Thoughts on academic scientists giving media interviews

Where there's mutual understanding of our distinct but overlapping goals, there's love. The author with the superb science writer, Ed Yong. Credit: John Timmer/Ars Technica.

Many thanks to the large, diverse group of folks who’ve referred this post via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The tips can be found by scrolling down but I’ve provided this initial background on why I chose today to post these ideas.

Tomorrow I’ll have the opportunity to work with my new boss, tree canopy biologist Meg Lowman (Canopy Meg), to talk about science communication with deans and department heads at North Carolina State University and some of our research colleagues at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Meg and have appointments (in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (PAMS) and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS), respectively.)

For more information on these partnerships, here’s an article at NC State on what Meg and I are trying to do in our relationship between the university and the Museum’s new wing, the Nature Research Center. We’re having a sneak-preview gala on April 13th and a huge public grand opening on April 20.

Come visit with us for our 13 April Gala, 20 April public grand opening, or anytime thereafter. Click on the image for more details. (Bonus points if you know the chemical depicted and the reason.)

Last September we here at Take As Directed had a great discussion on the scientist-journalist relationship and the expectations in both professions. The discussion spawned a new feature by my PLoS colleague and MIT Science Writing Program faculty member Seth Mnookin called SciWriteLabs where he conducted online interviews and discussions with folks like me, Ivan Oransky, Vincent Racaniello and others. In those discussions I came up with the following thoughts that never made it to a blog post.

(And speaking of great science writing, Mnookin’s The Panic Virus is a superb and engaging investigation of the anti-vaccine activists and how belief systems persist in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary. The Panic Virus just became available in paperback.)

So, I wanted to share this with tomorrow’s workshop attendees but was hoping for your feedback as well, journalists and scientists.

As another guide, you may also care to read a similar post from Jacquelyn Gill at her excellent blog, Contemplative Mammoth.

As a scientist, I’ve worked for institutions that ranged from actively soliciting press opportunities to those that made the layers of bureaucracy so burdensome that it discouraged press interactions. But here’s one thing I haven’t written about before: while I feel that scientists have a responsibility to talk to the press, especially if they take federal research funds, they also need to develop some rigor and discretion in screening who they talk to. A good university press officer will screen away requests from, uh, less reputable reporters and writers. But direct calls to the researcher allow some of these to sneak through. To my scientist brethren and sistren(?):

1. Exercise some due diligence on the reporter contacting you before being interviewed. No one will turn you down for saying you’ll get back to them in 15 min. Reputable writers have websites with their bios and past work (and are updated far more often than our own lab websites). Don’t give an interview to a sensationalist hack.

2. While you can give extensive background, be prepared with a couple of nicely distilled quotes. Yes, yes, we all hate to have our life’s work boiled down to a few words. But as we in the South know, the greatest essence of a pot of collards is the “pot likker” left over. You can be accurate and true to your work with a few concise quotes. These will increase your chance of both being quoted and being quoted accurately.

3. Repeat these killer quotes once or twice during the interview.

4. If you don’t have a few good quotes, a lot of your discussion with the reporter may simply end up as background. Don’t take offense. There will be some 30-minute interviews that yield no final quotes. Suppress the ego – you have still contributed to increasing public understanding of the topic at hand.

5. Respect writer deadlines. Depending on the writer and organization, they may be under immense time pressure to get a piece out. Some of the most common errors occur because of the demands of deadline reporting. If you want to increase the chances of the appropriate interpretation of your work (or that of others in your field) getting out, respond by deadlines if at all possible.

6. Have someone from the journalism program on your campus talk with you about the cultural difference between scientists and reporters/writers. Believe it or not, the primary concern of a science journalist is NOT to be an advocate of science (although most are). Nor are they simple transcribers – that’s an insult. Their duty is to the reader. The spectrum of reader varies by publication or website but you can be assured that the readers are not the expert you are. Therefore, the journalist will sometimes simplify the topic and perhaps leave out details you may think are important.

The journalist will also be working your comments into a story. The reader does not want a powerpoint slide. The reader wants a story. I don’t know why we scientists are so averse to our work being put into a story. How many times have you counseled a graduate student or postdoc that they need to work their presentation into “a nice story” – we do so for our audience, reporters do so for their audience.

In serving the reader, reporters will sometimes be calling bullshit on the scientists, especially if they have reason to believe that they are being spun.

7. If you engage with the press, be sure that you also have an online presence in the form of a personal blog. This is your insurance against misquoting or misinterpretation. You may not have the reach of a faulty article in some supermarket tabloid but judicious use of search terms and a track record of writing on a topic will increase the chance that your correct message makes it to the top of internet search returns.

I don’t mean to make excuses for bad journalism. Bad journalism is absolutely unacceptable. But scientists need to 1) think more strategically about their communication to non-scientist audiences and 2) recognize that their motivations are different than those of a reporter.

What else can any of you think of to add to this discussion?

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