Monday, 24 February 2014

How to talk to journalists as a scientist, and not make them hate you

Before I left Australia, I got to participate in a day-long media training event with Science in Public. A group of post-docs were chosen to learn from journalists in radio, print, and television. I had previously been interviewed a few times for articles, and I mostly felt like an unprepared idiot. With a small amount of training, I feel a lot more comfortable about the idea of both speaking coherently with non-scientists, and not ending up giving an accidental foot-in-mouth quote that makes me cringe to read/hear later on.

Today, I’ve asked my friend and radio-journo Jennifer Macey to give us her thoughts on ways scientists can provide good interview material to journalists, for everyone's benefit. [I’ve added some bits in, too]

Jessica: Who is the professional Jennifer Macey?

Jennifer: I report for the ABC's news and current affairs programs, AM, The World Today and PM. These are broadcast around Australia on the public radio [Australia’s version of NPR]. I've been a journalist for almost 20 years (eek) and although I am a general reporter - reporting on everything, I have a particular interest in environment and science yarns.

Jessica: What’s a typical day at the office for you?

Jennifer: The morning shift starts at 5:30am and the editorial meeting is at 6:15am, where the reporters pitch/suggest story ideas to our producer, who then considers them and assigns us one. We then have an hour and a half* to read the scientific paper and ring our contacts or the number on the bottom of the university or institute's press release. We hope that they are still awake in the US or Europe, or wake them up if they're in Australia. We ring every mobile phone number in our contact list related to that subject matter to find another scientist who can add a second voice. We email them the paper so they can make a considered comment before they've even had breakfast. Do a short interview for 10-15 minutes. Pick the best quotes, cut them out. Write a script. Record script. Edit out the bloopers and cut and paste it all together, in time for the 8:00 am show. Phew!  

The midday show allows three hours to prepare a story and the afternoon show gives us a whopping four hours. A typical story can be anywhere from two and half minutes to four minutes long. That is not a lot of time to explain a complex scientific study and may explain why science stories can sound simplistic to an experienced ear.

*I cannot even fathom reading a paper in this amount of time to then explain to my cat, let alone the entire country; yet the journos do this, PLUS interviews and story-producing to boot. These people are amazing.

One of my first interviews was conducted over the phone while I breast-fed this little critter in the back of my car in the pouring rain. This was not an ideal way to focus and come up with thoughtful answers to the reporter's questions.

Jessica: Ok, so maybe we shouldn't blather on for 20 minutes about background leading up to the point out our work.

I’ve also learned that it’s Ok for scientists to contact journalists directly with story ideas. How do you typically get your ideas for new science stories?

Jennifer: I subscribe to a lot of science email notifications from Universities and via the Australian Science Media Centre (AUSSMC), which compiles science papers and gathers a bunch of responses from experts along with their contact details. The AUSSMC is a journalist’s best friend, and makes the frantic search for comments much easier**. But I also get updates on upcoming science articles from Eurekalert. These are usually strictly embargoed. We also subscribe to alerts from Nature etc.

Sometimes scientists will even contact me and say they're working on something and we can prepare something in advance to coincide with the embargoed release. Or our producer may see a science story on another news site and we'll do our own version of the story with new interviews. Generally, we come up with the idea and broadcast it on the same day. Occasionally we do stories in advance but that's pretty rare. The number of times a press officer at a university or a medical institute has said to me, "Oh no, Dr. so-and-so is not available, but she'll be back next week…" Sorry—next week it won't be news anymore. 

**If you would like to be interviewed as an expert regarding a scientific publication in your field, you can sign up to be on various expert databases—particularly if you are a woman or under-represented in your field, go sign up and get your perspective out into the media.
Some examples:
American Geophysical Union:
National Science & Technology News Service:
Minority Postdocs:
Australian Science Media Service
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
Am I still considered an expert ocean scientist if I can get seasick underwater?

Jessica: Going into an interview, you generally already understand the story or scientific finding—something I didn't know until recently! When you put together the story, you also do most of the science-explaining for the audience. What are you hoping to get from the interviews you conduct?

Jennifer: Initially, I want the scientist to briefly describe the process of the study, and what significance or what impact this discovery will have. Even if I do have an understanding of the science, I still need the scientist to explain the study or the discovery in simple, layman’s terms. Sometimes I need an explanation from the beginning so I can be sure I understand it myself and can then interpret it for our listeners (sometimes we're translators!).

I also always love interesting details, for instance that the scientist was looking for a certain gene and accidentally stumbled on some new bacteria. I also like to see the big picture—who cares? Or even something very basic, like for a coral scientist to simply describe the beauty and expanse of the Great Barrier Reef.

Words that paint pictures in the listener’s head are the best way of conveying science stories. Here's an example from a story that I did about the Brood II periodical cicadas that emerged last year. The imagery is so great - comparing cicadas to a boy band that will be as loud as an aircraft - loud and slightly annoying!  

JENNIFER MACEY: And will they be noisy?

MICHAEL RAUPP: Oh they're going to be extremely noisy. This is a big boy band. It's only the male cicadas that sing, and their sound levels will approach about 90 decibels. This is the sound of a jet aircraft, a very loud lawnmower, or in this case, because these are just teenagers, they're 17 years old, it's about as loud as a rock concert. 

We were really excited to learn that the munitions littering our study location--where we were manually pounding metal pipes into the seafloor--were no longer live. We also learned some cool science stuff.

Jessica: What are some other ways scientists can be more helpful to journalists during interviews?

Jennifer: Think about your audience. I've described what a radio current affairs journalist is looking for. Radio news journos who have 45 second stories with a 15 second quote have different needs. Newspaper or magazine journalists also have different requirements. We have a pretty smart audience, but a science journal or a magazine that focuses on one subject will have more discerning, informed readers that may need less simplified explanations. 

Also, the phone lines in America are rubbish, it's like ringing a developing country. You need to get them upgraded.

Jessica: Thanks, Jennifer! For other ideas to make your time talking with journalists more effective and efficient, check out training events and blog posts by organizations like COMPASS (in the US) or Science in Public (in Australia). For instance, the COMPASS “Message Box” is a great way to organize your thoughts so you don’t trip yourself up during an interview by getting lost in your own brain and forgetting your point.

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