On sharks and media advocacy

This week saw some of the most dramatic footage yet of a near-miss ‘shark attack’ on a surfer. Interestingly, this incident will be picked up on – not only by marine biologists and conservationists – but by sports injury prevention researchers too. It can easily be re-framed as a near-miss, potentially catastrophic injury in a sporting contest.

As with all such dramatic events, this incident generated sensationalist media headlines. Whilst this can shine a much-needed spotlight on injury issues that should be spoken about more openly, such as domestic violence, it can also be a significant barrier to public education about prevention. Sensationalism does not usually tally with rational scientific evidence.

I recently attended a presentation where this same problem was discussed in relation to concussion: 

This clearly dovetails with the issue of language used around such incidents. Some marine biologists and conservationists take issue with the phrase ‘shark attack’, preferring to name such incidents ‘unintentional human-shark interactions’ – in much the same way as many injury prevention researchers take issue with the word ‘accident’ and prefer to use the term ‘unintentional incident’ (see: How members of the public interpret the word accident‘It was a freak accident’: an analysis of the labelling of injury events in the US press, and BMJ bans “accidents”).

To what extent can and should we, as injury prevention researchers, harness the potential of the media to advocate for correct use of language around injuries, and ultimately influence attitudes, perceptions and behaviours?

I recently re-tweeted this excellent take from Ross Tucker:

  1. Scientists need to take more ownership of the wider communication and translation of knowledge. Otherwise they are only doing half their job.
  2. This means they must pay attention, and work on, understanding how people want to receive complex messages, and learn how to deliver them.
  3. It’s difficult only because research is often not purpose-driven enough, with a clear need. Communicating without relevance is impossible.
  4. Why hope that your life’s work will make a broader impact thanks to someone else (assuming you want this), when you can own it yourself?
  5. Failing to do this leaves doors open for misrepresentation of science.
  6. That said, we aren’t marketers or salespeople. Balance between accuracy and appeal is tricky. Being relevant does not trump being right.
  7. Find even one way to make our work understandable or ‘sticky’. You won’t be selling your soul, you’ll just expand your influence.

It certainly is better to be looked over, than overlooked.