Over at Aetiology, Tara has an interesting post about interview requests from journalists. Since part of my job is to deal with journalists, I thought I would offer some thoughts.
First, Tara’s absolutely right: don’t bother scientists at scientific meetings. We have far too much to do as it is. If you don’t get that, you’re probably not very knowledgeable about science–which doesn’t make us inclined to want to talk to you. Here’s my list of thoughts and advice on the subject.
How does talking to you solve any of my problems?
If you call me out of the blue and ask to speak with me, you’ve just interrupted the work I was doing. Whenever I hear the phrase “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”, I’m always tempted to respond, “Sure, because all scientists do is sit around in our offices and jerk off all day. Thank goodness you called to save me from devastating ennui.” My advice: contact scientists by email and set up a time.
Now, my answering your questions solves your problem–you have a story to write. But has it solved any of my problems? In my case, I usually figure that the publicity is good for the issue I work on and for the organization, but if I were in a research lab, how does this help me, given that there can be some serious downsides (e.g., being misrepresented and thus earning the ire of your colleagues or the committee that decides whether you receive tenure)? That leads me to my next point….
I won’t be your fact checker.
You have just interrupted what I’m doing, as well as taken my time, when you could have used the Google and the internets and found out what you needed to know. Verifying facts won’t get me or my organization mentioned, so you’ve essentially burned that bridge. And on a related note….
Do your homework.
I don’t expect you to know that much: after all, I’m the expert, not you. But if you’re writing a story about MRSA, and you don’t know what it is (and it’s clear that you didn’t go to the CDC website), you are now wasting my time with the remedial biology. Again, that’s a great way to burn bridges. At least, show me that you tried to understand.
Don’t be disappointed with me when you ask a question that does not lend itself to a simple answer.
I’ll be the first to admit that scientists don’t always give good quotes. But sometimes that’s because you want a simple answer that just does not exist. I was recently asked by a fact checker (see above complaint) if a statement that 70% of bacteria from agriculture are resistant to one or more antibiotics used in human medicine. The most obvious problem with that statement is that it depends based on which species you look at. E. coli are at about sixty percent, while enterococci are at about ninety percent. I think my thoughts about the agricultural use of antibiotics are pretty damn clear, but, as a scientist, I am not going to endorse such a vague and vacuous claim. “Hi! You don’t know me from Adam, but would you like me to flush your credibility on this issue down the shitter?”
Don’t get upset when you discover that the topic of your story is far more complex than you initially thought. If this stuff were easy, we would have already figured it out.
Predetermined storylines and quote mining.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been tempted to say, “Why don’t you just send me some quotes you would like me to say, and I’ll just sign my name to them?” When someone calls me up and asks me if I think X is a concern, and I tell them that it’s a pretty insignificant problem, it’s amusing in a sick, twisted way to watch them to try to get me to say something suggestive (e.g., something that led to this post*). Few things anger scientists more (or at least this scientist) professionally than a closed mind. If you have all of the damn answers anyway, why are you wasting my time?
This statement, no doubt, will endear me to our Benevolent Seed Overlords… Anyway, even if the reporter does everything right, editors can hack out or change the story to the point where the end result doesn’t bear much relationship to anything you said. More importantly, unlike the reporters who have done the research, editors often don’t understand the science, and make really bad editorial decisions. Decisions that can make me look like a jackass.
Given all of these downsides and pitfalls, scientists need something in return for giving an interview. If I were in academia, the downsides of talking to reporters would probably outweigh the benefits of speaking with them most of the time. I don’t need to see my name in the paper for its own sake (if it helps plug an important issue, that’s a different matter).
*I was contacted by another newspaper (not the NY Times) regarding the same story.