Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Hot tip: be a person not a robot

In May 2015 on May 20, 2015 at 11:27 am

robot image

Sarah: It feels like everyone is on social media now.

My sister, my dad and even my twelve year old cousin send out “selfies” and tweets onto the world wide web every single day. In Australia alone there are now more than 2.5 million tweeters, 4 million people using Instagram and nearly 14 million Facebook users (see here for more stats).

To use twitter and other social media platforms to rise above the vast online crowd and present a strong professional presence you need planning, practise, a little bit of canny and a few hot tips.

In Adelaide on Friday May 29 2015, I’ll be sharing my experiences of social media and professional development through a session on Social Brand Building, part of Digital Boot Camp – a joint production between SA Writers Centre and The Walkley Foundation.

To get everyone in the mood, I’ve compiled a few early pointers.

Here are five things you can do right now to help you develop a trusted voice on social media.

  1. Make your twitter bio meaningful

When you’re using twitter as a professional tool, your bio is the perfect opportunity to explain who you are, what you do and why people should follow you. Here’s mine (see @sciencesarah):

Freelance science writer | GradDipSciComm PhD BMedSci | I’ve got science in my life .

  1. Choose a suitable avatar

Your photo is important. Make it headshot, let people see your face and try to appear friendly. People want to know you!

  1. Be a person not a robot

Yes, platforms like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck allow you to schedule tweets and collect statistics. But don’t become a slave to the numbers. Successful tweeting often means interacting in real time through real conversations.

  1. Different platforms demand different content

A few extra clicks will allow me to post the same image and words across my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. And yet I rarely choose to do so. Each of my accounts has a different audience and so for it to be successful I should craft different content for each platform.

  1. Don’t abuse the DM

Mutual followers/followees on twitter can DM (direct message) each other. It’s a privilege abused by many Twitter users – in my opinion, it’s overstepping the mark when you follow a fellow writer, only to have them turn around and DM you an invitation to ‘please buy their book’.

Hope to see you on May 29-30 at the SA Writers Centre for Social Media Boot Camp! See here for more information, and to book.

This post was first published by SA Writers Centre on May 19 2015. 

[Image credit: This pin-up is featured in the comic book, Unleashed #4, produced by Chalkline Studios. Shyloh is created and owned by Ed Dansart. Check out his work at]


Heaps good

In July 2014 on July 30, 2014 at 9:27 pm


Sarah: I’ve been doing lots of writing lately, and it’s making me happy!

One of my publication sites is The Lead SA, a website set up to share content from South Australia with the world. Stories and news leads appearing on the website are open to anyone who wants to publish them or use them as a source. The goal of the resource is to counter the fact that

“knowledge of South Australia is restricted to a tiny number of specific subjects, such as brands of wine, the Adelaide Oval and its historic scoreboard and some infamous crime.”

If you’re interested, here are the stories I’ve created for The Lead:

[image thanks to Megan Poore on flickr]

QnA: Developing skills for scientific enquiry

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Today a student sent me these two great questions:

Query: I was interested in your point (made during the lecture) about your daughters’ teacher who, although she had never studied science formally, taught children to ask open ended questions/ have an inquiring mind/ participate in open ended conversations. Would you say these inquiry skills are most important for students to learn in science classes at primary school

Students are blogging more and more these days and I thought blogging may be a good way for students to develop their science inquiry skills, ie. question, predict, plan, conduct, process & analyse data, evaluate and especially – communicate. As a notable ‘science blogger’, what do you think about this idea?

Response: Yes, I do think inquiry skills are a critical aspect of primary school education – and not just valuable to science either. The best adult scientists have an awareness that there is never a single or correct answer ‘out there’ to each dilemma. Investigating scientific theories – also know as hypotheses – involves seeking evidence. New information either supports or refutes your hypothesis, and then you refine your hypothesis on the weight of evidence. So learning to keep an open mind, ask lots of questions, not to be put off by different kinds of evidence is an important lesson to learn early. Having teachers who aren’t afraid to say “oh well, that’s interesting/unexpected” and to invite kids to reconsider their thoughts on how things work is so valuable. If kids are taught to seek ‘the answer’ and not be able to discriminate the quality of the information they see, it’s probably very difficult to undo.

I think blogging can also be a useful way to learn research skills – but with some limitations. As long as the blogger has a rigorous approach to seeking and evaluating the quality of evidence, it can work. Seeking confirmation of facts through alternative sources is also important. In addition, using the internet as a research tool has some limitations. For example, using Google to search for evidence will return information tailored to suit the user based on past activity, not on the quality of evidence necessarily. Also, on social media – as in real life – people tend to collect people around them who reflect their own views. These may not necessarily be balanced and evidence-based views.

Addendum: When I posted this same article on the ScienceforLife.365 Facebook community, and shared to my own personal page, I received responses from two teachers whose opinion I respect.

This comment is from a university teacher: Yes and no. Yes, that students need to have open-minded and thoughtful teachers that allow the students to consider things in their own open way (which I think is the essence of the above). However, it is just as important to ask questions that lead to conclusions. Too often ideas are bounced around via open questions that never get resolved. I think that is the second part of the post, and it’s true that students need to come some conclusion in the end that is consistent with what science says.

This comment from a teacher of junior primary aged children: When I pose a question through provocation in the classroom it has a twofold purpose. To invite children in to both the theory and the language of science and to orchestrate the learning to enable the children to achieve the scientific outcomes. When we empower the scientific competencies in even the youngest of children we are inspired by the deep thinking and learning that occurs. We hear the children name themselves as scientists and use complex scientific language in their everyday learning. We look now, always at the child as competent rather than an empty vessel that needs to be filled! Great post!

[image thanks to audio luci store on flickr]


QnA: Can ‘like’ treat ‘like’?

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:19 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Here’s one of the written queries I received, and my answer.

Query: Thinking about homeopathy, how does the theory of “like treating like”’ relate to science?

Response: As far as I know, there is no scientific evidence to broadly support the idea of ‘like treating like’.

Treating medical ailments in a scientific manner involves considering what specific mechanism is involved in each case. As an example: for a fever which results from infection with a virus, this involves thinking about how the virus creates changes in the body which elevate temperature. In a nutshell, the virus triggers a response in the body’s immune system. This response includes the release of signalling molecules (known as cytokines) which tell the cells of the immune system to travel to the site of infection, and also coordinate activities which eventually kill the virus (in most cases). Unfortunately the cytokines also lead to a rise in body temperature. So using something like panadol reduces body temperature and pain in a targeted way and without limiting the ability of the cytokines to coordinate immune activity.

However in each treatment there is also a placebo effect. In effect, this refers to the fact that people tend to feel slightly better after taking what they perceive to be a treatment even if that treatment has no actual effect at a biological level. The simple act of believing a treatment is effective actual does have an impact – how much of an impact varies according to the situation. Here’s some more reading:

[image thanks to Sue Clark on flickr]


BYO children

In June 2014 on June 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

in disguise

Sarah: Yesterday I delivered a guest lecture to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia.

I spoke about how my experiences in science and writing, the role that blogging and social media has played in developing my skills, and how writing science can sometimes be a battle between the demands of rigorous and ethical science reporting versus the needs of news-makers.

The lecture time was 6pm – a terrible hour for any parent with young kids needing meals, homework done, bag sorting, lunchbox cleaning and general emotional health maintenance. Plus various piano lessons and footy practise drop-offs and pick-ups to squeeze in as well. With my two boys hand-balled in the direction of parents in law plus husband, I decided to take my 9-year old daughter to the lecture.

She loved it. Absolutely loved it! The chance to be in a university environment, sit in a lecture theatre, see what uni students look like, realise that what I do when she’d not there is valued by other people – she lapped it all up.

Take your kid to work sometime. It’s good for everyone.


Sharing the love

In January 2014, Uncategorized on January 30, 2014 at 5:06 pm

asc screenshot copy

Sarah: Next week I will be sharing the ScienceforLife.365 love at the Australian Science Communicators conference in Brisbane, Australia.

I’ve put together a paper and a 10-minute presentation which describes this blog, and summarises some of the career benefits I believe it has delivered me (in addition – of course – to the personal enjoyment I have derived from the project). You can read my presentation summary here. Hopefully the paper will be available for public viewing after the event as well; I’ll post a link if possible.

I’m also delighted to be co-producing the What is science journalism? session with journalist and author Bianca Nogrady. The subject matter arose following several posts on this blog, as well as discussions we had with a broader audience through the email network of the Australian Science Communicators. We are very fortunate that fabulous radio host Natasha Mitchell will be chairing the session, and supported by an expert sciencey journalistic panel consisting of Jenni Metcalf, Leigh Dayton, Graham Readfearn and Ian Townsend. Stay tuned to @sciencesarah and #ASC14 for coverage if you’re interested.

But wait, there’s more! I’m thrilled to be a co-presenter on a further two presentations at the conference: one on the RealScientists project, and the second around the science twitter chat #onsci.

But the best, best, best part of the conference will be meeting up with people with whom I chat regularly online. Like Kirsti Abbott! Yes, Kirsti who blogs here. Hard to believe, but we have only ever met before on twitter, Facebook, Skype and email.

Gin and tonics and lots of laughs will be happening for sure. In the name of science.

Day 334. Crossing to the dark side

In July 2013 on July 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm


Jacqui Hayes plays underwater rugby, considers herself an expert with tandem bikes and is into physics.

She’s also a well-respected Australian science communicator and writer.

Given my recent Venn diagram-like explorations of science communication and science journalism,  I asked Jacqui if she could offer any insights into this world based on her own experiences.

This is what she said:

Crossing to the dark side

No doubt, almost every journalist who takes a role in PR or communications has been accused of “crossing to the dark side”. For me, it took a week. Not long after COSMOS Magazine announced their office would be moving to Melbourne, I started on a short-term contract as a media liaison and science communicator at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). A week into the new job, and I had my first visiting reporter and I mentioned how, until recently, I’d been working as a science journalist. She looked at me, a bit surprised. And then, she said it: “You’ve crossed to the dark side!”

It’s always said with faux horreur and a cheeky smile. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in the numerous times since that I’ve heard the phrase, the crossing has only ever been referred to as a one-way transition. No one talks about the PR person who became a journalist. Instead, it’s treated a bit like going through puberty or baking a cake: once it’s done, it’s done, and no amount of wishing can undo those changes.

As I was working for a well-respected medical research institution – as oppose to one of the oft-maligned PR agencies – as often as not, the phrase was followed up with, “but at least you’re working for one of the good ones, right?”

To a certain extent, this is right. When I spoke with members of the public, they were already invested in the research – often they were suffering from a disease being researched at the institute, or they knew someone who was. When I called journalists, I was pitching new knowledge, new trials, new ways of thinking about old problems. I’m sure it takes ungodly persistence and nerves of steel to convince a journalist (or yourself) of the benefits of the product X or a strategic partnership, but luckily neuroscience and medical research, as with much of science, doesn’t require this kind of sales pitch.

In my (albeit limited) experience working in-house, there are some other great aspects to the role I hadn’t appreciated before making the crossing: you get to think creatively about how your story might work across all platforms. Having worked largely in magazines, online, and social media, it was nice to stretch to thinking about how to make a research outcome appealing for television, to think of interesting shots and camera angles (like this one). Depending on the role and which institution you go into, there are opportunities for event management, marketing and broader communications for industry, business development and government. Communicators often end up with a very broad skill set.

I had also thought that there would be fewer stories in house, because instead of working across all of science you are only covering one institution. I was pleasantly surprised to find the process of story discovery as a media liaison and science communicator is really rewarding. There’s far more stories to tell than can ever be told – and often researchers don’t think to tell a communicator about any of their work unless it’s a key publication. You have to dedicate time to building trust and relationships (and communication channels) to get some of these stories, something I couldn’t have done as a journalist.

In the near future, we may face a situation where institutions no longer need the media and journalists: they are slowly building their own audiences, through blogs and social media, and can now talk directly to traditional media’s audience.

In light of this, the role of the science journalist has not been diminished, as you might think, but become more crucial: they cross-check institutional messaging with independent experts; they can tell broader stories, synthesising research across multiple institutions; they can criticise science or individual scientists openly. They are there to defend the reader, not serve an institution.

Even so, as a science journalist who has recently made the crossing, I can say that, all things considered, there is some light on the dark side.

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Jacqui Hayes (find her on twitter: @SpaceKangaroo)

Day 329. An open letter

In July 2013 on July 8, 2013 at 3:27 pm


Dear fellow members of the Australian Science Communicators,

I too am very interested in considering perpectives on science journalism and science communication, and how the two interrelate.

It interests me on a personal level because I’m trying to work out where I fit along the science writing continuum. However of course there are also bigger implications. Implications for:

  • How we (the people who talk about science) define our goals;
  • How we, governments and consumers make decisions about who pays for communication and journalism content;
  • How the public interprets material with a scientific flavour; and
  • Whether this material has the desired or indeed any impact.

I’ve written a few blog posts in recent weeks trying to get my brain around aspects of this. (If you’re interested, it started with Journalism is dead?, then progressed to Journalism versus communication and finally resulted in this duo: Profile of a science journalist and Profile of a science communicator. Of course my descriptions are not perfect – please add comments if you feel so inspired).

Whilst I’ve found the process of writing these posts helpful in clarifying my own thoughts, of course now I have more questions.

What I’m really interested in is the intersection of the two specialities, communication and journalism. Here are some issues which plague me:

  • In writing and reading job definitions or descriptions, how can one distinguish between a ‘science journalist’ and a ‘science communicator’?
  • Can one person effectively swap from writing as a journalist (for example, for a newspaper) to writing as a communicator (for example, for a science institution)?
    i.e. is switching from relatively unbiased to somewhat biased writing a comfortable transition?
  • Is it important that science writers themselves have an awareness of the difference between science journalism and science communication?
  • How can readers of science writing tell the difference between science journalism and science communication?

Related questions are being raised in other arenas as well: see this piece by Matthew Ingram entitled Thanks to the web, journalism is now something you do – not something you are which explores the relationships between advocacy/activism and journalism.

Getting back to the ASC, are these questions important for us to consider as a community of people who talk about science in public spaces? I think yes, and I’m hoping this may come up as a potential topic for the ASC conference in February 2014. In addition to hearing from communicators and journalists who are ASC members, it’d be great to invite ‘outsiders’ along to get their perspectives as well.

I’m looking forward to the conference.



I posted this letter to the Australian Science Communicators email list July 8 2013

[image thanks to Markus Reinhardt on flickr]

Day 321. Profile of a science journalist

In June 2013 on July 1, 2013 at 8:58 am


Many different groups of people talk about science in the public sphere.

In Australia, two of the most visible of these groups are science journalists and science communicators.

If we could profile the typical science journalist, what would he/she be like? What would be the necessary characteristics to have such a career? (For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to focus on print journalism just to simplify things a little).

→ The capacity to present science with knowledge, understanding and objectivity.

→ The capacity to question your material and your sources, seek alternative opinions and explanations.

→ The ability to pitch your material at a level to suit your audience, whether readers of a general newspaper or a specialist publication. In general, newsworthiness and novelty factor are key.

→ The ability to create a great story: a piece which is written well entices the reader forward, makes them want to read more even if the subject matter is complex.

→ The skill to write a piece which even though it may have science at its heart, does not place selling of science as a concept at the core of the article. For the reader, it does not necessarily matter whether the item is about science or not: if it’s a good story, it will be read regardless.

Of course science journalists are people, and don’t always deliver on all these fronts. But the best frequently do.

[image thanks to spunkinator on flickr]

Day 320. Journalism versus communication

In June 2013 on June 30, 2013 at 12:29 pm


What is the difference between science journalism and science communication?

This question has been nagging at me recently.

I’ve even been thinking it through at strange hours of the night, sometimes with the company of a three-year old (I knew I had kids for a reason).

Joel Werner had an ongoing conversation with twitter followers of RealScientists recently on this exact topic. You can review some of the ideas which were discussed here.

It’s interesting at the outset to consider it by asking the question:

Who actually are the groups of people talking about science in the Australian public sphere?

There are many different folks involved.

Some use traditional media platforms, some use the internet (including social media), many use both.

Some are members of Australian Science Communicators; some are not.

They call themselves different names: journalists, writers, communicators, bloggers, outreach officers, educators, researchers.

Some have as science background; some do not.

Some are paid professionals; others are fuelled entirely by enthusiasm, creating blogs and other content for no fee at all.

Of the paid professionals, some work for media outlets, some work for academic institutions, some work for marketing companies, some work for public relations units.

Some are teachers: either full time in schools and tertiary institutions, or part time in ‘guest’ roles.

Some are full time scientists, with a drive to spread the word and share their perspectives via communication platforms based on writing, art and video. They do it for the love.

Some are innovators, designers and inventers, passionate about their trades and eager to earn a dollar from many years of hard work.

Something tells me I’m just getting started on this topic. More soon.

[image thanks to erix on flickr]