As y’all know, a frequent topic of conversation here is communicating science to the public. While many of us do it directly via sites such as this one, the bulk of science writing that the public will read is done by the pros–people writing for the magazines and newspapers, among other outlets. Often, their stories include interviews with research scientists. However, we’re not always so easy to get in touch with, and we blow reporters off altogether–apparently, pretty frequently.

On a listserv I subscribe to, there recently was a discussion amongst writers regarding how to get academics (and business-types; don’t feel the question is limited *only* to academics) to respond to interview requests. However, given the wording of the question and some of the responses, I think the question itself highlighted a bit of the gulf between journalists and academics, so I’m putting some of my own thoughts on why academics don’t respond first (and particularly when they are at conferences or on business travel, which was the topic of one comment), and I welcome any suggestions you have on how you prefer to be contacted–and what might improve response rates for writers. It would be great if any writers out there added their additional comments as well–imagine, a dialogue!…

FIrst, regarding conferences and the like, they can be a nightmare. Priorities are usually to develop ideas for future projects, schmooze with people who might be able to help you, and find ways to get published and funded. As was already noted, answering a phone call from a stranger isn’t going to be very high up on the list, even if it has an off chance of increasing your profile or introducing you to new parties. I recently was at ASM, and yes, there were computers to check email (15 minute limit…guess which ones are going to be answered first), and yes, there was a “laptop cafe” (which was sets of plugs, standing only–also time-limited during busy hours)–but you can see how inconvenient both of those are. In the hotel where I was staying, internet access was an additional $13/night–a charge that I assume a lot of businesses don’t mind paying, but it’s more difficult to get universities to eat. So instead, I spent every night in the lobby where there was free wireless–again, really inconvenient, and I can see why many people bypass it and don’t bother checking in online while they’re away. Yes, it’s 2007, but that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to stay connected.

Additionally, conferences are draining. At ASM I was at sessions for 8 hours a day, and there was no break between them–in fact, they often ran long with questions etc., and there were long treks between buildings. At lunch, I went to view posters to try to find others doing research in similar areas, look for collaborators, introduce myself, etc. In the evenings, I’d work, and went out for dinner one night (with colleagues–it even included a video interview for that one, so definitely a working dinner). It’s science ’round the clock (at least for me), and sometimes the last thing you want to do is talk to someone else about more science. Even if one is giving a talk at an institution rather than a days-long conference, it can still be difficult to get a free moment (and then devote that moment to an interview). Have you ever seen the schedule of someone who’s out giving a talk somewhere? Depending on the level of interest in the subject matter, we’re usually scheduled from first thing in the morning until late in the evening, meeting faculty and students, having dinner with people with mutual interests, and yes, giving the actual talks. Sometimes you don’t feel like you have time for a bathroom break, much less a call to a reporter.

There are several other issues here too. First, I’m pretty young in my career, and even I’ve been burned by poor articles that have come out of interviews. So it’s sometimes a mixed blessing when we’re contacted by someone writing a story–you’re never real sure what’s going to come out of it, and whether responding will be a wise use of your time (or will, in the end, actually hurt you). For these reasons, we do probably undervalue the media, because nothing’s certain when it comes to these articles. We spend a lot of time crafting our own articles describing our work, adding the requisite disclaimers, alternative explanations, etc., but all that can be undone by a misleading article (or even a misleading headline, which may be no fault of the reporter). Unless it’s a reporter the investigator has worked with before and trusts, each new interview is a gamble, so while it has the potential to bring our work to a larger audience, it also has the potential to mischaracterize that work, or piss off a colleague who disagrees with our interpretation of the data.

Third, to be blunt, there really just isn’t a lot of reward for us to take our research to the public. We’re evaluated on our publications, our funding, our teaching, and last, our service. Interviews, especially if they’re with smaller publications, just aren’t very likely to help us when it comes to promotion and tenure. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.

Anyway, hopefully that gives a bit more insight into interview requests from the academic side of the table. Personally, I prefer to be contacted via email, and because I have 2 offices and a lab (all with different phone numbers) and I’m frequently in meetings or teaching, reaching me by phone at work in a timely manner is almost impossible.

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    June 15, 2007

    After a couple of colleagues got burned participating for an article, the standard advice we got was to never agree to an interview unless you will get to see the piece before publication and have a say in whether it will run or not. Most serious outlets will agree to this; they honestly try to do a good job, and know that if a subject opposes publication it is because they’ve been misunderstood or the article is misrepresenting their position.

  2. #2 hypatia cade
    June 15, 2007

    Another strategy is to ask for and only answer questions in writing – at least if they quote you, you know they have to get that part right.

  3. #3 factician
    June 15, 2007

    Another strategy is to ask for and only answer questions in writing – at least if they quote you, you know they have to get that part right.

    Only if they use the entire response. There’s nothing quite like careful cutting up of an answer to completely misrepresent what you said.

  4. #4 Drugmonkey
    June 15, 2007

    This letter in Science complaining about misquotation sums it up. I had an identical experience with a Nature “journalist”. This is why fellow scientist say “never talk to journalists”. It just flabbergasts me that this is the approach of some allegedly top journals. Is this their standard for scientific publication too? That the least-representative datum should be published if it “makes the story”?…..err, don’t answer that.

    So the answer to a journalist is “stop lying”. Stop thinking that constructing an article to make whatever point you want based on totally misrepresenting quotes is ok. Start trying to communicate the *truth* of what people say to you, you know, report what happened rather than what you wish happened because it “made a better story”. Then maybe scientists will return your call.

  5. #5 Richard Robinson
    June 15, 2007

    Janne wrote:
    “…the standard advice we got was to never agree to an interview unless you will get to see the piece before publication and have a say in whether it will run or not. Most serious outlets will agree to this…”

    I don’t think this accurately represents the policy of most science journalism publications, certainly not the ones I write for. Some editors will agree to let the source review his or her own quotes, and even modify them (which, BTW, writers hate), but I don’t know any publication that would allow a source to kill a story, unless the source was Jim Watson maybe.

    It’s perfectly acceptable to say to a reporter at the start of the interview, “I’d like to see my quotes before you run the story,” and to bow out if they bridle. What writers object to is getting to the end of the interview (in which they, like you, have invested time and professional capital), and having the source take it all off the record, or insist on seeing the whole story, or threatening to contact the editor.

    But that’s actually a different issue than the one Tara picked up on to begin this thread. The writer who started it complained not that sources wouldn’t talk with her, but they wouldn’t reply saying whether they would or not. This seems like simple courtesy (though, for reasons Tara explains, there are lots of situations in which that courtesy cannot be extended as quickly as the invitation was).

  6. #6 tristram
    June 15, 2007

    I work for a state agency. On the one hand we are told that outreach and public education are important; on the other hand, we are often reminded to have our communications with the public run through the Information Bureau to make sure they are in agreement with official policies before we speak. Some administrations have insisted upon strict control of information. In the end, the TV news item is likely to cut a 20-minute interview about drought down to 30 seconds in order to allow the dowser (balance, you know)to have 3 minutes of spouting drivel.

  7. #7 RBH
    June 15, 2007

    I’ve been quoted by news outlets on a variety of topics over the years. In not one instance did the quotation as published accurately reflect what I said in context. The worst one precisely reversed the meaning of what I said; the best merely misspelled my first name.

    Now I’ll do it only by email or with my own digital recorder running, with the agreement of the reporter that I can review the use of my comments for accuracy against my retained record.

  8. #8 llewelly
    June 15, 2007

    It’s perfectly acceptable to say to a reporter at the start of the interview, “I’d like to see my quotes before you run the story,” and to bow out if they bridle. What writers object to is getting to the end of the interview (in which they, like you, have invested time and professional capital), and having the source take it all off the record, or insist on seeing the whole story, or threatening to contact the editor.

    Between the age of 10 and 17, I spent about $50 a year on various sorts of science journalism. I grew up in a poor family, in a poor neighborhood, and I was pleased when I was old enough to get ‘real jobs’ that paid minimum wage, because it was a lot more money than what I’d previously been making doing very similar work. From about the age of 18 to 25, I spent about $150 a year on various sorts science journalism. What do I spend today? About one $20-30 book every 2 years. I no longer buy popular science magazines (like Scientific American), and I no longer read science sections of newspapers regularly – I rely on bloggers to filter typical science journalism.

    My habits changed in part due to egregious, incompetent misquoting, much of which would not have occurred if the quoted scientist had been granted final go / no-go control over individual quotes (not necessarily on the whole story).

    In my own field, I find that most software developers do not enjoy code review – indeed, it’s common for meetings on code review to open with ‘we know that most people hate code review’ or some such – but everyone agrees code review – which always includes modify power for the reviewer – is essential to creating a usable (much less quality) program. However much writers ‘hate’ sources who want to kill quotes (a judgement which necessarily requires seeing the context into which quotes were placed), it seems to me that it is essential to producing adequate science journalism.

    Reporters’ misleading quotes of scientists have been a favorite, and highly effective ammunition for anti-science nuts of all stripes. This makes a misleading quote – most of which are unintentionally misleading – high impact, and high visibility, much more so than a proper quote.

    Scientists do know what it is like to write something for publication, which will be reviewed by others which may demand modifications, or refuse publication. I’ve met some who claim to hate the process, but nonetheless co-operate because they believe it is essential to quality work.

  9. #9 Dave Mosher
    June 15, 2007

    On others saying “demand a copy prior to publication”: Many pop sci publications I’ve written for have a policy specifically dictating that your are NOT permitted to share a galley with sources. This is mainly for publication integrity purposes but also for legal reasons (just leave it to your imagination here). Screw the publication, though–what about the information’s integrity? The solution for this is fact-checking, which can be a royal pain for both parties, but it works out very well.

    On the “lack of reward”: Everyone has a little prima donna in them, so there’s the satisfaction of seeing your name everywhere, being a star. Lest we not forget the visibility of your work to those furnishing your grants–while they will never say it, lots of popularity/media coverage of your work generally has a positive impact on their consideration of you. But if your science is poor, even if you are a rock star in science, that will work against you infinitely more.

    On “gambling” with reporters: As a science journalist I can tell you the best thing to do, as an academic getting interviewed and wanting to guide the interview somewhat, is to have analogies cocked, locked, and loaded. Someone in your family or group of non-academic friends is inevitably going to ask about your work, so that’s good practice for speaking with us. In fact, I suggest going out of your way to try and explain what you’ve done and why it’s important to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with your work. It will make you a better speaker and better writer–and how can that not help you with your academic career? Best of all, reporters go nuts for pre-thought-out analogies/explanations because it’s quotable material, and could in fact be the center of the article and even become that untrustworthy headline. So cranking them out before you speak with someone is a great way to maintain some control of what reporters quote you on.

  10. #10 Jennifer Ouellette
    June 15, 2007

    I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, as a science writer and a published author. I’ve always taken great care with quoting as accurately as possible in my articles, personally, although some clean-up or tweaking is inevitable — people don’t speak as well as they write, and a journalistic format does not always allow for as much as context and detail as the average scientist prefers. A news article is an entirely different animal from a scientific paper or journal article, something many scientists have a difficult time truly grasping — even those who give lip service to the notion. Those column inches are precious real estate, and every word has to count.

    I’ve also found that some scientists are overly nitpicky about how their quotes appear; if a comma is changed, they get miffed. (Yeah, okay, I exaggerate to make my point…) However, misquoting criticisms are often valid. I must admit to being troubled on occasion by how cavalierly some editors will rework them — in one memorable case, making a new one up from scratch because it “sounded better.” (I insisted on running the quote by the original source.) It’s not the norm but it does occur, both in my own copy, and when I am the one being quoted.

    BTW, Email communication doesn’t necesarily help, because it’s not just the writer and one editor involved — there’s the layout person, the copy editor, and lord knows how many others involved. It’s really easy for everyone to do a little tweaking here and there, without access to the original email communication, and the end result is a big ol’ mess. Even the venerable NEW YORK TIMES does this: my fiance and I were included in a story on couples who met at business conferences. The reporter contacted me for fact-checking prior to publication, and I clarified a number of minor details. But the reporter was traveling when the piece went to press, and the editor(s) were not exactly careful in how they chose to use my clarifying email information. Even though they had the correct information in writing, they got his title wrong, etc. There’s really no excuse for that kind of sloppiness, but c’est la vie… Am I going to “punish” the next reporter I encounter just because I had a negative experience? Certainly not. Especially since, in this case, it wasn’t the reporter’s fault.

    Whether or not a scientist can review an article prior to press depends on the publication. A scientific trade publication might not object, but most mainstream media outlets won’t allow it, and for good reason. It’s one of the underpinnings of journalistic ethics, which have been slowly eroding over the years, so I’m all for maintaining the few we have left. :) They don’t let politicians tailor coverage, why should scientists be any different? Because scientists can be “trusted” to be objective? I think not. At most, a reporter can let you review just your quotes, but out of context that’s no talways helpful. This is an area where scientists have to accept that they can’t control the flow of information perfectly — see comment above about this being a completely different format from scientific communication.

    Probably nobody here wants to hear this, but the scientific community in general needs to be a bit more sophisticated about its attitude towards journalism. Exactly WHY should being misquoted in a newspaper article undo all one’s hard work in one’s own scientific publications, when newspapers are not and never will be “peer reviewed”? If scientists are so adamant that journalism sux and never gets it completely right, why give any weight at all to being misquoted? Why not just laugh it off and say, “Well, at least your paper in X journal sets the record straight…”? Don’t even get me started on the perception that a young scientist who is quoted in the popular press is somehow less “serious” and “committed” to his/her research than someone who refuses…

    It all comes down to this, which I think I said in a blog post over a year ago. Scientists decry the sad state of science literacy in this country, they complain that newspapers are killing off science sections right and left (a concern I share), and they complain that much of the “real” science being done never gets reported. But they don’t want to return reporters’ phone calls because it might tarnish their academic image?? My take: if you don’t want to consent to interviews, that’s certainly your prerogative, and I, for one, am sympathetic to the reasons Tara lists above. But on the flip side, you’ve also forfeited your right to complain about science coverage – because you are part of the problem. (Not the ONLY part of the problem, granted, but certainly a major factor.)

  11. #11 Brent Henderson
    June 15, 2007

    At my university (U Florida), we are actually instructed to refer all requests from press to an administrator who arbitrates any interactions or interviews. Yes, its red tape, but it does provide a buffer that, if the administrator is doing their job, might prevent some of the ‘burn’ experiences I’ve heard about.

  12. #12 Carl Zimmer
    June 15, 2007

    If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that journalists are complaining that they can’t get hold of scientists? As a journalist, I’m surprised. I find scientists to be almost always very generous with their time. Most of my colleagues feel much the same way.

  13. #13 katharos
    June 15, 2007

    I’ve only worked as a reporter for a student newspaper, but I’ve usually had pretty good luck getting people to talk to me.

    I had to fight against my editor for this, but part of it is that I always make sure people get to read the sections that pertain to what they’re saying. That way they get their point across–even if I’m contrasting it against another point of view. I don’t trust myself in a single conversation to get a tricky point right.

  14. #14 truth machine
    June 16, 2007

    Current journalism is an ethical cesspool. Until journalists start standing up and loudly calling for reform of their profession rather than defending it, they have no business complaining about people refusing to talk to them.

    First, I’m pretty

    Damn straight! (Sorry for the quote mine, but the truth must be told.)

  15. #15 truth machine
    June 16, 2007

    A news article is an entirely different animal from a scientific paper or journal article, something many scientists have a difficult time truly grasping

    This is the sort of arrogance from journalists that turns people off. I’ve also been told by mainstream journalists, upon criticizing systematic bias and other flaws in their publications, that I “don’t understand how this business works”. No, I do understand how it works, all too well, but I don’t approve of how it works.

  16. #16 truth machine
    June 16, 2007

    They don’t let politicians tailor coverage, why should scientists be any different? Because scientists can be “trusted” to be objective? I think not.

    Well, this is all too typical of the poor judgment of journalists. The question to be asked is, what interests are involved? What is to be gained by the parties? Politicians have very different interests in the way their actions are covered than scientists have in the way their work is covered.

    Probably nobody here wants to hear this, but the scientific community in general needs to be a bit more sophisticated about its attitude towards journalism.

    This and what follows it is pathetically arrogant and illogical dreck. Here’s a clue for you: take any scientist and any journalist, and the odds are overwhelming that the scientist is brighter than the journalist. Journalists who criticize “the scientific community in general” are talking out of their nether regions.

  17. #17 John
    June 16, 2007

    “I work for a state agency. On the one hand we are told that outreach and public education are important; on the other hand, we are often reminded to have our communications with the public run through the Information Bureau…”

    I have to agree with Tristram’s comments. Sometimes the “danger” is that the writer will get the story right and quote the scientist accurately, and the scientist will find themselves “sideways” with their employer or client. It happens in government, private consultancies, and even academia, sorry to say, where researchers have to compete in the marketplace for funding.

    Scientists self-censor. Even on a serious blog like this, half the respondants won’t even sign their names to their comments.

  18. #18 raven
    June 16, 2007

    There are several other issues here too. First, I’m pretty young in my career, and even I’ve been burned by poor articles that have come out of interviews.

    Why I’m very reluctant to talk to journalists. Been there.

    The best way to handle this is to ask or demand proofreading privilege. Just say you have to check the draft for accuracy, been burned before. You will be amazed at how often the simplest points can get twisted. The journalists usually don’t have a problem. They are trying to do a good job and review frequently makes a far better article.

    Carrying on the transaction by email is ideal. Leaves a hard copy trail and less subject to error.

    Reporters are always looking for the headline, the sensational angle, the reader interest hook. It can really distort whatever they are writing about.

  19. #19 entlord
    June 16, 2007

    I’ve done the journalism thing and also been quoted on various environmental and healthcare related topics over the years and have found that most the time, reporters are fighting deadlines and space limitations and editors are fighting for copy that will sell papers so that they can sell advertising.
    Given that, a plenitude of caution causes me to ask the reporter to meet me for lunch or a chat or whatever prior to any interview or on the record statement, so I can get a feeling for exactly how well informed the journalist is. Same time, I search for previous articles to see what quality of work has been produced in the past.
    On the date of the interview, I prefer to have a couple of witnesses to remember what was said and what the context was. (Knowledgeable people I trust to listen) I also make sure there is enough time for the interview so I can provide background and context and have time to do so.
    I wholeheartedly agree about seeing advance copy. Many times I have found errors that were inadvertent which we were able to clean up prepublication.
    Otherwise I do not do interviews but I find that being on speaking terms with editors and reporters at times can help you get out a story you feel is important but is not getting the press it deserves.

  20. #20 Albatrossity
    June 16, 2007

    I agree with most of the other commenters; I’ve been interviewed many times and misquoted just about as many. Now I ask to see the section of the story which quotes my interview BEFORE it can be printed. If you are up front about that; I have found that most reporters can accommodate such a request. If they can’t, I remind them that I am doing them a favor by agreeing to give them my time, and if they can’t do me a favor back, they can find another source…

    If they give me the old story about journalistic ethics (no source is allowed to edit a story), I tell them two things. One is that I am not asking to edit their writing; I only want to make sure that my quotes are correct, and to save myself (and them) from embarrassment. The second is that this rule of journalistic ethics is a one-size-fits-all solution that is not appropriate in science journalism. In interviews of political figures, or rock stars, it might be a problem if some of them want to retract their quotes, or massage them. But in a science piece, you owe the facts some respect, and most journalists simply don’t have the scientific background to get all the facts straight all the time. If they did, they would not need to interview experts… So there is a difference between opinion quotes and factual quotes. That difference is significant enough to make me think that they can bend those “ethical guidelines” that they were taught in J-school. If they can’t see that, or don’t want to be bothered with getting the facts straight, I don’t want to talk to them anyway.

  21. #21 Astroprof
    June 17, 2007

    A number of colleagues in my department refuse to talk to the press, largely because they have been misquoted and misrepresented before. I have, too. I have had things that I said taken totally out of context, and I’ve even had words attributed to me that I did not say. I feel like I’ve been made to look like a fool when I give a carefully thought out interview and then read the article only to find that they’ve totally botched what I said. I have even had my title messed up. I read the article in the newspaper the day after the interview and it called me a Professor of Astrology! That was particularly tough, since I had given the reporter a business card that had my correct title: Professor of Physics and Astronomy on it.

    However, I think that it is important for us to share our work with the public. Science education in this country is in such sad shape that we really need to do anything that we can do to let the public know more about science. But, that only works if the reporting is accurate. So, I am a bit more cautious about what I say, and I try to the the feel of the reporter to see if they really understand what I am saying. Some of them are very good, of course, but some I quickly realize don’t care, so I limit what I say to the most basic things.

    The best thing would be for media outlets to use reporters who actually make an effort to learn the field about which they are reporting. But, that is probably not going to happen.

  22. #22 Fred Ross
    June 17, 2007

    One of the things I was informally taught as a physics undergrad was not to talk to the press. This was then pounded home by horror story after horror story.

    There is no reason why scientists can’t be decent writers. Contrary to popular belief, writing isn’t hard. Writing decently isn’t hard. Strunk and White lays out pretty much everything there is to say on the topic, and if you’re still in need of more guidance, Quiller-Couch’s ‘On the Art of Writing’ is a safe bet. The best popular books on science were all written by scientists. Three examples spring to mind: Penrose’s ‘The Road to Reality,’ Mott’s book on wave mechanics for high schoolers, and anything by Henri PoincarĂ©.

    So why should we be interviewed and questioned? Contact us and ask us to write a piece on some topic. If the resulting language is terrible, then have the editor work with the scientist to improve it. I think the journalist is entirely unnecessary.

  23. #23 Justin Moretti
    June 17, 2007

    I gave a mock interview to a Journalism student about the dearth of pathologists in Australia. I made it very, very clear that I wanted to see the article before it was handed in, for fact-checking and elimination of misunderstandings.

    She did not comply, despite promising that she would. I am never going to trust journalists again.

  24. #24 Anonymous
    June 18, 2007

    Has anyone tried taping the interviews that they give? If you felt they were quoted out of context or quotes were excessively massaged/fabricated, it would be possible to post the recording on a blog for the world to hear and make up their own mind. Or is the damage already done once you’ve been misquoted?

  25. #25 Andy
    June 18, 2007

    As a university press officer I’m finding it interesting to sit in the middle of this conversation. Lots of bile about journalists but not many reporters responding yet.

    I second Jennifer’s long comment above. A journalist should never show the story to a source or offer “approval.” That would be totally unethical. Journalism is a different beast from a journal report. Checking quotes is OK, as mentioned above.

    My strong advice though, would be to work with your press office and take a media training class. Learn how the media works, and how to use it to your advantage, just like politicians do.

  26. #26 John
    June 18, 2007

    “take a media training class. Learn how the media works, and how to use it to your advantage, just like politicians do.”

    Brace yourself, Andy, I feel a shit storm coming…actually headed your way.

  27. #27 John
    June 18, 2007

    Andy:
    The following is from one of my blog posts sometime back:

    “Ten years ago, the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists developed a Statement of Purpose and nine Principles of Journalism that are simple, straight-forward, and probably not easy to follow. The Principles were developed by journalists, for journalists. Each principle is discussed briefly here and even more briefly, as follows:

    1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
    2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
    3. Its essence is a discipline of verification
    4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
    5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
    6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
    7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
    8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
    9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience”

    If we could get the journalists to follow through on items 1, 2, and 3, we could all be singing out of the same window.

    I don’t see anywhere on the list an item that would have journalists advocating would-be newsmakers study the fine points of the media so that they can “use it to their advantage like politicians do.”

  28. #28 Andy
    June 18, 2007

    On the point of “what’s in it for me?” the answer we give (at UC Davis) is that as a scientist at a public institution, communicating with the public about your research helps to fulfill the university’s public service mission.

    Notably, funding agencies are always keen to see press releases and news coverage of work that they have funded. If your institution is not taking notice of that, perhaps they should.

    I believe there is also a NEJM paper from a few years ago showing that research papers cited in press articles attracted more citations.

  29. #29 marion delgado
    June 19, 2007

    as a now mostly former journalist I was always told we never give a source veto power over a story under any circumstances. If they give us info that shows the story is actionable an editor may spike it but the decision is not with the source.

    whenever possible i record sources. as for context, if it’s a 10 column inch story there won’t be much. if it’s a big very controversial or long story there will be. But “hear, hear” to the guy who said stop lying. The kind of dolt who lets sources veto stories will quite possibly stoop to mis-contexting quotes to defer to “one side.”

    you have to be practical too. The ID people and climate denialists will always talk to us. we recognize we won’t get the busiest and the best to talk to us but we want someone not completely out of it. you need to realize you live in a country whose Constitution was created by lawyers – hence full of good faith efforts and reasonable man/woman standards. after story communication should be constructive.

    good reporters and editors hate to get anything WRONG but don’t mind oversimplifying.

  30. #30 Andy
    June 19, 2007

    Hi John,

    Anytime a scientist can communicate clearly and effectively with the public about what they do is a plus in my view, whether you are talking to Carl Zimmer of the New York Times or your next door neighbor. The techniques are basically the same.

    The important thing for scientists is to understand how reporters work and what they need. That way you are more likely to get your message across.

    The comparison to politicians (which I realise will have many scientists blanching) comes from a Nature editorial of April 2002 (vol 416, p 461), “Media studies for scientists:”

    “Researchers could also examine how other professions manage
    the media. Politicians are misrepresented more frequently and significantly than scientists. But they know that attacking journalists is a short-sighted strategy. Instead, they have become experts in rebutting inaccurate stories and imparting their own message.

    How far should scientists go down this road? Scientists, as with almost every other profession, enjoy more public trust than politicians. Gaining a reputation for spin could damage this. Researchers should, however, learn what the media wants. Politicians understand the kind of stories that journalists are looking for. If more scientists did too, they would be better equipped to get their message across.”

  31. #31 Chris Mooney
    June 19, 2007

    I have to say, this comment thread makes me really sad. When it comes to the media, science reporters are the least of our problems. They’re actually quite good at what they do–the best around. More here
    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/06/science_journalists_are_not_th.php

  32. #32 Carl Zimmer
    June 20, 2007
  33. #33 katharos
    June 20, 2007

    I had an interesting incident with a rather prominent Canadian paleontologist (who shall remain unnamed) who presented at my university. I asked for an interview after (for our student newspaper), and he refused saying that “Canadian Geographic screwed it up, so you will too”.

    I was lucky enough to have a faculty member I had interviewed once stand up for me, and I eventually got the interview. I know I’m just a student… but I’m not sure we tend to do so much worse. If anything, we tend have more flexible deadlines because we’re volunteers and we’re probably overly cautious about getting everything right!

  34. #34 a science journalist with a PhD
    June 20, 2007

    The arrogance of researchers who have posted comments here does a disservice to themselves and to science. To think, for example, that somehow their jobs are so much busier or demanding than those of other professions such as journalism merely shows that they find it difficult to cope with the demands of a scientific career. And have they forgotten for a moment who pays their salaries and equips their labs?

    Fortunately these comments reflect a small and somewhat sad subset of the scientific community as a whole, which in my many years’ experience has been overwhelmingly helpful in returning calls, answering questions and understanding the rather different constraints that reporters and editors work within. In fact, one thing that my job as an editor has taught me is that the scientists who are least willing to cooperate with the media are those who are least confident in their knowledge of their own field – and so are probably best left alone anyway.

    Doubtless there are shoddy reporters out there, just as there are shoddy scientists: some science journalism is worse than worthless, and some science is fraudulent. But good science journalists – many of whom have formal science backgrounds – spend most of their working lives in an honest bid to get to the bottom of a piece of cutting-edge (and therefore generally uncertain) research. Similarly, good scientists realise that if their work is to be brought to a wider audience then they could do worse than to understand how the media works. You don’t necessarily need to go on some kind of training course for that (although having delivered such courses I know that researchers find them extremely constructive) – you just need to step back from your very narrowly defined peer group and think about the universe from another point of view. The same applies, no doubt, to doing good science.

    Indeed, as far as professional norms are concerned, scientists and journalists have a very important thing in common: both seek to unearth the truth. The best science journalism always arises from a collaboration between the reporter and the researcher. A journalist who writes in isolation can never be sure that the content is factually correct; likewise, a scientist attempting to engage the kind of broad audiences that the media exist to serve will almost certainly fail unless they have the humility to realize that the writing they are experienced in (i.e. papers, reviews and grant proposals) is totally and utterly unsuitable for those outside their field.

    So, to those scientists who take pleasure in bashing journalists: get out a bit more, broaden your horizons, and catch up the rest of the world by starting to use the media to your advantage.

  35. #35 Christine Gorman
    June 20, 2007

    Tara, How do you feel about reporters coming up to you while you’re at the conference and asking questions about your research in person? Attending scientific conferences has always helped me stay up to date with my beat and often gives me ideas for future stories, topics that I can explore later.

    (I agree about telephone calls to someone who’s attending a conference. It’s rarely a good interview, although some researchers do volunteer with their PR depts. to do them, particularly on breaking news stories.)

  36. #36 Oran Kelley
    June 20, 2007

    I’ve worked as a science writer and editor and as a newspaper journalist, and I agree that there is a lot of bad journalism going on out there.

    One thing to realize is that writers are rewarded for exciting stories, so long as they don’t blow up. Accuracy, for many, is a secondary priority.

    Also, where I went to university, the journalism school had a reputation as being having the worst quality of student of any (except perhaps the school of education). If you couldn’t cut the mustard as an English or History major, there was always journalism and communications. So when you speak to a reporter, you may not be talking to someone who willingly grasps complex realities. You may well be talking to someone who thinks Fox News is, indeed, fair and balanced.

    I’m not making political implications there, I’m saying that they’d favor the Fox worldview because it is simple, and actively resent yours because it is nuanced and complex.

    BUT scientists are not free from fault here. As an editor I used to get outraged phonecalls from sources for mistakes like mistakenly printing “assitant” rather than “asscoaite professor.” Folks would actually act as if this mistake were a moral failing on my part.

    And sometimes the inaccuracy in science reporting is self-serving inaccuracy coming from scientists themselves, (presenting matter-of-fact science on an entirely inappropraite scale or with an altogether too colorful pallette) who later claim they’ve been tragically misquoted.

    Also, I’d say that any publication that would regularly give a source the option of spiking a story is *by definition* not being serious from a journalistic standpoint. I wouldn’t expect many everyday working scientists to be able to get that deal.

    The practice of clearing quotations is a good one, I think, and one that I almost always engaged in. BUT some scientists were less than honest traders here, too. Changing their minds about what they wanted to say or watering down all their quotes to statements of the obvious or letting company PR men & lawyers void their passages of all content. Here again, folks got completely righteous when I said “Tough, I’m going with how I’ve got it. I’m not going to let you make changes unless something is factually incorrect.”

    And then, of course, they threaten to sue you if you print what they actually said.

    This sort of misbehavior on the scientific side is NOT all that uncommon, and if scientists want to improve the situation, they’d better work to clean their own house a bit, too.

    A lot of it is a result of the fact that some scientists are ONLY motivated to do an inetrview by the prospect of some immediate profit. This is not a particularly good way to get journalists to think of you as a disinterested source as opposed to a PR hack.

  37. #37 Tara C. Smith
    June 20, 2007

    A lot of it is a result of the fact that some scientists are ONLY motivated to do an inetrview by the prospect of some immediate profit. This is not a particularly good way to get journalists to think of you as a disinterested source as opposed to a PR hack.

    I find that really interesting, especially since Kevin Padian noted over at The Loom:

    Many reporters and documentary makers assume that scientists want publicity, either because they like to see themselves on TV or they think it will lead to more funding for their work. Hardly ever. Certainly not from granting agencies. You MIGHT get a lead on a private donor, but these mostly do not pan out. Donors have to be cultivated, they seldom come in over the transom….

    Personally, I can’t think of an instance where I’ve really profited from interviews (at least, about my “real” work…interviews about science blogging, if a link is included, occasionally give a small spike to traffic).

    Christine, to my knowledge, the only time reporters have approached me at conferences about my research has been when I’ve been giving a poster or a talk. That, of course, is perfectly fine–that’s what that block of time is set aside for, after all. I’m not nearly a big enough fish, though, for a random reporter just to stop me elsewhere in a conference and ask to talk, so I can’t really respond to that from experience, but I’d likely try to give an interview, whether it was right then or making time for one later in the day or week.

  38. #38 Oran Kelley
    June 20, 2007

    Personally, I can’t think of an instance where I’ve really profited from interviews (at least, about my “real” work…interviews about science blogging, if a link is included, occasionally give a small spike to traffic).

    Well, it depends on how you look at it, I suppose. I worked for a pretty specialized publication, but my regular sources were not uncommonly poached by newspapers and even news magazines looking for a new face/voice. And getting a pithy little quote as an authority on Staph in infants in the Free Press wouldn’t be bad for the old image, do you think?

    No one’s going to hand you a bunch of money for it, but I’d say it’s for the good.

  39. #39 Oran Kelley
    June 20, 2007

    Whoops! For the sake of accuracy: Strep, not staph!

  40. #40 Tara C. Smith
    June 20, 2007

    Heh. Good catch!

    And I didn’t necessarily mean monetary profit. Even for the interviews I’ve done, no one has ever told me, “I read your interview in such-and-such, and decided to contact you” or anything like that. Maybe it’s happened and I just don’t know about it, but most of the interviews I’ve done regarding my own work have been for smaller papers here in Iowa or surrounding areas, so I doubt too many people “poach” from there.

  41. #41 Oliver Morton
    June 20, 2007

    Possibly worth pointing to the Twelve things economists need to remember to be helpful journalistic sources and the
    Twelve things journalists need to remember to be good economic reporters put together by Brad DeLong and Susan Rasky. Some of it is economics specific, but there’s some good advice for all.

  42. #42 Michael Hopkin
    June 20, 2007

    To Janne, who posted the first comment on this thread. Here in Britain, no news publication (scientific or otherwise) worth its salt will interviewees have a say in whether an article gets published or not. And we certainly don’t show entire articles to sources and let them comment on it – it completely undermines journalistic freedom. Sorry if that makes scientists uncomfortable but news editors simply can’t start handing over the right to decide on their publication strategy to someone with a vested outside interest.

    But you should talk to journalists anyway – we’re nice, and if you’re talking about peer-reviewed research you have more of a safety net than people in other sectors of public discourse anyway!

  43. #43 tbell
    June 20, 2007

    Noone expects a science journalist to be an expert or even informed in all fields of science, it’s just too big. However If you are going to report on science, then I think an appreciation of the following things are necessary to avoid gross oversimplification and distortion (assuming it wasn’t the scientist interviewee who did the distorting, but even then it would be helpful):
    1. you have to understand how a controlled experiment works
    2. you have to understand the difference between categorical thinking and quantitative reasoning. (all or none, true or false vs. some, more, a little, and probable, likely, unlikely, etc.)
    3. you must understand statistical inference and probability well enough to interpret the strength of conclusions. As well as the crucial importance of both central tendency AND variability.
    4. you must understand why correlation is not necessarily causation
    5. you must have an appreciation of multiple causation, contingency, interacting factors, and complexity generally. EVEN IF you are ultimately going to trim the complexities from the story (and if you do, you should just come right out and say that you are simplifying)

    The above should be part of basic science education and if you don’t get them, then you shouldn’t be doing science journalism.

    Scientists for their part need to work hard on their explanations. Scientists are very good at explaining things given enough time, and they have a lot of practice at it, so there is no excuse for a scientist to not do their part. A nice way to think about setting up explanations for non-scientists is to think about how you might explain your research to your grandparents (assuming they aren’t scientists). If you rely on reporters to do the simplifying, they will not necessarily weight things they way you prefer, but if you present a nice, polished, simple yet undistorted version, you will be likely be happy with the result.

  44. #44 SkookumPlanet
    June 21, 2007

    .
    Science as Sacrificial Lamb
    _________________________________________________________________
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    [I'm doing something I usually regret later, posting with minimal time to watch for follow-up. But, focus is a bit askew in what I've seen so far here, intersection, loom and evolving thoughts. My background includes few years of journalism and covering some environmental politics, which has science embedded in it. Note that I'm intentionally overgeneralizing below. Also note, if I had another 4 days this would be half the length.]

    Since January 06, I’ve seen at scienceblogs a more-or-less continual stream of complaints about newsmedia and, with only a few notable exceptions, zero realistic ideas or information about interfacing with it. The most frequent response seems to be “I don’t have time to…” Really disheartening. If the IPCC can make such fundamental media mistakes it’s obvious the obvious isn’t obvious almost across-the-board among our most brilliant intellects.

    [Virtually] nobody here suggests doing media the way everyone else does it. Every other major institution and interest group in the U.S. that has political interests and/or is involved with mass communication knows they need to understand the elaborate systems and nature of news media that have evolved over the last century and a half; one could say transformed in the last three decades. They accept and adapt to those systems. Simply looking at the enormous resources such organizations invest in this area should make that clear.

    Why is it scientists expect the media industry to act as they want it to act?

    I’ll put that another way. Be constructive, proactive, and informed. For example, it’s common for business to put their high-ranking people through media training, updated as needed. Sometimes an organization presents to the outer world people who are skilled at communicating with that world, and the internal leaders are further down the org chart. All sorts of adaptations are done.

    Some of the attitudes here amount to shooting off your own foot. Both of them. The next couple decades will see many campaigns like Exxon’s GW skeptics/Intelligent Design/Big Tobacco in many scientific fields Why? Specifications that lead to success have been demonstrated several times. These future campaigns won’t be about science, per se, but votes and long-term political agenda setting and increasingly, science derived government regulations. Claiming the pressures of publish-or-perish or demands of a piecemeal, highly competitive funding structure, or similar professional limitations as the obstacle is an astonishingly passive excuse and always misses a fundamental point. While these pressures exist for absolutely sound reasons, it’s all the doing of science itself. Thus science can, as an institution, decide to change things, and then make swift, successful work of it.

    How to do that is a trivial question compared to overcoming science’s apparent isolation, sometimes even disdain, from the way the other 98% of our society functions. The media is what it is. And it’s the only way to get to a mass audience.

    The U.S. has changed. Anything can now made into a national political issue. A large constituency, psychologically antithetical to the scientific process, is being manipulated to provide votes. The new paradigm is to go around science to it’s funders, the public/voters. These political operatives have, to give one example, very adroitly analyzed internal media processes, found leverage points, and are leaning content in their favor, long before it gets to the public. Any part of science is now liable for sacrificial lamb status.

    “So, bigmouth, what do you suggest?”

    Well, one-by-one against organized campaigns like intelligent design and the Exxon’s skeptics is a slow-motion wreck for science in general. There are three obvious problems, with obvious solutions.

    1) Replace science’s disincentives for public communication activity with the opposite. 2) Build mass-media analysis and training into everything practical, such as conferences. 3) Approach mass communication as you would an unfamiliar field of science you needed to learn. Assume a complex, accumulated body of knowledge built from reference to reality and a sophisticated craft skill that needed learning.

    I understand this would be a very major undertaking. I can’t come up with less traumatic ideas. Science communication is being left in the dust as the U.S. jets into the nebulous future. Almost everyone reading this is more qualified than I am to make such suggestions about science, but few are defining the problem correctly. Half-seriously, who is trying to think through strategies to broadcast science messages through the pager/text message channel? The persuasion industry might not have anyone doing it full-time, but it’s logical to assume substantial resources have been put into thinking about it. An obsessive focus on journalism is now half-century-old, antiquated thinking.

    The writing is on the wall but nobody is interested enough to read it. The golden age of scientific knowledge automatically driving policy is gone. Over. Extinct. The genie is out of the bottle. Get over it a then get back to work — effectively.
    .
    .
    If science can’t do global warming communication correctly, nothing in science is immune.
    .
    .
    So far the data is overwhelming. It can’t.

    Blaming the media will get you exactly nowhere, or worse. To complain about specific misquotes, lying, etc. is absurd. In this thread indications are few have any idea what the nuts and bolts of newsmedia is like. Science seems unable to treat it’s interface with the rest of the world as anything but an after-thought.

    But if scientists insist, as some do here, that you get to set deadlines, function as editors, etc. without even understanding how the media actually work . . . nobody else gets to. Why should you? You wouldn’t let a journalist monkey around in your lab.

    The smart thing is to research, analyze, and adapt to media institutions. Taking your bat and ball home only turns the playing field over to the opposition. This is politics, people. Media will cover science, whether scientists talk to media or not.

    Thanks to the writers and journalists for providing some nuts and bolts details about the process. There’s almost nothing said among the stronger critics that indicates any knowledge of internal news media process. Reporters get blamed for something an editor does. Or a headline editor, who often has a typeface, point size, column width, max number of characters, and the number of lines dictated by the page design. That editor then has to physically fill up that white space. In 2 minutes.

    [As a reader I watched a local headline editor take an interview with communication-savvy physician working on a poorly understood syndrome and concatenate two unrelated words in a headline. Then I watched over several years as this description spread nationwide as a pejorative tag-line/name for the illness. The reporter, and especially the physician, did their jobs fine.]

    Things will get worse. For example, newspaper economics are stripping newsrooms everywhere. And posters are suggesting special science reporters? The San Francisco Chronicle just announced one fourth of it’s newsroom is going bye-bye. What planet are you on?

    This isn’t really a problem with the press. The press screws up trial reporting as badly as it does science. It’s a social structure issue. Everyone gets a chance to participate but no one get’s to dictate. Right now, the winners in the U.S. are winning because they’re treating media much like a scientists would treat lab work.

    The amount of ignorant assumption in this thread is staggering, and completely unseen by the speakers. Enough logic holes alone to make Swiss cheese.

    For example, how is a reporter supposed to give you a review session if her editor just dumped the story back on her desk, demanding serious rewriting and she has fifteen minutes? No, she get’s fired if she misses deadlines. How do you know a mistake wasn’t done by someone else?

    Scientists are not getting abused by the media anymore than anyone else. To expect the entire economy to revolve around your concerns is suicidal. Yeah, the national economy. Eyeballs. Eyeballs drive media. Media makes it’s money selling eyeballs. It’s our economy that’s buying the eyeballs. Eyeballs. Eyeballs. Eyeballs.

    Guys, I’m a fan for 45 years and counting. This is very demoralizing. The 98% of your culture that isn’t science could care less if you get misquoted. Nobody else does it like you guys, or has similar expectations. Why is it that all of them are wrong and you’re right? If you behaved and thought this sloppily in your field, you wouldn’t be in it anymore.

    There is close to zero motivation expressed to learn anything about how your society functions, here, of course, media. But media is the only way to communicate with any sizable amount of citizens on out in time as far as we can see.

    Want to do something constructive with your anger? Dump on the IPCC. What an inexcusable, horrendous performance that was. Same thing. Only this opportunity comes once every five years and there was no media to blame. Your first news conference IS the news item. You don’t get to define how the global communication industry works! Period. You don’t hold a technical backgrounder as your first news conference. Because that’s what gets reported to the world. Then to also hold it on Friday? To anyone who understands even a little bit of media realities, this looks EXACTLY like what the Bush administration would do to bury the report! The message that gets sent out to those that understand this is a simple one. Arrogance.

    Science has much bigger and deeper problems with media conduits than your personal problems with misquotes. There is a whole freaking world out there — say, a legal system that’s 1,000 years old — that you guys don’t have a chance of making function the way you want it to. Every other institution adapts to media. Most of you couldn’t care less how they do that. Yet, clearly figuring out that “how” can be framed as a scientific question and worked on that way.

    I take no pleasure in saying this, quite the contrary. It’s science that has the problem. Just look around. Collect data. Science is the odd man out. The rest of our society functions very differently that does science.

    You have collectively created one of the most beautiful human institutions — ever. It’s a profound tribute to this wonderful thing inside our heads. And a tribute to each and every one of you.

    But science is also highly artificial and sequestered. The rest of society, currently undergoing very rapid change, doesn’t even remotely function like science. Science is either going to try to keep up, or it will naturally fall further and further behind. There are very rough decades ahead and I’m honestly fearful science is about to be blind-sided. Again and again. Take, for instance, right now.

    I’ll respectfully suggest that’s the question and choice about media that science should be focusing on.

  45. #45 Greg
    June 21, 2007

    The foremost key to not being misquoted or misconstrued is to speak clearly — something I’d suspect most scientists who claim horror stories are not quite practiced at doing.

    I have worked with scientists for a number of years as a research assistant, journalist and public information officer. And for every scientist that complains of a reporter who didn’t “get” their research, I can offer a number of anecdotes of reporters who were lied to or misled by researchers, either to protect themselves or to promote their work. I’m not going to deny that scientists have been hurt by reporters or some reporters have deliberately misled scientists in the pursuit of a particular angle. What I’ll say is that there are things you can do to protect yourself.

    The sad fact is that the science section of most news outfits is shrinking and that there are fewer practicing science writers out there. Chances are, if you’ve been burned, it was by a reporter who does not necessarily cover science alone. Not to generalize too much, but often these reporters want to cover the story their editor assigned them – so they’ll quote you only when it confirms the story they’ve already written in their heads. While some outlets might employ fact checkers, you’re local paper probably doesn’t and won’t “run it past you” no matter how much you beg.

    To protect yourself, especially if you work in academia, I’d run it past your local public information officer. See if they know the reporter or can judge the merit of the request. Get pointers on how to explain yourself so that you won’t be misunderstood. Don’t let reporters you don’t know and trust put you on the spot. If not answering their questions at-this-very-moment means you won’t be in the story, so be it.

    The other bit of advice for scientists is not to lie. If someone confronts you on something you’d rather not answer, don’t think you can snow a reporter easily. Or, if you think that’s too harsh, do not expound on things you’re not ready to expound upon. “I don’t think I can answer your question” is an acceptable response. So is, “I’m not prepared to answer that at this very second, can I call you right back?”

    Most times, however, I think scientists can prevent getting burned by asking the reporter what the angle on the story is before the interview takes place. That’s a legitimate question. Likewise, you should take a few minutes to prepare, in plain English, what you hope to explain to the reporter. Then, at the end of the interview recap with the reporter about what you just discussed. And offer to be available to answer any follow up questions or clarify anything later.

    A reporter on deadline won’t bother to let you see the article before filing the story. You’re in a rush, so why would you take the risk that someone is going to hold you up by fiddling with nuances that aren’t important to a general audience? If you still insist on demanding to see the story, I wouldn’t bother to do the interview. You won’t be happy with the response. Some reporters — good reporters — will take you up on the offer to run a few things past you if it is a difficult (especially non-controversial) concept. But by demanding to see the story first, you’re essentially telling the reporter that he or she is too stupid to do their job. That’s just arrogant.

    And speaking of arrogance, you’re being asked to explain something in plain language, not to “dumb it down.” As I’ve told my students, if your audience doesn’t understand you, it is probably your fault not theirs. Most readers simply do not have the access to the concepts and language that you use to communicate with your colleagues. Some of the best science writers out there have doctorates, and some of the worst science writers are scientists that got into the business to write about science without “dumbing it down.”

    Aside from your obligations to the public (i.e. taxpayers), there are some benefits to being a good communicator. An increase in citations, as mentioned earlier, is one thing. But a little positive name recognition can go a long way. The bar for what it takes to be a media whore – even among scientists – is pretty high nowadays. The occasional interview can show your colleagues that you’re an effective public speaker. I’ve seen eminent scientists rejected as plenary speakers because they just aren’t very interesting speakers, even if they are accomplished researchers.

    Tara, sorry for the long response. I love the blog.

  46. #46 Dave Mosher
    June 21, 2007

    With prior credit to scientists, SkookumPlanet said: “It’s science that has the problem. Just look around. Collect data. Science is the odd man out. The rest of our society functions very differently that does science.”
    SkookumPlanet went on to say: “But science is also highly artificial and sequestered. The rest of society, currently undergoing very rapid change, doesn’t even remotely function like science.”

    So let’s recap here:
    1. Science functions differently from the rest of society
    2. Science is more stable than the rest of society
    3. Science is mostly removed from the rest of society

    These items are illustrated as weaknesses of science for “surviving” in modern society. I’d rather not get into a long, drawn out discussion about how that seems like an erroneous conclusion from most vantage points and correct only in a handful, because I feel that would be preaching to the choir.

    So, moving onward: Setting aside rare incidences of fraud or manipulation of data/results, I strongly believe science offers the most “in-touch” or “realistic” information about our universe, figuratively and literally. It has to, because it is one of the most removed professions from human perception (notice my wording, as I don’t say it’s completely removed–scientists still have to make conclusions about their observations). It’s essentially a rhetorical question for me: What do you trust more: carefully pieced-together observations the universe around you, or more biased perceptions of it?

    Those three reasons above are why I became a science writer. It’s not because I don’t think stories about political escapades or people dying in car crashes are unimportant; that’s far from the truth. It’s because I admire the product science creates, but it’s often untouchable to the “man on the street.” Someone has to translate, and I want to help.

    I agree that science is in for a rocky trip unless some (ok, a lot of) things change, but “survival” is too extreme of a word to describe it. Investigating our world with our 3 lbs. of brain matter is part of being human. And I feel science will always grow out of that.

    If there is just one good reason why scientists should cool off and understand not every writer/journalist/reporter is scum, and actually speak with people who want to write stories about them/their work/others’ works: Science has a symbiotic relationship with science writers. Science needs publicity to make things relevant for John and Jane Doe, so funding and other such monies keep backing scientific work. And writers need science because they want to call people up and learn about some amazing stuff, and then translate.

  47. #47 BobRoehr
    June 21, 2007

    I commiserate with Tara about how busy conferences can be, but for a journalist they are even more so. First, the organizers often schedule their news conferences during the lunch break, so, no down time then for us ink-stain wretches. Second, when you are deciding whether to schmooze, have dinner etc. if I’m writing for Medscape as is often the case, my evenings are spent writing 2-3 stories, generally with room service. While a conference is a marathon for most participants, it can be even more so for the writers covering it.

    Yes, a lot of journalists get coverage wrong. And those of us who cover a beat and know the subject well often have to pay the price for their mistakes. As a profession, we’re working on it, trying to improve the craft through education, training, mentoring, and listservs. A lot of good scientists have helped on an individual basis, and I am very grateful for their generosity of time and information. Some scientists embrace the role of teacher, others do not. I’ve learned to treasure the former.

    As for the benefit/obligation of talking to the press, there is a transformation going on. A decade or two ago federal funding of research was comparatively smaller. But now the budget for NIH alone is approaching $30 billion a year, people now look at research and support it as an engine of economic growth. With increased spending comes increased visibility and increased accountability.

    The fact is, research conducted with government funding is not just “your” research, it also is the public’s research and they have a right to know. That is particularly true of biomedical research where volunteers/patients put their bodies on the line, and without which that research would not be possible.

    One aspect of increased accountability is the push for open access to published results, and going further, access to the raw data gathered, which may have enhanced value when combined with other similar research and data mined.

    If a researcher has a problem adjusting to this new reality, then I suggest they not apply for government funding for their research.

  48. #48 garhane
    June 24, 2007

    Science workers have to learn how to use a lab, experimental method, math for large numbers and formulae, so why should they not have to take a short course to learn how to deal in the world of media?

  49. #49 Alvaro
    June 24, 2007

    Greg: thanks for a very insightful comment. I couldn’t agree more with “And speaking of arrogance, you’re being asked to explain something in plain language, not to “dumb it down.” As I’ve told my students, if your audience doesn’t understand you, it is probably your fault not theirs.”

    As a frequent bridge between scientists and mainstream society, we often perceive the need for a “bridge language” that both parties feel comfortable with: focus only on key insights and 101 concepts, elaborate on implications from a “how would I explain this to my mother” point of view, and avoid technical jargon. We must engage people where they are-and help them refine their understanding a bit. We are talking about a process, with many actors involved, in a complex ecosystem. There is no “right” or “wrong”, simply “bridge languages” that work and some that don’t.

  50. #50 journo
    June 27, 2007

    Almost all scientists are paid from public funds – don’t you feel a duty to talk to the public? And have you ever complained that scientists are not held in high enough regard by the public and that your salaries are too low? That certainly happens here in the UK. The answer – talk to the public, and if you want to reach large numbers you need to talk to journalists. Most are professional and dedicated – if you find one that isn’t, warn your colleagues through your institution’s press office.

  51. #51 CKR
    August 12, 2007

    Wow! I guess I’m terribly lucky. Every time I’ve been interviewed (including by Bill Broad at the New York Times), I’ve been pleased with the resulting story.

    Or is it that I’ve prepared? There’s a lot of good advice upthread; I won’t repeat it. I’ll just say that I prepared a full day for that half-hour phone conversation with Broad. I tried to anticipate the questions, put what I had to say in everyday language, and I worked up some soundbites. (Actually, I had most of them on hand from previous interviews and, yes, proposal presentations.)

    Figure it out: you can’t give all the qualifications that make a statement exactly and quantitatively precise in the scientific way, but you can boil it down to plain English. For that matter, your articles in scientific journals will improve if you sweat some of the fat out.

    And, yes, frame what you have to say. Give pungent metaphors and comparisons to what people know in their everyday life. Figure out what message you want the interviewer to take away, and stick with that message, leaving out all those fascinating bells and whistles as well as jabs at your rivals.

    And, for heaven’s sake, talk to journalists! We need all the science out there that we can send.

  52. #52 youtube
    January 16, 2008

    woow..good post.thanks

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    February 16, 2008

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  54. #54 youtube
    February 16, 2008

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  55. #55 youtube
    March 14, 2008

    Whoops! For the sake of accuracy: Strep, not staph!

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    January 8, 2009

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  57. #57 Youtube
    January 21, 2009

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    January 21, 2009

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  59. #59 youtube
    January 21, 2009

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    March 20, 2009

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    March 20, 2009

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