BREAKING NEWS: Only I could make a 2000 year old volcanic eruption all about me…

Categories News & Updates, Research
Now I’ve done a fair bit of media work in the past (Shock! Academic known for being a bit of a show-off has history of being a bit of a show-off…) but nothing to the intensity of this past week. Our paper reinterpreting the context of death for victims of Vesuvius at Herculaneum has finally come out in the journal Antiquity. To be honest, this paper should have been out a year ago but it’s been a bit of a battle to get it finished. Sometimes you have papers like that; they sit on your desk for months. You know it’d just take a solid day of work to polish it off, but you just can’t find the time. It’s been frustrating, but we got there in the end with a final push from myself and the splendid Prof Oliver Craig at York.
We’ve always felt that this work would generate some interest, and one of the reasons we went with Antiquity for publication was because of their history of media engagement. And they (and their new Public Engagement and Press Administrator Adam) have been very supportive over the past few weeks – pushing the paper through to an early publication, working up the press release and then dealing with a range of media outlets. And let’s face it, anyone who has to deal with media-hungry professors probably needs some sort of medal…
I’ve been talking and emailing with a real variety of outlets this week – independent science journalists (very friendly), Canadian TV (very polite), the Washington Post (very abrupt), the New York Times (very excited), I Fucking Love Science (not as sweary as they make out), Gizmondo (I think this makes me trendy now), various science websites (very method focused), the Science website (very serious), Nature (very brief), and an experimental volcanologist (the mind boggles as to how one would make an experimental volcano because I’m assuming he didn’t get his PhD for using coke and mentos alone).
What’s been really interesting is how obsessed pretty much all of the journalists have been with the fact that these individuals may have had a prolonged and awful death. Especially considering that despite what Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom suggests, you cannot outrun a volcano. I’ve been asked repeatedly how long it took for them to die, and several wanted specific details. It seems a bit grim and some of it has been quite crass and has made me a bit uncomfortable. But it’s this morbid curiosity which they think will get the public’s attention. And they’re probably right. That doesn’t mean that I’ve gone along with this line of questioning. I’ve been able to shift the focus of the conversations a bit to other aspects of the paper. We’ll see how successful that was when the articles come out.
Before all of this kicked off, my wife (who is a far better academic than me, and therefore will not be introduced to my work colleagues lest they realise they should hire her instead) was on prime time TV talking about her research on children in the past. We’ve basically bookended your week, and I’m calling this the Axis of Awesome, much to the quiet despair of my wife. Actually it’s not quiet at all. In fact she’s sighing and shaking her head at me as I write this now. Anyway, with this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to jot down some of the lessons we’ve learned from years of media work.
  1. No one gives a shit about you or your work. This will be a harsh lesson to learn, but for me I learnt it early when it was made very clear to me that my sister was the favourite child. You need to get peoples interest and make them appreciate why what you’ve done is important. It’s not as easy as it seems. Our subjects seem inherently interesting, but finding that hook, that non-academic ‘why should I care’, can be hard to find. It took three weeks of working with an editor before we finally hit upon a winning angle for a recent The Conversation article I co-wrote. Despite the fact that the subject is, in fact, inherently interesting!
  2. You’ll frequently be misquoted. In my experience, I’m paraphrased as much as directly quoted. And you won’t get final say on the piece before it goes out. Especially if it’s live. Obvs. So with this in mind, try to be clear and concise in what you say. And then-
  3. Relax. Once the piece is out there there is nothing you can do, so you just have to hope for the best!
  4. Start with why. To quote the TED talk. And the book (which is basically the TED talk but stretched out way too long and therefore underlines why it’s best as just a TED talk). When you’re asked about what you’ve done, the tendency is to talk about the practical aspects and not the broader theme. “Tell me what you did in this project”. Now, which do you prefer: “We took small bone fragments and subjected them to infrared spectroscopic analysis” or “We studied the remains of these victims to better understand how they responded to the volcanic eruption”. They probably responded with “Oh fuck – it’s a volcanic eruption”, but you know what I mean.
  5. Try to answer their question by repeating the question first. This really helps if they edit out the interviewer since it helps ensure that your comments still make sense.
  6. Be yourself. But, like, a better version of yourself. It’s great to humanise the science and the scientist, but they still want a recognisable scientist. I don’t mean that in terms of dress code or anything, but rather someone who, in the very short time you’ll be on tv or in the papers, convinces as an expert and someone who knows what they’re talking about.
  7. Don’t hide your enthusiasm. If you’re passionate about your subject, you’ll sweep others along too. Even if your subject is super-boring. I’m looking at you dental morphologists…
  8. Remember that the journalists have a job to do, and it’s not to help your career. They want to generate interest, views and clicks and will filter your work to help that. This is not a bad thing, but you can make the process less painful by framing your work with this in mind. They need a hook to generate that initial interest. In my case it’s how these people died, not the nerdy method we used to work that out.

And now you can check out a few of the interviews and articles below, to see how well I did in following my own advice:

I'm a Professor of Applied Biological Anthropology at Teesside University.