Science - January 6, 2010

Think media

Text:
Broer Scholtens

Wageningen science flourishes in the mass media. Media coverage runs the gamut from forest fires, fungi infections in mosquitoes to the goodness of eating chocolate. 'Your research stands in the limelight for a while. It gets acknowledged.'

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She sat at the table in De Wereld Draait Door, she was seen on TV Gelderland, and was heard in news broadcasts on Radio 1. Newspapers De Telegraaf and Agrarisch Dagblad publicized her research. The journal New Scientist and the website ScienceDaily were also in contact with Marit Farenhorst last September about her fungi research into malaria control. What sparked these off was an article in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about an organic control technique against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
The Wageningen entomologist carried out research into particular types of fungi which can infect and kill malaria mosquitoes within several days. She showed that the fungi Beauveria bassiana is also infectious and deadly to malaria mosquitoes resistant to chemical insecticides, and that the fungi infection can lessen this resistance.
Malaria is a worldwide problem, an issue which gets people's attention, says Farenhorst. This entomologist drafted a press release which, after some modification, was placed on the website of Wageningen UR and distributed via email on the day in which the article also appeared in the PNAS. 'On the very same day, various media phoned up for more information, such as the Algemeen Dagblad and the NOS Radio.'
A publication in a well-known scientific journal with a high profile is an opportune moment for the university's information department to gear up for some publicity. 'It allows an organization to bring itself forward to attain national and international fame', says scientific officer Jac Niessen of Wageningen University. 'It's one way to draw students and external financiers. Moreover, you can show what you've done with research funds.' For the researcher and his or her group, having a publication featured in a well-known paper is also a moment of triumph. Niessen: 'This often calls for a celebration with champagne. It's a boost for the research group and highly stimulating.'
Publicity, says mosquito researcher Marit Farenhorst, is not the main aim. 'I like to tell others about my research. A researcher has a responsibility to show what is done. I have also enjoyed the publicity; it was really nice. Every day for two weeks long, some journalist or other would be on the phone. That took up a lot of time, but that has come to an end. It's now back to hard work on the thesis.'

Amusement and health
Some twenty 'Wageningen' articles find their way each year into high profile journals such as Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and publications of the British Nature group, estimates scientific officer Jac Niessen. 'Five of these have generated much publicity.' Nielsen says it is possible to tell beforehand which these would be. 'The press is interested in issues about human welfare and health, such as salt in food.' 'Amusing' issues are also popular, such as the demonstration of the robot bird Roboswift in early 2008, or the research work of microbiologist Willem de Vos concerning a 'bacteria with grabber arms'. A write-up in PNAS was picked up by many press organizations in mid October and featured as a news article. 'While much fundamental research is fascinating, this only touches the reader if the subject matter is familiar, adds Niessen.

Cathelijne Stoof, soil scientist, was hounded by phone calls following a press release about her research into forest fires. 'VPRO Noorderlicht Radio, Wereldomroep and Omroep Gelderland phoned up immediately afterwards. I was doing research in Portugal then.'
In the case of Stoof, there was at that time no major publication in a top journal. The press release informed the world about an experimental fire in Portugal which was deliberately started at the end of February to find out how the soil would be affected. The press release was sent out three days after the fire. 'That gave us time to gather the measurement data and soil samples. Spectacular images and photos of the fire were also available by then.' Stoof drafted a press release and compiled a booklet with background information and photos which she gave to interested journalists and placed on her website.
In 2007, she had come into contact with relevant science journalists at the annual NWO Juice Day. This research organization had then tried to bring scientists into contact with the press. 'I've kept in touch with seven journalists whom I'd met then as I want to provide information about science. An experimental forest fire is a media minded piece, an issue right up the alley of the press.' The publicity had cost her much time, Stoof admits. 'The presence of a TV-crew would easily take up an entire day. I was rather flattered when, months after the forest fire, the renowned documentary channel Netwerk asked me to comment on the forest fire in Schoorl in early September in the capacity of a forest fire expert..
Has she learnt much? 'Yes. Some journalists were well-prepared and posed good questions. Most of these work for science-oriented journals. There were also journalists who didn't do their homework or bother to study the material beforehand and so left the lead completely to me, not knowing where to begin. Such as the TV-channel which suggested starting a forest fire to generate spectacular images, without realizing that the deliberate experimental fire in Portugal wasn't started by me but by highly experienced Portuguese firemen. Some mass media, television in particular, go for sensation rather than science.'
Were there any special moments? 'Yes, besides Netwerk, a big cover story in the popular science journal Quest beautifully titled Deliberately on fire', Cathelijne Stoof answers without hesitation. 'The journal had a three-page long report of the experimental fire in Portugal. This was special not only because of the text but also due to the accompanying photographs. The reporter had studied the subject in depth beforehand. I was allowed to vet the article for factual errors before its publication.'
 
Wageningen research also catches the attention of the foreign press, sometimes even the major headlines. 'A special moment in my media adventure was a visit to a chocolate shop in Wageningen with a tv-crew from the American television sender CBS', says nutrition researcher Brian Buijsse. 'It was for the Nightly News show. Difficult when it comes to cutting down on the use of scientific jargon; I know better now to watch out for that.'
In 2006, Buijsse reported that a daily consumption of four grams of cacao will lower blood pressure by a few points, thanks to anti-oxidants in the chocolate, such as polyphenols. The risk of heart attacks in chocolate-eating men would be fifty percent less than for non-chocolate eaters, conceded Buijsse. The former Wageningen researcher is now a post-doc in the German nutrition institute DifE in Potsdam, doing similar epidemiological anti-oxidant research as that with which he graduated from Wagenningen in 2008.
His research result, published in the American medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine, was an instant hit in 2006. He was very much sought after, in and outside the country. Every national newspaper and news channel on radio and TV carried the message. Buijsse: 'The media attention continued for weeks on end. After several weeks, we decided to be selective in accepting interviews.'
'It was exciting; I had hardly any experience with journalists before then. The message was quite a tough one to bring across. Many journalists wanted to have major statements, but based on just one study, no recommendations could be given regarding a healthy consumption of cacao; it was too early for that. The media attention was very nice; your research stands in the limelight for a while. It gets acknowledged. Media attention also strengthens your network, with journalists and also with peer researchers. It makes me one of the experts on cacao and health.
In the first days after the press release was sent out. Buijsse was holidaying in the United States; the press had to do with informative comments from Buijsse's promoter, Daan Kromhout. Buijsse had to present a paper about his chocolate research at a medical congress the subsequent week. Wasn't it clumsy to be unreachable at such a time? Buijsse would rather call this a pity. 'It wasn't clear when the article would appear exactly, and the plane ticket was already booked. Kromhout did his part excellently.'
That nutrition issues go down well with the mass media is also the opinion of Michiel Kleerebezem, professor by special appointment in the Laboratory of Microbiology in Wageningen University. Kleerebezem works for the dairy institute NIZO. He has brought out the first molecular evidence that probiotic bacteria - found in consumer drinks such as Yakult, Actimel and Vifit - influence gene activity in the intestine wall. A publication about this in PNAS had led to a front page news article in de Volkskrant: 'Bacteria drink boosts resistance'.
Since then, thirty to forty news articles on this issue have appeared in newspapers and magazines. In addition, the national papers featured background information spreads in their science supplements, adds Kleerebezem.  'I was interviewed by different news channels on radio. Some of these were short telephone interviews; one of these was a twenty- minute interview in the studio.
'All these experiences - except one from a columnist in Bionieuws who made notable associations - were positive. The journalists gave me the chance to read drafts and correct these when necessary. None of the statements have been taken out of context.'

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