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Interview with Ed Yong

April 4, 2010

Ed Yong is a lot of things. He’s a public information officer for Cancer Research UK, blogger at Not Exactly Rocket Science, and a freelance science journalist.

He’s also the research blogger of the year.

Using his rather unique position, we discussed the differences between PR, blogging, and journalism. We also talked about bias and the value of “this is cool” science journalism.

Colin: You tend to speak a lot about blogging and journalism, and your roles doing those things. What I was hoping to talk to you about a little bit more was your day job, if that’s okay.

I was just wondering if you could walk me through what you do in your job, what your job entails?

Ed: So I have the wonderfully high-falutin’ title of Head of Health Evidence and Information at Cancer Research UK. Our organization is pretty large, so we have quite a lot of information teams. Our team specifically talks about cancer prevention and early detection. So pretty much everything up to the point of diagnosis. Our goals are to try and reduce the number of people who develop cancer, and to increase the number who are detecting it early through provision of information and through campaigns and so on.

So I lead a team of about five people who all have scientific backgrounds and our job within our team is to make sure that all of our messages, all of the charity’s messages, are based on decent scientific evidence. That involves a mixture of reviewing literature, writing content for our website, and leaflets. Working with a lot of other teams around the charity to make sure that they are up to speed on the science of cancer prevention and detection. And doing lots of media interviews as well.

C: So what do you do to reach out to the public with this information that you’ve compiled?

E: It’s very different to what I do in my blogging or my freelancing activities because it’s not quite about just trying to get people interested in science and to get people excited about scientific discoveries. It’s far more about getting people to be more aware of ways in which they could reduce their risk of cancer, or information that they could use to help them detect the disease earlier. And to get them to change their behaviour. So it’s got slightly different goals really.

In terms of blogging and freelancing I just try to make people excited, and I’m just trying to convey information to them in a way than makes them interested. Whereas in my day job when we are communicating to the public we have very specific goals in mind. So if you try to talk to people about say skin cancer prevention – you want people to take steps that are going to help them reduce their risk of skin cancer. So you actually want a very specific outcome at the end of it. So I think they are very different types of communication.

C: I was just wondering because – when I think of science journalism I think of it in a way that, I really want the reader to learn what I’m telling them. Or learn the steps of the story that I’m trying to tell. Why do you take different approaches in your work from your journalism?

E: I think on the surface they’re quite similar, in that you basically want people to take in some information and understand it. And that’s certainly the common thread running through it. But actually if you look at the products that come out of it they’re incredibly different. So if you just think of any sort of public information campaign versus a piece of reporting that you see on the news, public health campaigns tend to have incredibly short messages. So if you’ve got any sort of text to play around with it’s like a strapline and maybe a paragraph or so – and then possibly some supporting material.

Whereas a news piece you can actually go into a story and actually do a bit of narration. You really don’t have that luxury when you’re trying to communicate health messages to people. If you think about the medium in which we try to do that – a big campaign would probably have a poster, maybe a TV ad, and you really have a very short space of time to grab people’s attention.

Same if you’re doing something in an interview, or if you’re talking to journalists. As a journalist you can yourself think about what you would write as a piece, but also what you expect other people to give you when they do interviews and when they give you quotes. So if you’re writing a news report you could go into it for however many words you’ve got, maybe 400 words, 800 words. If you want a quote from someone you don’t want something that long, you want maybe 20 words, or something. It’s just a different landscape to play around with, and different constraints. Does that make any sense?

C: Yeah that makes perfect sense. What I’m trying to figure out though is, if the role of journalism – and even with our blogging, that sort of thing – is to reach these people with some information and engage them, why do you think that the public information officers and PR way is such a different approach to the same sort of problem? Like does one work better than the other?

E: I think probably it’s worth stating that we’re… So, so far you’ve asked me about my personal experience and what I do in my job. While I am ostensibly an information officer, it’s not quite the same as I think what you’ve just asked me about there. For example we are not our press office, we have a separate press office. And we also have a separate team of people who are talking about Cancer Research UK’s science to people. So if anything we’re more like the public health branch of Cancer Research UK, which I think is slightly separate to what most people would qualify as a public information officer.

That being said, I’ve seen a lot of debates online on Bora’s sites and in other places about the differences between public information officers and journalists and other types of science communicators. And I do think that fundamentally they rely on the same sorts of principles, and the same sorts of techniques.

Probably the main difference between them is this issue of impartiality. And I’m not really sure that’s the right word, but I think it’s about where your personal biases lie. So an information officer, or a press officer, is paid by an institution to promote their science, or to promote their work. So if you think about them being given a paper of a new discovery, and they’re trying to make a choice about whether to write a press release or to talk to other people about it, if that paper comes from their institution they will probably be biased towards making a big deal out of it. Because that is what their job entails.

You would hope that a journalist or a blogger would have more skill and more leeway to actually look at that paper and critique it properly, and think about whether they actually want to talk about it, whether they want to talk about it in a positive light, whether it demands a bit more critical thinking, and that sort of thing. Because they are not tied in to bigging up the science of any one particular institution or organization. Ideally they would be a bit more impartial in that way.

C: So where do press information officers and public relations people fit in the world of science communication? Where do you see them fitting in?

E: I personally think that it sits separately from journalism, although there are certainly overlaps there. And I think that it’s sort of just another channel for people to learn about science. You can have really, really good material coming out of information officers, and out of press officers. I have read some press releases that are really, really excellent pieces of science communication. But there is this issue of bias and vested interested. I don’t think that necessarily condemns the entire profession as some people seem to think, but it’s always something that you need to bear in mind.

At Science Online we talked a lot about Futurity, and how that plays in to science journalism. And I think that the problem our panel was having with Futurity was not that it’s a collection of press materials, which in and of themselves may be okay, but it’s that it’s sort of presenting itself as a news site. And the fact that it is press material, written by public information officers from a select group of universities, isn’t initially clear.

C: So would you say that – The way that I’m look at it is the whole ecosystem of science information coming – from the public’s perspective – it’s all coming at them from slightly different places. So bloggers have maybe a little more freedom with opinion, journalists are supposed to hold up this objectivity and critical analysis… thing. But it seems like those two groups are also doing a lot of the “this is cool” journalism. But then also coming at the public is the press information officers or the public relations people. Do you think the public can tell the difference between those different styles?

E: Probably not, and I think that the more time passes and the more we go into the future the more those areas will all start to blur into one another. I think that – I don’t know, I’ve written before about the fact that the lines between journalist and blogger are blurring quite significantly, and I think what you said about journalists supposedly maintaining that impartial take on things and trying to be objective – whatever that means – and using critical analysis. I think quite a lot of other people do that, so I certainly uphold those values on my blog. And I know that our press office upholds those values when they put out press material.

I work with our press office from time-to-time looking at papers and trying to decide whether we’re going to press-release them. Looking at the press releases and seeing whether they’re accurate or not. So I know that a lot of work goes into them to make sure that they aren’t misrepresenting the science, and to make sure that papers which do get discussed and press-released are of reasonable quality. So this function of looking at science, doing critical analysis, trying to portray an accurate picture of science, is one that all three areas can do. And one which all three areas can fail to do.

I think it’s much more – rather than spending a huge amount of effort to say, “this is journalism”, or, “this is PR,” or, “this is blogging.” I think it’s far more interesting to look out on an individual case-by-case basis and say, “is this good science communication? Is this accurate? Is this overblown? Is it worthwhile?”

C: I just worry about, from the public’s perspective, maybe they won’t have that sense of being able to dig through each, case-by-case. They’ll sort of take whatever is given to them. Do you worry about – with the blurring of lines between: people who do it because they’re interested, people who do it because it’s their job as a journalist, and people who get paid to do it as a press information officer. Is there a worry for the public?

E: I certainly worry that the public don’t have the savvy to look at pieces of science news and actually work out whether they’re being told something true or not. But I don’t think that my worry about that has much to do with whether that news is coming from a journalist or a blogger or a PR person. And even nowadays, the difference between those things can be very difficult to see, because press releases get churned out into what is supposed to be journalism but really isn’t, and put up by mainstream news sources.

They also get put out by bloggers. I see a lot of people linking to pages on ScienceDaily, or PhysOrg and things like that – and that’s PR. So I think churnalism is wide-spread, and there are loads of ways for people to get a hold of false or biased science news. I don’t necessarily think that making a clear demarcation between sources of that news will particularly help. If you mark something out as being written by a press officer or a professional journalist, it’s not particularly helpful when the latter can just copy and paste chunks of material from the former.

I think probably one thing that will help is linking to sources and getting this culture of following links, and being a bit more investigative in your own pursuit of information. So when you consume information try to work out where it’s come from, and for the right tools, ie: links, to be available for people to be able to do that. If a journalist is basically just taking a press release and passing it off as news, then linked to the original press release, and certainly linked to the original paper, so that people, if they have a mind to do so, can actually see where this is coming from.

C: One thing – I was actually just hoping to shift gears a little bit, and I don’t know if you’ve looked through the interview I did with Ferris yesterday – what I was really interested in in that interview was sort of… There’s the science journalism world, which tends to focus around new science, and what’s going on in labs, what’s going on with research. And then there’s the rest of the news. Do you think that there’s a lot of overlap between the science community and the rest of the news community?

E: You mean journalists from other areas?

C: Yeah, it seems like there’s sort of journalists, and then science journalists, and they’re worrying about different things and they’re doing it in different ways.

E: That’s interesting, I don’t really have a good answer to that. I think that – I don’t know what the situation is like in the States, I think that you occasionally get people from time-to-time being shoved from one section… Sorry can you clarify what is what you were asking?

C: Yeah, sorry. We were talking about news hooks and current affairs and that sort of thing…. What I’m really interested in is using science to explain the news of the day.

And we had someone give a presentation to my class about public relations, and what he said was a really good technique was; pay attention to the news of the day, and when something comes up that has to do with your field or your work, make sure you get out there. Use the current affairs as a way to get your news out there. And it doesn’t seem like that’s paid attention to much in science journalism.

E: I think if anything it’s probably the other way around to the detriment of science. What I mean by that is rather than science journalists looking at the news of the day and trying to look at a science angle of that, what you typically get is political or lifestyle journalists looking at science news and doing kind of a lay-persons commentary on that.

And often that’s the source of absolutely abysmal pieces about science, certainly in this country. A lot of uninformed, inaccurate, often scare-mongering editorial pieces. You see it in places like the Daily Mail all of the time. There was an editorial in the Guardian recently about evolution and epigenetics. It was written by a non-specialist journalist who clearly didn’t understand what evolution was about, what Darwin’s take on it was, and it was just full of fail.

And I think that’s sort of what happens when you get people who are non-specialist reporters deciding to just branch into this area that requires a lot of technical knowledge that they don’t have. So I’m not quite sure that answers your question, but it’s sort of the opposite of it, and I think that’s probably much more likely what actually happens, rather than science journalists sort of looking at the news of the day.

That being said, I do know actually quite a few good examples of that. The Times is quite good about it. Recently when Michael Jackson died they had a really good piece on their blog about whether people who had tickets to Michael Jackson’s last concert – which obviously he’d never actually get to play – whether they should return those tickets for a refund or whether they should keep a hold of them in anticipation of greater future value.  And they had a mathematician who was actually sort of thinking about this problem and did a really good guest post on it. And that got a huge amount of traffic, and a lot of interest, and a lot of comments. I think that was a really nice example of someone using something that had absolutely no scientific hook what-so-ever to actually get people sucked in to it.

I am interested in that approach, I’m not entirely convinced about it’s long-term effectiveness. So I think in the short term it’s a nice way of sort of sneaking science in through the back door. So you’ve got an obvious hook there that’s topical, and you get people interested in it, but whether they then walk away any more interested in science or in any related field I’m not really sure about. Or, whether they’ve just sort of dipped their toe in the water, taken it out again, and then that’s it. So it’s sort of a hit-and-run tactic.

C: So do you think that the interesting and awe-inspiring stories will have a better lasting appeal?

E: I think so, I suspect so. I think that strategy is certainly more of a long-term strategy. I think the idea is you just want to spark something off in people that will make them a bit more interested, that will make them a bit more receptive to those types of stories. And I also think that because you’re describing a discovery or a new piece of work, it’s a bit easier to get across some of the things that make science science.

It makes it a bit easier to describe science the process – the fact that it’s built on a large amount of research, the fact that there’s always more questions to be answers, how people have actually designed and gone through experiments, what’s the need for controls and caveats. And I think it’s a bit easier and a bit more obvious to get a compelling narrative that actually is true to what science is in those sorts of stories.

But obviously you’ve got the reverse challenge then of getting a hook in that actually draws people towards it, which is perhaps a bit easier if you’re doing it the other way and focusing on a topical or newsworthy angle. But then where that leaves you in the long term I’m not quite sure about.

C: And then I think this is the last question that I have – in terms of the public relations field I was talking about how they watch the news to find their way in. And I thought I heard you agreeing in the background. I was just wondering if you could sort of expand on your experiences with that?

E: Sorry what do you mean?

C: Public information officers will watch the news and if something happens in the news that will give them an opportunity to present their work, they’ll take that opportunity.

E: From personal experience we don’t really do that so much. As a cancer charity if something big happens in the news we always get asked about it anyway. So we get asked for comments from journalists, we go on TV, we go on radio, we do interviews. I mean I had a pretty massive week of doing TV interviews last week.

But in terms of actually proactively going out there with our own material because of something in the news, that might be what some other organizations do, it’s certainly not really a tactic that we would ever really play. Because let’s face it we’re talking about cancer, which involves people’s lives, it’s a very sensitive issue, it would be totally inappropriate for a charity to go, “well there’s this big piece of news, and here’s what we think about it.” Sometimes we will respond reactively on our blog to things that have come out, from the perspective of actually giving the public more information, giving them background material.

So if a celebrity has died, sometimes in the past we have provided more information about that specific type of cancer. When a news report has come out about the latest “x causes cancer” or “x cures cancer” story, we give our own take on it. But the only agenda there is to provide people more information about cancer and to educate them about it, rather than to fund raise or to big up our charity’s own research or things like that.

In many ways it’s a situation that you don’t get in a lot of information offices, because our goal is not just to broadcast the image and the research of Cancer Research UK, it’s also to give people a lot of information about cancer in general. The charity sees part of it’s function as an information provision service.

C: I was wondering if there is anything you want to add?

E: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently is this issue of bias and impartiality. It was raised in a debate that I was at on Wednesday where this whole journalist-blogger-debate came up again, once again, to absolutely no fruition or avail. It got me thinking about the nature of impartiality and whether this claim that journalists are meant to be impartial is accurate or not.

I think that everyone, absolutely everyone has a bias that affects their work. If you are a press officer working for an institution you may be biased towards promoting the work of that institution. If you are a scientist communicating to the public directly you may be biased in promoting work that fits with your own views, or to promote your own work.

But if you’re a journalist you also have biases. You have the social or political leanings of your own organization to contend with. And, you are naturally biased in terms of news that you think is sexy. You know, news that you feel will sell papers or get traffic. I think that that’s a far more insidious source of bias than most people would admit. I think it’s behind the fact that you see loads of the “x causes cancer” or “x cures cancer” stories in the paper. It’s behind the fact that evolutionary psychology typically does incredibly well in the news – new papers get covered very, very frequently. Probably out of all proportion to what scientists would feel their actual impact towards science is. You know obviously it’s a very controversial field, and yet it’s very newsy.

And even thinking about myself as a blogger, I have biases. I have probably the ultimate bias of all, which is that I cover things that I find interesting and appealing. I happen to think that’s a fairly honest source of bias, because I’m not trying to promote the work of any individual or organization and I’m not out for traffic or tension or anything like that. But it is still something that colours my choice of what I do or do not cover.

I sort of think that people need to have a bit more of a mature approach to this issue of bias and objectivity and impartiality – rather than just throw these out as things that a journalist is meant to uphold. I think we’d do better in just recognizing that actually these issues are things that affect all science communicators equally, and we just need to be a bit transparent about them. I think transparency is probably the more interesting issue.

C: Thanks so much.

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