development of activities to support science communication and communication skills enhancement. The Young Academy of Scotland is also developing its communication strategy, and I am looking forward to contributing to it since nutrition plays such an important role in sustaining healthier populations (one of the key themes for the Young Academy).
What are your three top tips for scientists working with the media?
Consider which outlet will amplify your message best, and think about offering them an exclusive – ideally developing good relationships with journalists who are passionate about delivering a fair representation of science.
Be proactive and contact your press office (with a draft release already written up) to discuss your science dissemination objective for your project, as there are strategies other than press releases.
Finally, avoid jargon, and consider adding a relatable, lived element to your story.