1. BEFORE THE INTERVIEW
Your scientific paper will be published soon, and a news release about it has attracted reporters. Or an earthquake, epidemic, or policy issue has drawn attention to your topic. Or maybe you are receiving an award. For whatever reason, a reporter calls. How can you work with the reporter to help ensure that the public receives accurate scientific information?
First, why work with the reporter? If your research is government funded, the public has a right to know. Also, as an important part of our culture, science merits coverage. Scientific information can help individuals and groups make sound decisions. Public information about science can draw students to scientific careers. Coverage in the popular media can promote public support for science and your institution.
At your institution, members of the media relations staff may prepare news releases and help reporters find experts to interview. They can also give guidance, such as tips on being interviewed for television. Other sources of advice include the SciDev. Net Practical Guide “What Journalists Want from Scientists and Why” (www.scidev.net/global/communication/practical-guide /what-journalists-want-from-scientists-and-why.html) and material from professional organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (see www.aaas.org/page/strategies-working-reporters) and the American Geophysical Union (see sharingscience.agu.org/inform-news). Books providing guidance include A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media (Hayes and Grossman 2006), Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media (Menninger and Gropp 2008), Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Dean 2009), and Explaining Research (Meredith 2010).
News releases (also known as press releases) informing reporters about your research may be prepared by your institution or by the journal publishing your paper. They are then disseminated to the media. A news release, which can be published as is or can lead to a story by a reporter, is structured like a newspaper article; for many examples of news releases, see the science news website EurekAlert! (www.eurekalert.org). Those preparing a news release about your work will normally consult you. By answering their questions and then checking a draft, you can help ensure accuracy. Realize, though, that a news release will be much less technical and much less detailed than a scientific paper.
When reporters contact you, ask about their background, task, and timetable. Those writing science stories range from general reporters with minimal science background to science journalists with doctorates in the sciences; knowing whether the reporter is a specialist can help you respond appropriately. Also find out what the reporter is seeking; for example, will the article focus on your research, or is a general article being written about your research field? Finally, what is the reporter’s deadline? Is the reporter writing a news story due today or a feature article due next month? Knowing the answers to such questions can help you respond most suitably. Of course, if you lack the expertise being sought, decline the interview and, if possible, direct the reporter to someone appropriately qualified.
Unless the reporter must talk with you immediately, think beforehand about what you want to say. Identify the main message you wish to present. Especially for the broadcast media, come up with a short and snappy way to state it—in other words, a “sound bite.”
Before the interview, if possible, provide written materials or direct the reporter to some. Such materials may include news releases, papers you have written, and sources of general information about your research topic. Providing such materials facilitates the reporter’s work, promotes efficient use of interview time, and fosters accuracy.
2. DURING THE INTERVIEW
When interviewed, try to word your responses in ways directly suitable for the reporter’s audience. For example, use mainly simple common language, define technical terms, and relate what you say to familiar concepts, for instance by providing analogies. Consider presenting the information as you would to a nonscientist neighbor or a bright high school student. Suiting the material for the audience minimizes the need for the reporter to “translate” and so decreases the chance of error. It also gives the reporter quotable content or sound bites.
Try to present information accessibly but without condescension. Avoid thinking of “watering things down,” which tends to yield indigestible bits in an insipid broth. Rather, think of “building bridges” between what you will present and what the audience already knows and cares about. Consider using techniques presented in Chapter 26, “How to Write for the Public,” to present your content clearly and engagingly.
If you have key points to convey, make them even if the reporter does not ask. You may be able to do so by reframing a question. (“That’s an interesting idea, but actually the issue we were studying was. . . .”) Alternatively, you can add points at the end of an answer or the end of the interview. Also, if you have photographs or other visuals that might enhance the story, inform the reporter, even if not asked.
Stay focused during the interview. In particular, do not make offhand remarks that you would not want published.
Consider checking the reporter’s understanding. For instance, you can say, “I’m not sure I’ve presented this concept clearly. Perhaps you could explain it back to me so I can check.” Then, if misunderstanding has occurred, you can provide clarification.
Before the interview ends, encourage the reporter to contact you if questions arise while writing the story. You may also offer to review part or all of the story for technical accuracy. Traditionally, journalists have not shown drafts to their sources, for fear of being pressured to change content inappropriately. Some journalists, however, welcome such review when writing about technical topics. Limit any suggested changes to matters of technical accuracy. The writing style is the writer’s and editor’s domain.
3. AFTER THE INTERVIEW
Once the story appears, have realistic expectations. Of course, the story will be briefer and less technical than a journal article. It also will focus mainly on aspects of greatest interest to the public. Thus, it is likely to emphasize conclusions and implications, and it is unlikely to describe your methods in detail or to list your eight coauthors. In evaluating the story, often the relevant question is not “Was everything captured precisely?” but rather “Would a member of the public come away with the correct idea?”
If a story is especially good or if it has serious errors, consider providing feedback. Often, reporters hear only if others are displeased. If you think the reporter has done especially well, tell the reporter—and, if possible, also tell the editor. If a story has a major inaccuracy, also inform the reporter. Good reporters want to know, so they can avoid repeating mistakes. If an error is serious, a correction may be published or aired.
Finally, think back on your interactions with the reporter. What did you do that turned out well? What could you have done better? Considering such questions can help you be even more effective the next time a reporter calls.
Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.