Longing to tell science stories

20th July 2019

“It’s greed that makes you fat,” wrote Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail back in 2017. “Fatties lack the willpower to stop eating.”

I realise that the sole purpose of Mail columnists is to raise the nation’s blood pressure, but this piece so incensed me, I was determined to challenge in somehow. The opportunity came in the shape of ‘Why we just can’t stop eating’, a long form article about the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science (IMS) at Cambridge.

When the Director of the IMS suggested I write an all-encompassing feature to celebrate their ten year anniversary, my first thought was “Really?” But the more I pondered this, the more appealing the idea seemed.

While we continue to produce press releases for individual studies at Cambridge, my team is moving towards producing more feature articles for our website – including articles that may be a few thousand words long. One of the many problems with focusing solely on press releases is that they do not necessarily allow us to be strategic in deciding what content to produce. But neither do they necessarily best represent how research – and particularly research at Cambridge – works.

Obesity is a complex problem, and as such, any solution is going to be complex. We have researchers in cell biology, genetics, neuroscience, psychiatry, epidemiology and many more disciplines working together on tackling this problem. Only a long form piece (this article clocked in at over 3,800 words) could do them justice, I realised.

I interviewed seven people for the article and had conversations with two others, and tried (but failed) to get access to a local Weight Watchers or Slimming World group to interview participants. In all, the article took two to three months to complete – not continuous, of course, but fit in around other work. We use the Shorthand platform to present content such as this on our website. It’s a very visual medium, which proved particularly challenging here – photos of our researchers or stock images of junk food and headless overweight people would not do. (Our designer, Cedric Bousquet, saved the day with a children’s toy motif.)

Was it worth the effort? Well, I was honoured to win Charity Writer of the Year at the 2019 Medical Journalists’ Awards for my article, so for me, definitely yes! (It’s amazing how much positive attention you get from the top brass when you win an award.) 

Also from a personal point of view, longer features are so much more rewarding to work on than firing off a 500 word press release. They are time-consuming, complex and challenging to write, yes, but the creativity they allow – they require – is immense. If you don’t invest the time to make them engaging, your reader will not invest the time to engage with them.

But what’s in it for the University? Metrics are not as easy to determine as for a press release, for which you can roughly judge success by the amount of media coverage it leads to. The article has had just short of 30,000 page views and was widely shared on social media, suggesting there is an audience out there for this content. We know, too, that readers appear to spend longer than average on these stories, suggesting that they are engaging with the content. But we’ve still a long way to go before we crack how to really make an impact with this content.

Crucially, though, features and long form articles allow us to tell stories, to really bring research to life, to highlight the people (and their personalities) behind the scenes.

Has the article changed anyone’s mind? I hope it’s made some people stop and reconsider their prejudices. I’d love to know if that’s the case. Particularly if that person is Amanda Platell.

Craig Brierley, Head of Research Communications, University of Cambridge

craig.brierley@admin.cam.ac.uk

@takanocraig

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