How do scientists tell (their) stories?

Scientists are advised to present their research in the form of an appealing narrative. A new study identifies researchers as avid tellers that present their stories to account for their findings.

by Rony Armon and Ayelet Baram-Tsabari

The news media is a major source of information to the general public but talking about one’s own research often clashes with the news values that journalists follow. In order to make their research engaging and interesting scientists are advised to present it as a story. A variety of communication guides recommend the use of personal narrative for presenting research as adventure as a way to attract and engage news audiences. But while various initiatives invite researchers to tell their stories in their own words little attention has been placed on how they actually use their storied accounts when communicating research to the news media.

In our recently published study, we looked at storytelling by scientific experts in news interviews. Their narratives were examined as a social practice, geared at achieving specific goals. Adopting this approach, we could examine how scientific accounts responded to what journalists presented as relevant and newsworthy. The study focused on a 150 interviews conducted on the daily Israeli current affairs TV talk show London et Kirschenbaum. Though mostly reporting hard news, the program hosts scientific experts on a regular basis to report on new studies and respond as experts to the news of the day.

Searching for personal accounts we found many stories of significant length that gave background or methods used in the study reported. These accounts demonstrated that the scientists who told them understand that they are held accountable for the findings they report. However, in neither case were interviewees held to account or had their findings questioned. The narrative explanations observed are interpreted as a way pf enlisting interviewers and audience as virtual witnesses to the projects reported and as potential validators of their results.

Science communication trainers may be happy to find that researchers can initiate stories even when not elicited to do so. Yet their aims may differ from those that trainers may seek to achieve. Rather than telling a story to engage the audiences as in science, researchers’ stories are geared at justifying their research. Yet while researchers are usually asked to simplify their language and avoid technical terms scientific storytelling can achieve this purpose at the same time as introducing news audiences to the scientific workplace.

The research leading to this paper was conducted during a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department for Education in Science and Technology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and a Marie Curie Fellowship (EU) undertaken in the Department of Education and Professional Studies, with Prof. Alexandra Georgakopoulou-Nunes.