Computing Applications Viewpoints: Virtual extension

Reaching Out to the Media: Become a Computer Science Ambassador

Why computer scientists should come out from "behind the scenes" more often and work with the media to draw public attention to their fundamental innovations.
  1. Introduction
  2. Ten Tips to Get Your Work into the Media
  3. Why should We All Do This?
  4. References
  5. Authors
  6. Footnotes

Science communication or public outreach can be seen as taking a lot of time and effort compared to the payoffs it provides. In effect, there’s a tragedy of the commons—we all benefit from those who do it, so there is incentive to let other people shoulder the load.

The rationale behind science communication is fairly obvious, and it is difficult to provide compelling arguments that appeal to skeptics. Public outreach is related to the reputation of the scientific field, funding, and the integration of the science community into society. Locally, it is related to the reputation of your university and to the quality of your students.

  • Outreach is "Service"—one of the three components of a professor’s job.
  • Outreach is "Broader Impacts" and "Dissemination of Results" on NSF and other grant proposals.
  • Outreach brings visibility to the department, which is valued by chairs and deans who are trying to raise money, and by researchers who want quality students.
  • Outreach is giving back to the community.

Other sciences have established long-lasting traditions of transmitting their key issues, raising public awareness including highlights such as the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal (rarely is the public aware of the ACM A.M. Turing Award).

Computer science is not yet where it should be in this regard. The reasons for this may lie in the relative youth of the area, the rapid advances in the field, as well as the fast-moving technology that computer science is related to. Computer scientists face the drawbacks of lacking public awareness. They are confronted with low enrollment numbers and low funding, and to some extent, they feel ignored and misunderstood. The purpose of this article is to provide suggestions for what you and your faculty can pragmatically do to increase coverage of computer science in the media.

Consider the following scenario: Your hypothetical bad day as a computer scientist begins with the beaming morning newscaster announcing prize-winning genomic results—all advanced by your efficient algorithm that took a year to derive running in the background, the mention of which is completely ignored.

Then, you overhear your teenager and a friend discussing their future school choices. "No computer science for me, I already know how to program and make Web pages." "Same here, I want to make new discoveries and be creative, and not just implement other people’s ideas using computers. I might even want my own company someday, and I couldn’t do that majoring in computer science." The day ends with rumors suggesting personnel redundancies at universities due to low enrollments.

The preceding bad-day story isn’t far from reality. The general public is far more aware of foundational questions in other fields; say, "Evolution" in biology or "String Theory" in physics, than they are about "efficient algorithms" in computer science. The lack of understanding of what computer scientists do, results in a public view of our field as trivial and uninteresting.

The Manifesto written by scientists and journalists from several countries at a recent Dagstuhl Perspectives Workshop4 recommends that all computer scientists make efforts to establish relationships with the media. Probably most computer science professors who are motivated to deal with the press can figure out how to do it.

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Ten Tips to Get Your Work into the Media

The following tips are straightforward and may be helpful (there are additional useful references at the end of this article). Each newspaper, periodical, radio, TV, YouTube, blog, or wiki will have its own signature guidelines. Below we offer some general suggestions for getting started.

Use the "Dissemination of results" requirements of your grant proposals. A strict policy of the U.S. National Science Foundation requires every proposal to be accompanied by a section on Broader Impact that is critical in the review process. Essentially, those sections help the NSF make its case for funding before Congress. Computer scientists generally assume this section means to disseminate results to the research community. Other sciences, such as physics, are much more adept at producing films, videos or other media to educate the general public or schoolchildren, not only other researchers. This creates a virtuous cycle (good things lead to good things) that benefits the researcher quite directly: more proposals being funded. In particular, broader outreach may lead to increased support for your proposal, enabling more research funding, and recognition for your research and outreach. Sharing our scientific ideas is becoming obligatory, rather than optional. Don’t be shy.

One of the challenges of basic research is that the impact of the research often isn’t recognizable until much later, when someone applies it to some other problem.

Find a hook. You need to understand and articulate why the public should care about your work. Does it lay out a new theory? Solve a universal problem? Demonstrate a classic concept? Does it address an interesting problem in an interesting application area? Is it locally relevant? What is the impact of your work—now or in the future? The hook may be a vision of what your research is aiming for in the long term (as do other sciences): "We want to save life with our car automation systems." "We want to solve the starvation/energy/air pollution problem."

"Finding a hook" may be the most important piece of advice in this article. If we don’t have "news" for the science beat writer, our research isn’t going to get a mention. We need to clarify what’s "new" about our work and why it’s relevant to anyone outside our lab.

One of the challenges of basic research is that the impact of the research often isn’t recognizable until much later, when someone applies it to some other problem. At that point, the new application is what’s newsworthy, not the basic research results achieved 15 years prior. News is about the latest—unless you reclaim your foundational groundwork and figure out how to convey that in an accessible way to the public.

The hook might be the undergraduate students hired by local companies on a part-time basis while they are going to school, or successful alumni. Make friends with the publicity department of the company. Surely, the company is interested in self-promotion, and may appreciate your help in acknowledging their support of your students and the depth of your research. Further, this advertises an opportunity to earn money while studying computer science—crucial for many potential students. Insist with reporters that the right people (the students!) get credit and are mentioned by name. Have photos taken—even if only of the students holding their checks.

The hook may be the private life of the scientist (you and your 12 children) and the science is embedded in a story about the scientist. Create opportunities to appear in public. Your participation may be the hook. If you get an award, participate in or help organize an event, receive a grant, have an Open Day, then be sure to let others know through the dissemination channels that you have established. Insist with reporters that the department and university are mentioned prominently. If you don’t insist, they may not do it.

There is plenty in newspapers, Web sites, radio, or TV that has nothing to do with "scandal and crime." Still, framing your work as "bad news" (algorithms for detecting the swine flu, or program verification after a plane crash) may be a hook attracts attention. Be creative.

Establish personal contacts. Journalists are looking for people to feed them topics, but don’t just send a bunch of press releases. Make friends with your local newspaper science writer. Invite them for a cup of coffee or lunch. Be willing to have them call you for help when they have a science article due but need further explanation (even in a somewhat different area). Once you established contact with a journalist, make an arrangement to report on a highlight in your department or research community several times a year. (This might foster a competition within your department on what topic is featured.)

Make friends with the Press Office of your university. Some universities require all publicity and interactions with media journalists to be cleared first through the university Press Office. These writers are likely to be generalists with the usual prejudices and stereotypes (I don’t like math. Scientists are nerds.) It may require a long-term relationship to gradually expose them to computer science methods and mission. Also, be aware that the Press Office itself has restrictions; such as, to ‘balance’ the disciplines reported on in the press.

Becoming friends first will make it easier to reveal, and our media specialist friends to humanize, our creative conjecturing thought processes. We deserve to be reassured that our use of math, for both conjecture and proof in a wide range of interesting problems, will be presented in a manner that interests (not titillates) the public. Ask for a list of probable questions if you are about to be interviewed. Ask what to expect. Practice describing (perhaps to your imaginary grandmother) the sublime highs as a computer scientist and how logic and numbers are used to widespread advantage in what you do.

Get started. Starting small is fine. Don’t worry if your article is only published in your small local paper. Some local papers can only publish about local people and events. Larger media might look to the local media, and may pick up your story. Further, you will still make an impact on your local community and its understanding of CS.

Use the enthusiasm of your students. Abstract mathematical concepts truly can be difficult to communicate and sometimes our keen students have a fresh approach. The book, "Computer Science Unplugged!" is a resource that embeds the mathematics behind computing in story. For example, the problem of Minimum Dominating Set on Planar Graphs is described as "Finding a minimum set of street corners on which to place ice cream stands so that nobody has to walk more than one block to get an ice cream." Take care not to dumb down the content in ways that it becomes distorted or untrue.

Approach different types of media. Your teen is passionate about drawing heroic cartoon characters. OK, can your progeny’s talent and enthusiasm be harnessed to promote computer science? Some media want only an overview idea while others want scientific detail. Consider student magazines, cartoons, computer games (www.seriousgames.org), a computer corner in the children’s page of the Sunday paper, music (see They Might Be Giants, brain candy musicians who sing about science), social media like twitter, Web blogs or YouTube, art, theater, radio programs, novels, dance (see Scott Kim and his ‘dancing for math’; http://www.mathdance.org).

Find role models or ambassadors for computer science. This might be a well known author, scientist, sports figure, politician or other entity who can speak for the field. Or, it may be a wildly popular musician or entrepreneur who pleads for a better public understanding of computer science. They might not even realize that the opportunity exists to be a spokesperson for science. We need a hook, and famous people bear the hook in itself. Look for personalities attractive to our target audience. Reach out to them. Engage them in our mission.

Mention the foundational principles on which your clever insights are based. The general public will become familiar with hearing the same fundamental concepts over and over (Halting Problem, computational complexity, algorithm, sorting, searching and so on) and become more techno-savvy, as if they have unconsciously taken CS101. Computer science basics can become common knowledge.

Include writing assignments in your classes to help your students learn to communicate their ideas to the public. Take part in courses on media communication skills (public relations, popular science writing or journalism).

A preliminary first step to positive recognition for your outreach work is to get your department chair or dean or chief involved.

Use links to other disciplines. Computer science is used in disciplines from archaeology to zoology. Try for joint presentations where you can present the underlying computer science that is used in these other fields. For example, the local art gallery may feature a presentation by an artist, and you could add insights about use of databases or security issues in the art world.

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Why should We All Do This?

Research time is precious, and establishing media relationships and learning public exposition and outreach may be new and time-consuming activities that we feel we cannot afford. Reasons for this attitude are plentiful: outreach is mainly considered as service, and although service is part of our typical academic job, little acknowledgement is given to this often challenging work in annual reviews, or tenure and promotion cases. Our colleagues may feel we are not pulling our weight in terms of research, even if we include it as a required part of our grant proposals. However, the implications of successful outreach work can impact the entire department or even university positively in numerous ways, including a higher profile of the institution and improved student numbers. We may be surprised at a more positive response from the Administration.

A preliminary first step to positive recognition for your outreach work is to get your department chair or dean or chief involved. Arrange to exchange outreach work for committee or other administration duties. Make sure that your colleagues know about the trade, and that fewer administration duties mean that your outreach activities are not compromising your research time. This may dispel the myth that outreach takes time away from research. Keep your chair in the loop and work together to find ways of featuring the department in the media, and of rewarding faculty (especially junior faculty) for this work.

The situation is grave and we must all work to "sell" computer science, not just to increase the numbers of students or to promote our particular research area, but to maintain a scientifically literate populace in an era when even the word "science" sometimes brings a negative reaction.

The public applauds performers, and sees the practical applications of economists, businessmen, engineers or other scientists as the main performance, because the computer scientist hasn’t come out to take a bow. We can write ourselves into the script as the originator of useful results, or certainly insist on ovation as the playwright holding the first-step creative thought processes. No more standing behind the curtain in the wings.

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    1. American Association for the Advancement of Science: AAAS. The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology has partnered with the National Science Foundation to provide resources for scientists and engineers, both online and through in-person workshops to help researchers communicate more broadly with the public; http://communicatingscience.aaas.org/Pages/newmain.aspx

    2. Bell, T., Witten, I., Fellows, M. Computer Science Unplugged; csunplugged.org.

    3. Carrada, G. Communicating Science: A Scientist's Survival Kit, a 75-page guide to successful communications published by the European Commission Directorate-General for Research, 2006; ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/science-communication/index_en.htm

    4. Dagstuhl Perspectives Workshop 09142: Preventing the Brainware Crisis; http://www.dagstuhl.de/09142.

    5. Wing, J.M. Computational thinking. Commun, ACM 49, 3 (Mar. 2006), 33–35.

    We wish to thank the reviewers and the editor-in-chief of the Communications of the ACM, and the co-chair of the Viewpoints section for their supportive suggestions and some wording.

    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1897852.1897880

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