‘Storytelling in science’: the ESMH Summer School 2023 in a nutshell

Hosted from 6-10 June at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) Summer School 2023: ‘Storytelling in science’, provided 60 early-career journalists with the opportunity to participate in discussions on science journalism, Europe’s information ecosystem, and how to connect with different audiences.

The event also provided the participants with the opportunity to meet experts in the field and to hear firsthand practical tips about creating engaging stories that accurately reflect societally relevant research and scientific developments.

As one of the moderators of the event, I had the pleasure of witnessing how engaged the young journalists were throughout the event – they asked questions that drove the experts to dive even further into the key topics discussed.

The event was kicked-off by Christian Ehler, Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA).  One of the leading figures in the design and implementation of the European Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation, and a former journalist, Mr Ehler was well positioned to emphasising the important role that science journalism plays in translating complex scientific topics and in bridging the gap between the scientific community, the general public, and key decision-makers.

After him, Vitalba Crivello (European Science-Media Hub) gave a short introduction on the Hub, the previous editions of the summer school and other opportunities for journalists.

6 June: Past lessons and future challenges

Following his introduction, Ehler joined the panel of expert speakers to discuss how the media landscape has changed and what the future of science journalism might hold. Introducing the participants to a broad range of science journalism-related topics and issues, it provided an overview of themes to set the scene for the sessions ahead.

Not only did the panellists in this session reflect on the challenges of the pandemic and changing media landscape, but also provided the participants with advice on how they can resonate with their audience. After reflecting on his own experiences working on projects that aim to develop trust in science, Jason Pridmore (Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands), encouraged the participants to “take an open, transparent, self-reflexive approach to how and what you communicate”.

Pampa Garcia Molina (Science Media Centre Spain) built on this by sharing her insights about the need for science journalists to work with a wider network that includes a range of scientific experts. To gain the trust of these sources and the target audience, Kai Kupferschmidt (Science magazine), emphasised the importance of journalists understanding and being open with their own biases.

With time running out before everyone’s questions could be answered, there was plenty for the participants and speakers to informally discuss during the following networking reception.

ESMH summerschool 2023 Strasbourg

7 June: Hands on training

The second day of the ESMH Summer School started with an interactive lesson led by Kai Kupferschmidt. Flipping the script on the previous day’s panel discussion, it was Kupferschmidt who asked the Summer School participants questions. The participants were asked to reflect on how they define news, what makes something newsworthy, and some of the positive and negative aspects of covering pre-prints in scientific journals. Not only did this interaction energise those in the room, but it encouraged a thought-provoking discussion.

Kupferschmidt underscored that, while journalists are often listed as an individual author, they cannot work alone. On the contrary, they require a strong network to support them in uncovering topics and themes that are news worth covering. He also emphasised the importance of using multiple, diverse sources, particularly when covering ground-breaking research, to ensure the accuracy of what is being reported.

Kai Kupferschmidt: “It is vital that the public trusts us. The only way that our work will have an impact on the world is if people believe it to be true. On a systematic level, we also need our audience to understand how information and news are made so that they have a better idea about what and who to trust. Nowadays, everyone is an amplifier with the potential to spread information and it’s therefore important for us to help people discern information they can and can’t trust.”Read the full interview of Kai Kupferschmidt

Kupferschmidt ended the session by demonstrating the power of verbs and the threat of “invisible jargon”.

ESMH summer school 2023 Kai

7 June: Public trust in the digital world

Following invigorating cups of coffee and lively discussions over the break, the next session jumped into a discussion about how journalists can better understand their audience and gain their trust. Prof. Eveline Crone (Leiden University and European Research Council Scientific Council Vice President) stressed the importance of two-way dialogues and listening to those who you are trying to reach to better understand what their interests are.

Luca Bertuzzi (Euractiv Tech correspondent) continued the discussion by highlighting what he perceived as the two most important responsibilities that science journalists have: to protect their sources and to report information accurately to their audience. To ensure this, he went on to explain, it is essential for journalists to do extensive background research and speak to multiple people who are both directly and indirectly linked with the topic.

Amy Ross Arguedas (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism) then provided insights from her research on the Trust in News Project. She underscored the factors that play a role in shaping the public’s trust in news, including the political environment, sociocultural factors, journalistic factors, and the changing media environment. The ESMH Summer School participants left the session with more insights into both what causes distrust in the media and ways that they, as journalists, can counter this. The panel was moderated by Carolien Nijenhuis (European Science-Media Hub).

7 June: Avoiding the misinformation trap

Although science denialism has always been an issue, the Covid-19 pandemic saw the term become mainstream and highlighted the dangers that it presents both to individuals and society. The final session of day two, explored the rationale behind science denialism and what can be done to reach those who reject the facts. The expert panel, moderated by Svetla Tanova-Encke (European Science-Media Hub) included Philipp Schmid (University of Erfurt, Germany), Rocío Benavente (Maldita.es), and Barbara Gormley (Dublin City University, Ireland).

The panelists started the session by outlining the motivations behind science denialism and provided the audience with some practical techniques and tools that can be used to combat misinformation. Benavente was able to share practical examples of what misinformation looks like and how Maldita.es helps to correct it through various mediums including Whatsapp. some of the science communication challenges that arose as a result of the pandemic, Gormley commended the unprecedented access that scientists provided the public and the rapid dissemination of research and information.

8 June: A masterclass in storytelling

The third day of the ESMH Summer School was kicked off by another masterclass from Kuperschmidt. The participants discussed the aspects of a narrative that makes it engaging and how to pull on the emotions of their audience to ensure that they reach the story’s conclusion.

Kuperschmidt used two fantastic but very different scientific stories that provided the group with examples of effective techniques that they can use in their own writing. The masterclass also outlined the need to dig deeper to find a story that will resonate with an audience. Kuperschmidt emphasised that this is particularly important when working with scientists who might not be aware of what non-scientists will find interesting. Key aspects to stories about science, he explained, “shouldn’t only include the scientific breakthrough, but also the scientist’s motivation and the challenges that they had to overcome during the process of discovery”.

8 June: Science journalism: best practices

The next session, moderated by Rosa GarcÍa-Verdugo, took some of the key lessons from the masterclass with the aim of giving the ESMH Summer School participants practical tips on how they can ensure scientific accuracy into their storytelling.

Flora Teoh (Science Feedback) kicked off the session by highlighting the need for journalists to include the right amount of scientific detail, “everything should be made simple, but no simpler.” Sabrina Weiss (Freelance journalist) agreed with this and encouraged those in the room to consider Solutions Journalism, a method of telling climate stories through and action-oriented lens rather than one that focuses solely on the climate problems that society is facing.

Felix Irmer, (Leipzig University) inspired the audience to consider using data journalism in their work.

Felix Irmer profileFelix Irmer: “Data Journalism is journalism informed by quantitative evidence. It is actually two things at once: on one hand, it serves as a process of quantitative inquiry, and on the other hand, it’s a product that displays data in some shape or form. This enables data and empirical evidence to not only uncover patterns and trends that may otherwise remain hidden but also to turn it into visualisations and interactive pieces that make the information more compelling for the audience.”Read the full interview of Felix Irmer

The panel also discussed the worst practices that scientists can engage in, including clickbait headlines and using a press release as the only source of your information.

8 June: New digital tools for science journalism

During the final session of the ESMH Summer School Luca De Biase, (Sole24Ore, Italy) discussed some of the thrills and dangers of the digital era. He stressed that language generating tools such as ChatGPT are “not answering machines”. They cannot generate new information and will only be useful if used appropriately.

De Biase also addressed the issue of unequal representation of experts in the media, outlining the need for journalists to explicitly state the percentage of the expert community that agrees with a minority perspective if highlighting it in an article. Despite this, he encouraged the ESMH Summer school participants to enter scientific discussions with an open mind and to leave an open door for different opinions because the future is uncertain and the possibilities are many!”

Welcome to EYE2023

Directly following the final session of the ESMH Summer School, the participants were invited to join the “2023 European Youth Event (EYE2023)“, including the ESMH journalism-related sessions the following day. With an anticipated 10,000 participants attending, EYE2023 provided the participants with a very different experience inside the European Parliament as well as with an opportunity to interact with young people from all over the European Union and the world, to share and shape their ideas on Europe’s future.

9 June: ‘Telling climate stories’

The first journalism-related session of EYE23, ‘Telling Climate Stories’ included a diverse panel of experts from traditional and digital media to investigate how effective storytelling can inspire action on climate change. The panel, including Joachim Allgaier (Fulda University, Germany), Alok Jha (The Economist) and Valentine Delattre (YouTuber), not only discussed the challenges that climate scientists and communicators face but how far they should go when advocating for certain climate actions and outcomes.

The speakers described the need for science communicators and journalists to understand their audience, their interests, as well as their level of understanding on climate-related issues.

Valentine DelattreAccording to Valentine Delattre:Science communication content on YouTube and across social media platforms will continue to diversify and there will be more specific content for those in different demographics. This will include a greater variety of content created in languages other than English and for groups with varying levels of education and interests”.Read the full interview of Valentine Delattre

Allgaier built on this discussion by emphasising the need for climate science communicators to also understand and be prepared to debunk the narratives pushed by climate change denialists to help prevent the spread of misinformation.

The panellists also discussed the limits of science communicators and the need for nuance when discussing certain topics, including the policy decisions that need to be taken to address the climate crisis.

ESMH summerschool 2023 EYE

9 June: Master class ‘Narrating climate change’

Following the ‘Telling Climate Stories’ panel discussion, Jha and Simon Clark (YouTuber and science writer) shared key tips and tricks to hook an audience and keep them engaged. Comparing methods of communicating on digital media platforms such as YouTube with more traditional forms of media, Jha and Clark outlined how science journalists and science communicators can build climate change stories by finding a protagonist, framing an antagonist or struggle, and providing mini revelations

While successful climate narratives need to be scientifically accurate, Clark challenged those in the room to also consider how their stories could demonstrate how a difficulty or adversity has been overcome, feature a surprising conclusion in familiarly territory, and leave their audience with some positive emotions. 

ESMH summerschool 2023 group

Useful links:
European Science-Media Hub Summer School 2023: Programme, presentation slides and recordings
Valentine Delattre: “YouTube also enables you to share science with an audience that is normally very difficult to reach.”
Interview with researcher Felix Irmer on data journalism, society and distrust
Interview with Kai Kupferschmidt on the importance of trust in journalism and a functioning information ecosystem

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