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Scientists generally happy with their media interaction

Publication date: Jul 11, 2008 2:06:02 PM

Scientists and journalists get along much better than the anecdotal ‘horror stories’ would lead us to believe, according to new research published today in the journal Science, which has found that 57 per cent of researchers were ‘mostly pleased’ with their media interaction, while only six per cent percent were ‘mostly dissatisfied’.

Previous research as well as anecdotal evidence has tended to focus on the negative aspects of scientists’ media interaction, but today’s survey, based on the responses of 1354 scientists working in the high-profile research fields of epidemiology and stem cell research in the UK, US, France, Germany and Japan, suggests that, for the most part, scientists are comfortable dealing with journalists.

The international team who produced the study asked the scientists how much they had to do with the media, and to evaluate their interactions with them, including whether they were ‘misquoted’ by ‘biased’ journalists, or whether they were able to ‘get their message out’. Across the countries under study, scientist-journalist interactions were found not to be the province of a small set of scientific ‘media stars’ but an activity broadly rooted in the scientific community; nearly two thirds of the respondents had been interviewed by journalists at least once in the last three years, while nearly one in three reported more than five media contacts over the same period.

Key findings of the survey included:

Increasing the public’s perception of science was the most important benefit mentioned by scientists as an incentive to interact with the media, with 93 per cent indicating that achieving ‘a more positive public attitude towards research’ was an important motivator.

However, lack of control of media outcomes remains an issue for many scientists, with nine in 10 respondents identifying the ‘risk of incorrect quotation’ as an important disincentive.

Forty-six per cent of respondents perceived a ‘mostly positive’ impact on their careers from media contact, while three per cent reflected a ‘mostly negative’ impact.

"Previous studies of the science-media interface mostly focused on the question why this relationship of scientists and journalists is so difficult. Our results now say you should turn the question around," says Professor Hans Peter Peters, of the Forschungszentrum Jülich near Cologne, who led the study.

"We need to ask why the relationship is so smooth, given the well-known differences in the professional cultures of science and journalism, possible conflicts of interest, and the meaning changes that take place when scientific messages enter the mass media."

Professor Steve Miller, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies, a team member on the study, says: "As well as working on science communication, I also go to scientific research conferences. And I have often heard researchers tell stories of someone they know having a bad time with the media. So I was really surprised when our survey showed that, actually, biomedical researchers on the front line of public interest were largely pleased with their own interactions with journalists and broadcasters. It just goes to show, you should not believe the horror stories; journalists don’t routinely eat scientists for breakfast."

Notes for Editors

1. "Interactions with the mass media" led by Professor Hans Peter Peters of the Forschungszentrum Jülich near Cologne, and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is published in this week’s edition of Science (July 11, 2008).

2. Contact details: Hans Peter Peters: Tel. +49 (0)2461 61-3562, E-Mail: h.p.peters@fz-juelich.de, Steve Miller: Tel. 020 7679 3490,  E-Mail: s.miller@ucl.ac.uk