I am interested in understanding the role that parasites play in biological invasions using the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) as a model invasive species in the UK. While sampling in London last Autumn, I discovered dramatic increase in the number of harlequin ladybirds that had the sexually (and sometimes socially) transmitted parasitic fungus Hesperomyces virescens (unfortunately no common name…). This led me to wonder how far has this fungus spread in the UK and what species can you find it on. To try and find this out we developed a public survey, encouraging the recording of large overwintering groups of ladybirds, especially those in the South East of England where I found the fungus in the field. For more information about the fungus, click here.
Now to the main reason for writing this blog! To help publicise the survey, we issued a press release. I want to tell you about the practicalities of doing this and the experience we had with the accuracy of the coverage that resulted from it.
For those of you who have asked about how the process works, this next paragraph is for you. First, we had to decide if what we were doing was something that warranted a press release and would be of interest to the general public. We sent off our idea to the PR department, who came back with a list of questions/points that would need to be addressed in manner that anyone could understand. It was only at this point that I realised quite what a press release actually was. I am not sure what I thought it would be, but for those of you not in the know, it turns out to be a side of A4 that contains a working ‘headline’, some detail about what it is you are researching (or want to tell the public about), followed by some quotes for reporters to use. Finally there are contact details and background information about the institution(s) involved and, in this case, the already successful UK ladybird survey.
A draft of the press release came back from PR that I re-drafted along with my supervisors, Matt Tinsley and Helen Roy (CEH). The trick here was to make sure what we wrote could not be taken out of context, nor was too controversial. Finding a title was one of the most challenging bits to this. We wanted to make it snappy and interesting enough it would be picked up by the media, but contain enough information so it was not misleading or just completely wrong! We ended up going for ‘Call for public action as sexually transmitted fungal epidemic hits the invasive harlequin ladybird’. Not the snappiest but I think it got all the detail in!
Once we had decided the date we wanted to release, had the survey live online and all the information available on the ladybird survey website, it was a waiting game. The press release was out there and we now waited, hoping a reporter would be interested enough to pick it up. By 10am on the morning of the release we had two news agencies interested and asking for phone interviews. I was incredibly nervous but I think my points came across clearly enough. Unfortunately for us, the news agencies interested so far were all Scotland based – not great when you are hoping to get coverage in London. We did get interest from someone in London, but 20 minutes after her initial inquiry, she emailed to let us know she had moved onto something else – that’s London based news for you!
A few days later I had another phone interview, but this time from a south-west England news agency – more promising! Before the day was out, the information from my interview with her was in the Daily Mail and the Times newspapers. At the time of writing the story has been covered in various forms in the Daily Mail (Online), Times, Mirror, Metro, Scotsman, Independent, Derby Telegraph, Gloucestershire Echo, Grimsby telegraph, South Wales Evening Post, Scunthorpe Telegraph & Torquay Herald Express. There may well be more local papers that don’t have online news availability but these are all that I have seen. I was also interviewed live on the radio for the Radio 5live breakfast show and BBC radio Scotland. The radio interview was a very exciting but nerve-wracking experience. I was on just before 7am speaking from the BBC studio at Stirling University, which is un-manned and therefore requires you to make sure it is all working by yourself. Quite a worry especially if you haven’t had your coffee yet!
To finish off this blog post I want to just have a quick look at the accuracy of what was reported. For most of the interviews (both radio and articles in the papers) there was a phone conversation beforehand, which often lasted 30-45 minutes. Yet still, no matter what I told the reporters, inaccuracies were reported. Many articles and the radio referred to the ‘American invader’ – the harlequin is in fact native to Asia and was introduced to America as a biological control agent, it is not American, and I told them this. The articles also refer to this ‘deadly sex disease’ – the point of this whole press release and survey is to help research that I am currently doing at the University to investigate what effects the fungus might have on the ladybirds. There is no indication anywhere that it is ‘deadly’, and I never said it was! Many news articles also decided to display a picture of a 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) which, as far as we know, does not get this fungus and isn’t declining anywhere near as fast as other species, for example the 2-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata). Radio 5live displayed these photographs on twitter after my interview with them, again saying this invader is American rather than Asian.
Many of the news articles, as you can imagine, really wanted to focus this story around the decline of native species with the arrival of an invasive species. They did this despite the resulting articles containing several inaccuracies. Coming through the other end of the process, it leaves you wondering how much of the news is inaccurate but also how much science (and I say science because it is the field I am in) is bypassed by the media due to it not being ‘interesting’ enough to draw the attention of reporters and agencies, when in fact it may be of importance and interest generally.
As a side note, after the publishing of the article on the Daily Mail, I was contacted by someone researching the same fungus in America at Harvard University. I was also contacted by a teacher at a high school in Kilmarnock, Scotland who had heard me on the radio and asked me to come in and chat to the senior years about my research and why it is important. This, as well as the response from people on Twitter, has been great in terms of knowing people out there are happy to help and interested in your research.