What science writers are looking for and why it behooves you to answer their calls.
By Edyta Zielinska
There was a time when the public saw newspaper reporters as heroic figures. In those days, “Men wore hats and pounded away on the typewriter with two fingers,” says neuroscientist Richard Ransohoff, whose father was a beat reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer and Post and Times-Star through the early 1960s. His father “knew every cop in town,” recalls Ransohoff, who works today at the Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis. “I was enamored with that persona.”
Even with his fond memories of journalism’s glory days, as a clinical neurologist, Ransohoff understands the frustration common to many scientists when their work is covered by the media. The effect of news coverage is immediate. His patients will visit his office with clips in hand, full of hopes and questions. “I’ve had thousands of conversations with patients,” he says. “You have a disease for which the cause is unknown and the course is variable,” and you have to explain that even the most promising research is years away from being tested, much less proven as a treatment, he says.
The public understands that if they “go to their niece’s third grade recital and the kid plays chopsticks, and plays the hell out of it,” he says, “no one in the audience is fooled into thinking that the next stop is Carnegie Hall.” That same appreciation is missing in the public’s understanding of the scientific enterprise, he says. That there is a slim chance for big findings in basic research, trumpeted by news stories, to make it through the long vetting process of drug development and clinical trials is a concept that the public rarely grasps.
And basic researchers can get burned by media coverage, as well, such as when years of bench work are cast incorrectly by a reporter who makes a factual mistake or misinterprets complex findings.
But there are many reasons why scientists should speak to reporters, and why doing so can help their careers. “I don’t think scientists are hesitant to speak to the press. I just don’t think they’re good at it,” Ransohoff says. “But in fairness it is difficult to talk about cellular processes to people who [sometimes] don’t know their bodies are made out of cells.” Of course, most journalists who write primarily about science these days are well versed in basic biology, physics, or whatever field they cover—many are even former scientists themselves.
Here are tips from leading science reporters, producers and other communications experts on how researchers can get the most out of interactions with the press, and why taking a call from a reporter is worth your time.
Why you should make time for reporters
It’s your duty
“I don’t think it’s important [to talk to reporters], I think it’s essential,” says Brandeis University’s Gregory Petsko, who served as past president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “The public puts us in the lab. They spend their money to allow us to do what we love to do.” Since taxpayers fund the majority of research, it’s scientists’ responsibility to communicate the science on which the money is spent, says Petsko.
It raises your profile with journal editors and funders
Editors of high-impact journals don’t just look for the best research, they also look for research they think will catch the eyes of editors at the New York Times. If they see that your lab publishes the kinds of studies that appear on the radar screens of science journalists, they may be more prone to look favorably on your next submission. The same is true of some granting agencies.
Your bosses will love it
“Our institutions love publicity,” says Ransohoff. “We get local credibility and a type of celebrity within our institution.” Having your research covered by media outlets can translate to recognition and validation within your department that may ultimately help you win departmental resources.
You may pick up grant-writing tips
Journalists have an eye for distilling the details—a skill that increasingly shorter grant applications place at a premium. “We’re in a completely new era of grant preparation and review,” says Ransohoff. With applications for National Institutes of Health grants recently trimmed from 25 pages to 12, researchers and reviewers must briefly emphasize a project’s significance and innovation—concepts that science writers routinely think about. Scientists will benefit from seeing how a seasoned journalist distills years of work and a long manuscript into a readable, 500-word article.
It gets the public excited about science
Robert Langer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology biomedical engineer, has more than 760 patents pending or awarded, and runs the largest academic biomedical engineering lab in the world. He is also something of a press darling for being approachable, despite the demands on his time. (He called this reporter within 20 minutes of receiving an email request.) “The future of our country and science depends on getting outstanding young people interested in science,” says Langer, and helping reporters publish stories that describe the achievements and possibilities of science is one way to do that.
It’s better you than someone else
If you care about how the science in your field will be described, the best thing to do is to respond to reporters’ calls, especially with hot-button topics like stem cells or climate change. “If no [expert scientists] talked, [reporters will] end up going to people who are less and less expert,” which can result in stories that are less accurate, says Ed Sykes, a press officer at the Science Media Centre, an organization that provides press support for the UK national media.
The Medium Matters
TV is different from print
When Vincent Liota, a senior series producer at NOVA scienceNOW, was working as a news cameraman for a local television station in Norfolk, Va. in 1985, he covered the hostage takeover of Flight 847. When the hostages were released, both TV and newspaper reporters swarmed around one hostage who was willing to speak. The man said that he had gotten off the plane, sat down and lit a cigarette. “He was telling this story and getting really emotional,” says Liota. At that moment, a newspaper reporter interrupted and asked “what brand of cigarettes were you smoking?” to the frustration of all of the television reporters who wanted the uninterrupted, first-hand account. Print reporters will often grill you for specific details and numbers that will help the reader visualize the story.
If it’s live, do pre-interview mental pushups
Most people who are interviewed on radio or TV usually experience a pre-interview, in which someone—either the on-air reporter or a producer—asks questions similar to those they’ll hear on-air, says Christopher Intagliata, one of the producers of Science Friday, a live public radio talk show hosted by Ira Flatow. Mooney, who’s been interviewed on radio about his work, says he usually spends 5 minutes before going on the air, thinking about what the audience is interested in, and how to explain those ideas in the clearest way. “If it’s live radio, you’ve only got one shot,” Mooney says.
For the news— no personality, no problem
Not everyone can be dynamic, funny, witty, engaging, dramatic,” says Petsko. But you do have to be clear, he adds. “Nothing is more important than that.” Personality is not as crucial to a news story as it is in a feature article or live interview. When Tom Clarke—who covers breaking science stories for Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom—hits the road for a story, he isn’t looking to find the perfect source. News reporters like Angier and Clarke will digest the science for their audience, using quotes or sound bites from scientists to give a story context. “It doesn’t matter what the scientist is like,” says Clarke. “We’ll find a way to get something we can use.”
Getting the most out of a press call
Understand what the journalist/outlet is looking for
You should always get a sense of the kind of story the reporter aims to write. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask a reporter about his or her intentions for an article. But keep in mind that the reporter may not always know, says Faye Flam, a science journalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Sometimes I’m just fishing,” for an idea, she says. But asking the journalist for more information, or for a list of sample questions, can help you decide if you’d like to participate, and provide clues for how to prepare and “be more helpful,” says Flam. Another way to decide whether to participate is to try to imagine the headline that will appear with the story that you’re interviewing for, says Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations, and author of the blog mrmediatraining.com.
K.I.S.S.—Keep It Simple, Scientist
Sometimes, the simplest answer is the best one. “When you’re learning to drive a car, you want someone who’s going to answer your questions in a way that’s going to be fruitful to you,” says Liota. “When someone asks ‘how do you make the car go, you don’t want someone to say, ‘Well, there’s this thing called the carburetor… and that supplies gasoline into the manifold, where it is combusted. The valves adjust the fuel injected into the cylinder, and pistons compress it, and then they fire.’” While the information is all correct, viewers want a scientist who can simply say “you step on the gas and it goes.”
It’s okay to give personal details
While personal questions may seem like dangerous territory or off topic, they can be crucial to conveying the human face of science. “I want the audience to know that scientists aren’t bronzed figures that, with very little homework, come up with great pronouncements,” says Krulwich. If you’re uncomfortable with giving a particular personal detail, feel free to ask why the reporter thinks it’s important.
Be a go-to source
“My job is to get good people,” says Science Friday’s Intagliata. Come Friday’s deadline, “I want to know I have a failsafe solution,” he adds. If reporters can’t get the clarity they’re looking for, they simply search for another source. “One wonders why we turn to the same sources again and again,” says Angier. Some sources are simply good at drawing a caricature that captures the essence of an idea. “People who master that will get called again and again,” says Angier.
It’s all about significance
Reporters will want to know, “Is this something the rest of the public should care about?” adds Sykes. He says that scientists should come to the interviews “armed” with “the bottom line” and numbers that demonstrate the impact the science could have on humanity or on the field. “Journalists love the numbers, but they have to be in context.”
Prepare a plate of metaphors
Scientists should come to the interviews “armed” with “the bottom line” and numbers that demonstrate the impact the science could have on humanity or on the field.
The goal of the science writer, says Angier, is to “bring the senses to bear—what it would look like, what it would feel like, smell like.” The shortest path to achieving this goal is the use of metaphors, and you can aid reporters in crafting these turns of phrase. For example, to describe RNA interference to a lay audience, Liota once constructed several layers of metaphor: Using animation, his team drew RNA as a recipe that a “monkish scribe” copies from the grand cookbook of DNA, which was kept locked in a tower (the nucleus). Those recipes were then chucked out of the nuclear “window” (a pore) and caught by a chef (a ribosome) floating in the cytoplasm, who would whip up proteins based on the instructions. While such extensive metaphors may seem excessive and loose, they give uninitiated readers a fighting chance to understand complex biological concepts.
Want coverage? Be available
Make yourself accessible to the press, and be sure not to book travel plans during the week before your new research is published. If a reporter can’t reach you or someone in your lab, they may choose not to cover the story.
Common press pitfalls, and how to avoid them
To avoid oversimplification, connect the dots
Good science reporters do their best not to tell an overly simplified story. That isn’t satisfying to anyone, says Angier. When using metaphors, make sure to think about and convey the limits of the metaphor. A journalist will try to convey the full complexity, but in the end, a story is “just a taste,” he notes. “It’s not the master class.” If you’re worried that a reporter won’t get all the most important parts of your science, prepare three main points you want to get across, making sure to convey how you came to those statements, and field-test them on a layperson to ensure that the message is clear.
To avoid errors, avoid jargon
When science writer Carl Zimmer teaches a course on science communication to budding researchers at Yale University, he often returns the assignment with loads of jargon words circled in red. “A scientist has spent years learning how to talk like a scientist,” he says, and often have a hard time distinguishing jargon from genuinely descriptive language. But every time a scientist uses a word that is meaningful only to that particular field, it increases the likelihood that the reporter will misunderstand the intended message when he sits down to write and translate that term for a general scientific or lay audience.
To avoid misquotes, take a pause
“The big issue is pausing properly,” says Petsko. When talking to a reporter, he always takes breaks to let the reporter “digest and see what kinds of questions come back at me.” Some reporters try to take down all of the words you say—especially unfamiliar scientific terms (so they can look them up later). The faster you talk, the more likely it is that they’ll miss something.
To avoid sensational stories, research the reporter
The majority of science reporters are quite conscientious about getting their stories right. “Most of us are trying to make an honest effort to get at the truth, and we’re genuinely interested in what [scientists] do,” says Flam. But general assignment reporters, who don’t usually cover science, may not be as adept at capturing scientific stories. It’s always a good idea to research reporters or outlets before you agree to speak with them to see whether you trust how—and if—they cover science. If a reporter calls first (without sending an email request), feel free to say that you’ll call back, and do a few Internet searches.
if it’s wrong, ask for a correction
Even the best science reporters do get it wrong sometimes. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with reporters or their editors to set the record straight. Most will be happy to oblige. But remember that many outlets have a policy only to correct factual errors, not omissions or changes in tone.
Disclaimer: While the following represent widely held definitions in the field, not every reporter will interpret the rules in the same way. Your best bet is to either not say anything you don’t want to see in print or have an explicit conversation with the reporter about how your words will be used before the interview begins.
Off the record:
This is an agreement you make with a journalist before you say things that you do not want published. Here, nothing you say will be published or attributed to you. If you only want parts of the conversation to be “off the record,” make sure to tell the reporter when you’d like those parts to begin and end.
Not for attribution:
You can agree to speak to a reporter about a sensitive topic under the condition that your name will not be used. This information will be published, but attributed to an unnamed source. The reporter will then negotiate an attribution for your comments that demonstrates your expertise without revealing your identity.
When a reporter asks to speak “on background,” this indicates that your guidance and opinion are needed. Talk to the reporter ahead of time if you don’t want what you say used in the story.
This is the journalist’s method for peer review. Reporters invite researchers who were not involved in the issue or study at hand to weigh in on the science and its potential impact on the field.
Take home message:
This is the most important point about the science or issue at hand, stripped of the details. A succinct sentence in summary usually suffices.
More timely, more focused, and written on a tighter deadline than features, news stories generally highlight one finding or event. In general, reporters have much less time to grasp the content of the science and fact check—so you may have only one chance to be understood.
These longer pieces posit a particular concept—a thesis—and support that concept with quotes and anecdotes from a much larger number of sources than a news story.
These stories tell the science of a single person (and more rarely a place) through the recollections of people who have worked with, mentored, or inspired that scientist.
Reporters will ask to read back (or email) the facts stated in the article to make sure they are accurately portrayed. This is not, however, an opportunity to change quotes, or the focus of a story.
The rules of engagement
You’re always on the record
“It is the responsibility of the scientists to know what the rules are.” —Natalie Angier, New York Times science columnist
If scientists choose to speak to a reporter, everything they say can be published, and it’s the journalist’s prerogative to choose which portions of the interview to include in a story. The law of free speech gives reporters the right to publish what they hear. This concept could be unfamiliar to many scientists, says David Mooney, a bioengineer at Harvard University. “Scientists routinely talk to each other off the record to kind of exchange ideas in a very informal way, where there’s no sense that these ideas will ever become public,” he says. “It’s an integral part of the scientific process.” Printable information can even include data divulged in conference presentations, but each meeting typically has a unique confidentiality policy, if members of the press will be present. This can vary widely, so it’s best to know the ground rules for the conference at which you’re presenting.
No, seriously—you’re on the record
It’s possible to ensure that some portion of an interview is off the record (see definitions), but scientists have to go about this a specific way. Simply saying, “it’s off the record,” isn’t enough, says Carolyn Foley, a lawyer who specializes in media and communications law at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in New York. “You need to get the reporter’s agreement,” preferably in writing, but verbal agreements are okay. You must first say you want to speak off the record and obtain the reporter’s agreement, before sharing sensitive information. “It is the responsibility of the scientists to know what the rules are,” says New York Times science columnist Natalie Angier. You can’t talk to a reporter and then “suddenly negate the whole conversation,” by saying that it was off the record. The reporter is still allowed to use that information. Don’t “talk to a reporter like you’re talking to a friend,” says Foley. “Even if you have a good rapport with them, the journalist is free to use the information.”
Don’t hype or overstate
Every journalist’s primary objective is to entice the reader to care and to continue reading. Part of that equation with science stories is spelling out the major finding and implication of the research—either for the general public or for a general scientific audience. Take extra care when talking about the relevance of a finding. Be aware that, to the reporter, these may be the most important two sentences you say, so take care to include all of the relevant caveats. According to MIT’s Langer, “it’s natural to get excited about your science,” but it’s important to be conservative about your predictions for the human implications. “You don’t want to give false hope,” he says.
It’s your science, but it’s their story
You can try to guide reporters to the parts of your science that are most important, you can emphasize your main points, but in the end, “once I walk away with these notes, that’s my work product and it’s my job to come up with an account of this conversation,” says Robert Krulwich, cohost of Radiolab, a public radio show about science and philosophy. Some outlets allow scientists to read a draft of the piece to check for errors, while others have strict policies that prevent a reporter from showing any part of the draft. Except in the most extenuating circumstances, these policies are typically non-negotiable.
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Read more: Why Trust A Reporter? – The Scientist