Volcanoes in the Media Pt 4 – Everything’s not lost


After reading the first three parts of this blog, you may well have come to the conclusion that it’s best never to talk to the media – so in this last part let’s try to look ahead on a more positive note. DISCLAIMER: The second half of this blog has previously published on Jenni’s wordpress blog (a treasure chest of volcano wisdom in itself!), but we think it is a good punchline to round off this series. Enjoy!



6. Am I the right person to speak to?

For early-career researchers, the most likely points of contact with the media are either a high-profile and/or controversial publication, or a large eruption causing flight chaos or fatalities. In the former case, you will have had time to fine-tune your message before any media interest, for example by drafting a press release (see below). The latter case, on the other hand, can be somewhat scary:  a lot is at stake, the pressure is on and you need to think and act quick. The first major decision is whether you accept the invitation to an interview or not. The schematic to the right may help you make that decision!

7. Everything’s not lost: practical tips

If you decide to talk to the media, there are a few things you can do to minimise the risk of being misrepresented. As we’ve heard in part 1 of this blog, much of the frustration of scientists with the media is based on a lack of understanding of the pressures on and framework within which journalists operate. We need to understand that worst-case scenarios are the only way most volcano news actually becomes news-worthy in the UK. From what I have witnessed, it is unlikely that we as scientists can change anything about this basic fact – there is much more money and power behind the press than behind volcanology. But what we can do is adapt our interaction with journalists in a way that minimises the risk of horrendous coverage. 

The pressures a news reporter is exposed to is one half of the issue at hand – scientists’ frame of mind and language is the other. As we’ve seen in part 2 of this blog, reporters are (usually) not trained scientists but rather agents of citizens trying to filter out what’s important for their readers. This means that in order to avoid being misrepresented in the media, we as scientists need to fit our scientific message into a news-compatible frame. I am showing the checklist from part 2 again, as it is a useful guideline of what reporters are looking for in a story and can help us to be better prepared for interaction with the news media.

But it is not only the angle of a story where scientists will naturally have wildly different priorities than reporters – language is another key factor. There is a translation problem between scientists and journalists: Scientists aim to make rational, often complex arguments, referring to a vast background of knowledge and research that journalists don’t have, and convey nuances and uncertainties incompatible with news reporting. Reporters wittingly or unwittingly exploit this language discrepancy to mould the story into a press-compatible angle. So if we as scientists want to prevent being misrepresented, we need to think and speak like a news reporter when interacting with the news media. Drafting press releases is a great opportunity to practice this in an unpressurised environment. Any early career researcher should practice summarising their research in plain language, tailoring their messaging (keeping in mind what the news media will look for allows for greater control on the narrative from the start), and avoiding ambiguity as much as possible.




8. Volcano coverage off the news cycle

Of course, there is more to the media world than just the news, and these other channels offer volcanologists more promising ways of communicating their science as well as responsible crisis communication. Longer pieces for print and online magazines and journals seem to be better suited to communicate the nature of volcanic crises without resorting to sensationalist tropes. And of course, social media is becoming increasingly powerful and offers scientists a direct channel to the public that, if used responsibly, can be an effective antidote against the ruthless news media coverage. More and more people get their news from social media rather than from “mainstream” media (for better or worse) and scientists increasingly use their agency on social media to fight back against irresponsible reporting and become their own storytellers.


9. Volcanic Crises and Social Media

Social media is a great way for scientists to directly speak to the public – but with this power comes a good share of responsibility too. This article by on volcano science communication on social media by Rebecca Willliams and Janine Krippner provides an excellent overview of the challenges and opportunities for volcanologists on Twitter & Co. To complement this article, here is a list of do’s and don’t’s for volcanologists on social media, originally posted on her Jenni’s blog.

(i) Act to help not hinder the monitoring organisation. In the midst of a volcanic crisis, life will be tense and abundantly reliant on good teamwork.

Bad teamwork from the Twitterati can include: unhelpful observations of timeliness of statements or information; strongly dissenting critiques of a monitoring organisation’s actions; interpretations in the absence of complete knowledge;speculation on what might happen next or possible impacts (Twitcasting).

Good teamwork could include: a strong trail to the definitive information where available (see iii); recognition of the ‘real’ experts; judgement free info-tweeting.

(ii) It’s not a race. Don’t let the excitement of being the first person to find a photo/image/interpretation get the better of you. With crisis info, treat it like research and only pass on verified or verifiable information. That amazing thing you think you’re the first to spot might be: last year’s eruption; a speck of dirt on a webcam lens; some fog; some nonsense article written by someone who has spent the last 25 years in a locked bunker. That’s all going to end in the clicking of the dustbin sign and feeling embarassed, in the meantime you could have caused real confusion.

(iii) If it’s not your expertise RT not re-interpret. This relates to (i) and (ii). My assumption here is RT’d Tweets don’t annoy your colleagues (they’ll see them once) and this helps to lay the trail back to a definitive source (observatory scientist or eruption expert).  This is helpful communication. If you do know the situation well and want to offer an interpretation just pause for a second to question whether you are in full possession of the facts. Plus, do ask, would you like someone to take your data and do that with it, latte in hand in a cosy office, while you’re out fixing the bust solar panels in the ash? Social media are not the vehicle for the first announcement of your intent to ‘help out’ with data analysis or risk management.

(iv) Respect the affected population. Other people are on Twitter. Yes, it’s true. Mass media like to portray the personal in amongst the terrible. Have a good think about quite how your exuberant excitement might seem to the person whose house has just been trashed  — if they saw your Tweet.

(v) Do nothing that encourages reckless behaviour. Yes, it’s very exciting and that’s a cool picture. But did they do a very stupid thing to get it?  If they get hurt will other people have to risk their lives to save them? If you were evacuated but could see images of people precisely where you were told not to live would you feel cross? Personally I even steer clear of the ‘Look at the unbelievably stupid thing this person has done to get that picture’ style Tweets but the choice if yours! You may wish to call this out!

Clearly, this is not exhaustive. I’m not sure that it properly acknowledges the role that Twitter Q&A between experts can play in understanding a crisis – and how that plays into open discussion. Science is, after all, a journey and not a destination. However, this is about the height of a crisis – and we at least have to be aware that with social media we’re going on that journey in a crowded room.

Finally, the brilliant thing about social media is that there is absolutely no limit on the extent to which you can provide additional information or share your background knowledge and how this relates to the current activity. Things open up much more when you resort to blogs and think carefully: a  fantastic example of that is of course EruptionsBlog. We can and should do this as much as we all can!

Social media is the future of (news) media, and we currently have the unique opportunity to claim the space for us and share our news stories, our passion and our knowledge with the world. Let’s do it!