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The road to Northampton

Ted Nield ponders force majeure in science coverage at the 2002 BA – from the November issue of Geoscientist

In 1839 William Smith, Father of English Geology, author of the first geological map of any entire country and now (at last) a celebrity, met oblivion in Northampton, on his way to the British Association (BA) meeting in Birmingham. Pondering this fact one Sunday 163 years later, MM arrived safely in nearby Leicester – in the company of 100,000 young people, most of whom appeared to be either drunk or psychotic (or both).

As a rule, only a few people arrive at the BA on Sunday. Eric Robinson is often to be found photographing a bank frontage. This year, you might have seen Trevor Ford and Roger Mason thrashing through Charnwood Forest, eyes of faith firmly fixed on the trail of Precambrian fossils. The usual BA life-members can always be seen hobbling around another strange campus in mail-order, Velcro-fastened shoes lined with real imitation sheepskin. Meanwhile, in the Media Centre MM and one or two other battle-scarred hacks groan gently as they leaf through the next day’s releases, wonder how many more of these things they will have to cover, and lapse into appropriate reflections about mortality, William Smith, and the road to Northampton. BA Sundays are quiet. Usually.

It is also true that many hundreds – maybe even thousands – of young people visit the BA each year. But they come in buses, on weekdays, and in uniform. No, this lot were different. They had whistles and hooters, wore fluffy pink antennae, and clothes that no respectable East Midlands school would permit. MM’s instincts told him they were not coming for the BA, and so it proved. They were coming for BBC Radio One’s One Big Sunday.

This coincidence rather set the tone for the 2002 BA, which never quite escaped the shadow of events elsewhere. Wednesday, for example, was September 11th. And when (after three days of unremitting coverage) everyone grew tired of that, there was the little matter of a possible war, and the mysterious business of how a dead man ended up at the bottom of Mr Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool. There is not usually this much news around in early September. One day even The Daily Telegraph spiked every BA story – it was that bad.

It is a continuing theme of these essays that science must fight for its space in the media on the media’s terms. The enormous attendance at One Big Sunday, plus the busy news week, neatly demonstrated how puny a minority interest science is, even at its greatest public show. Yet although the struggle for space in the media may be unequal, it is by no means hopeless with the help of some properly directed effort.

The BA’s own media centre – an annual miracle in itself - cannot make bricks without straw, so speakers must submit information to them in the form of press releases. These are rarely top-notch examples of the art, but they are essential. Last year the turnout (from Earth scientists) was poor. This year, MM’s own quick survey showed well over 80% submitted. Why this dramatic improvement?

Though it had help from BGS and brought in speakers from further afield, the Leicester geology department practically carried the whole Earth science show. Leicester University is also fortunate in having former journalist Ather Mirza as its press officer. Ather - one of the best in the business - was keen to ensure all the University’s speakers took the opportunity to promote their institution and almost nobody escaped his attention.

Press releases work, and although media relations often depend on luck, the harder you work the luckier you tend to get. And, as though by cosmic intention, a survey proving just this was published right in the middle of the Festival itself, looking at releases versus coverage gained for medical science in two newspapers - The Times and The Sun. Originally published in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, the survey was picked up in the September issue of The Science Reporter, organ of MM’s professional body, the Association of British Science Writers (picture).

As editor Mike Kenward pointed out: the big science journals’ media relations machines dominate the science we read about in newspapers – just as BA science coverage is dominated by those who go to the trouble of writing releases and holding conferences. Although there was interesting detail, the survey’s main conclusions were unsurprising. Guess what? Not only does science need news releases, but bad news tends to beat good news; research on women’s health and reproduction is vastly over-represented, while medical research relevant to the developing world is never covered at all. Well blow me down. What’s more, "Headlines in both newspapers tend…towards an emphasis on entertainment value rather than on importance to public health".

Duh-uh, as English speakers of the Friends generation would say at this point. Yes, newspapers are showbiz, and "entertainment value" is usually why the BA does so well in them. For in addition to solid stories - like Andy Chadwick (BGS) on carbon dioxide sequestration at Sleipner (Geoscientist February 2001 – see also Funny Old World) - the BA famously also provides quirkies. One distinguished medical researcher, for example, told the meeting about the first "intelligent disposable nappy". The obvious flaw in this story - the fact that any truly intelligent nappy would immediately go out and find other work - hardly mattered. And then there was David Siveter.
Photo by M. Hooge Professor Siveter (Leicester University) harbours an unreasonable affection for ostracods – beasts which, over their long evolutionary history, have developed an unreasonable affection for each other. Not only do they exhibit the most enormous and disproportionate genitalia, they tend to have unfeasibly large spermatozoa (ten times body length in one case). As a group, they also possess the oldest penis in the fossil record.

If ever there was classic BA territory this was it, and but for mainstream media shyness of the penis it just might have become the story of the conference. In the end, coverage was demure and – like the rest of the Festival – overshadowed. Timing and luck played their part again. Siveter’s story – despite press release, press conference, pictures and everything - had the misfortune to come up against dinosaurs. And even old stories about dinosaurs trump anything invertebrate, any time.

The road to BA coverage may be paved with good intentions, but despite one’s best efforts, in media relations sometimes you just can’t win. You can do brilliant press releases and hold the liveliest press conferences. You can have the best illustrations, on-line, at 300dpi, and even turn up in the pressroom to make sure everyone’s happy. But in the end, if science comes head to head with One Big Sunday, September 11 or a popular entertainer’s party guest who suffers a date with density in a swimming pool, you’re stuffed. Like William Smith, instead of being splashed on the front page of Westminster Abbey, your story ends up buried somewhere in oblivion.

But that, as they say, is showbiz.


Selected references

On ostracods v dinosaurs – see The Times 14.9.02, p12 Horns and crests used to find mate leads over Just how long has this been going on. The Independent, scorning dinosaurs leads on ostracods: 14.9.02, p 12: The world’s sexiest animal. The Daily Telegraph (14.9.02, p14) scorns ostracods completely and gives a picture of Prof Scott Sampson (Utah Museum of Natural History) with Dinosaurs "grew horns to win mate"