In the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, French authorities reached out to Alain Brunet. An associate professor of psychiatry at McGill, Brunet co-developed an innovative approach for weakening the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When he was asked to share his methods with clinicians at 20 French hospitals, the media took notice.
France’s weekly investigative newsmagazine Envoyé special and the CBC’s The Nature of Things both devoted long segments to Brunet and his work. Earlier in his career, Brunet admits that coming under such media scrutiny would have been about as pleasant as the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
“Researchers are not media-friendly by nature,” says Brunet. “They spend their time in small offices deeply exploring difficult ideas.”
Last year, Brunet became the first recipient of a new award for researchers at McGill, the Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement through the Media. Biology professor Catherine Potvin received the same award this March. Unlike Brunet, Potvin made a conscious decision to seek out media attention – not for herself, but for the causes she was involved in.
Potvin had worked on the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference and was troubled by the lack of public interest in both the conference and in environmental issues in general. “I asked myself, ‘What will get Canadians interested in sustainable development?’”
Potvin, a Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests, made herself available for press interviews and wrote op-ed pieces for the media. She also became the coordinator for Sustainable Canada Dialogues, a national network of 80 researchers that hopes to influence both governments and the public. SCD produced a widely discussed report for the federal government on how Canada can become a low-carbon energy economy while remaining globally competitive.
“My studies and my career were paid for with taxes,” says Potvin. “Canadians deserve to see what they are getting for their investment.” By working with the media, she believes she is able to share her expertise with a much wider audience.
Interactions between journalists and university researchers aren’t always smooth. Researchers are wary of how their work will be portrayed and see some journalists as sloppy and sensationalistic. Journalists, meanwhile, view many university researchers as being overly fond of academic jargon and incapable of explaining their work in a straightforward way.
Yanick Villedieu, a longtime science journalist and the former host of Radio-Canada’s Les Années lumières, says researchers are far more open to working with the media than they used to be.
He remembers a time when reporters were given only limited access at some scientific conferences. “[Conference organizers] said, ‘If we give you free reign, you’ll write rubbish.’ Today, those same scientists are running after us.”
Tina Gruosso, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill’s Goodman Cancer Research Centre, believes that journalists and university researchers have a powerful motivation for collaborating more closely. Both professions share a commitment to the truth – and the truth is under siege in a “fake news” era.
“It fosters an unhealthy kind of scepticism,” says Gruosso of fake news and “alternate facts.” “When you see educated people start denying facts like climate change, it means researchers need to boost their visibility in the public sphere.”
Gruosso, who shared a Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement through the Media for her contributions to a public outreach campaign aimed at encouraging the federal government to increase its funding for basic science research, would like to see younger scientists receive better guidance in how to work with the press.
“Our scientific training is all about nuance and doubt,” says Gruosso. “But when it comes to [communicating with the public], that works against us. How do you make your message simple, but precise?”
Potvin says university researchers haven’t always received encouragement to take the time to work with the media. “It’s looked at as time we didn’t spend producing scientific articles.” Brunet agrees, but believes things are changing. “The [Principal’s Prize] sends the message that this type of communication counts.”
Translation by Julie Barlow, BA’91