Madam Speaker, I Yield My Remaining Time to the Paleontologist from the Great State of California

Over at Aetiology, Tara Smith launched an interesting discussion by talking about why her heart doesn't automatically leap when a reporter wants to talk to her. That post was followed by a lot of scientists swearing up and down about the awful treatment they've experienced at the hands of reporters. Chris Mooney, a reporter, thinks the ranting is all misplaced, and wants us to understand that reporters who write about science are the best trained journalists of all.

I thought I'd join the fray. I think, first off, that Chris is a bit off-base. He's not feeling the genuine pain being expressed in the comments to Tara's post. These are people who have had lousy experiences with reporters. You don't have to be a prima donna to come out of the journalistic process feeling queasy. Even as a science writer, I've had that queasy feeling. A couple years back I wrote a piece on musical hallucinations. The NY Times headline writer took a little poetic license and dubbed it, "Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod." I didn't mind. Most of the story was about how mysterious this condition is, and how little scientists understand about it. But within a couple weeks I saw the story transmogrified by other reporters into stories with unbelievable headlines, such as "iPod users in musical hallucination threat." There is no ipod hallucination epidemic, of course--just an offhand comment from a scientist that our increased exposure to music in the modern age might increase musical hallucinations--presumably from a very very rare condition to a very rare condition. Ridiculous, and depressing. It's an example of what some commenters to Chris's post pointed out--even if you want to claim that science writers can walk on water, a lot of science reporting these days is not done by self-professed science writers.

So, given the not-so-pretty reality, what to do? More thoughts beyond the jump...

Some commenters take a vow of silence, and others assume a hostile stance. A few blog to take vengeance on dunderheads. I don't think such hopelessness and antipathy are inevitable. Reading over the comments, I recalled something paleontologist Kevin Padian wrote a few years ago in a paleontology journal. (Padian was an expert witness at the Dover intelligent design trial, FYI.) He offered some good tips on how to deal with reporters--not to walk away, but to have a useful interaction with them. I couldn't find the piece online, so I emailed Padian for the source. He just fired back with some of his thoughts, and he agreed to let me post some excerpts...

I remember doing such a thing you ask for, but it was many years ago, and the world of journalism has changed a lot with blogs and such. A lot of what I wrote at that time had to do with filmed interviews, given the rage for dinosaur documentaries made by people who (unlike today) had no idea about dinosaur research...In general I'd say that scientists should consider who's calling and what they want (feature story on your work or just a stringer wanting a new quote for the 5 pm deadline?), and then determine how much time to spend and what if anything to send to read. If an inexperienced writer is making a cold call looking for a quick explanation and a quote, I tell them I have five minutes and that usually facilitates things. Or I ask them to read the paper or press release and call back.

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....

Scientists can "control" an interview better if they keep things to a few oft-repeated points, speak in plain English with colorful (but not distorting) language and use analogies and metaphors, and be upbeat. Speak in reasonably short sound bites. (Randy Olson of Flock of Dodos has a good list on this.) In a film interview, don't necessarily answer the question asked if it is not a good one (they seldom play the question in the film) but rather say what you want to say that's more or less on the topic. That actually helps the interviewer more. Repeat as necessary until the point is made, and made effectively. You might say something in a film interview but not very well, so they won't use it. Do it again. They'll wait.

Some rules: always say "off the record" in advance. Be clear when you're going back on the record. Ask in advance to check quotes (this is reasonable) but it is not reasonable to ask to edit the article. Remember that the article is what the reporter says, not what the scientist says, and yes, they do have license to interpret. It's kosher to ask what the angle of the story is early in the game, so you don't waste time explaining stuff that the reporter doesn't need (they usually don't cut you off). Be clear about what's embargoed. Give credit to your team members. Provide good human interest angles, if any, on the people who contributed.

I don't know, this all seems rudimentary to me. But we don't get trained in this, as Olson says, and we really should. If for no other reason than to raise science literacy, because it's clear that knowledge about science for most people comes from the press, not from their schooling. Amazing.


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I think that one aspect of the journalistic process that scientists are not always aware of is that journalists don't write their own headlines!

There is a curious breed of person called the 'subeditor' whose job it is to summarise someone else's story in a few pithy words. I have seen many a well-written and balanced story reduced to a scare story through the simple use of an overblown headline. This matters even more in the online world, where scanning (and not full reading) is the order of the day).

Obviously, this doesn't apply to misquoting or similar transgressions, but it does apply to many examples like Carl's iPod incident.


Definitely a good point to bring up about headlines! Since paleontology doesn't result in too many "scare stories", instead we get the following trite headline elements repeated again and again (perhaps because the subeditor thinks they are being original...):

If it has to do with something related to bird origins, then "ruffles feathers" will be in the headline.

If it has to do with some new phylogenetic arrangement of taxa, than "overturns evolutionary theory" or (even worse "challenges Darwinian evolution" might show up.

And, of course, the old-fashioned superlatives: oldest, youngest, largest, smallest, fastest, meanest, rootinest tootinest, etc. (Okay, these I get: the press does need to have a hook to get the reader to actually want to read that story, and superlatives are an easy way to do it).

I wholeheartedly agree with Kevin's comments about handling the interview from the interviewee point of view (short quotes, deliminate what is on and off the record, credit where credit is due, etc.)

And he also has good points about misperceptions on the part of the press (and general public, actually) about the usefulness of a media presence in academic careers. Granting agencies, promotion-and-tenure committees, etc., really don't care too much about this. It might work towards your professional advantage if your home institution regards "public outreach" as a component of your job, but that's about it.

Something I find useful (time prior to an interview permitting) is to summarize to myself what I think the main points of a study would be, and then make sure that I can articulate all of them as I might to a 100-level undergraduate class or a public audience lecture. Have a list of bullet points of key concepts handy (metally, if not on paper or computer monitor!), and see that you get all of them out. They will NOT all be used; perhaps only one (or part of one). But at least you'll know that you did your job: conveying your information and interpretation to the professional press.

Ah, headlines. . . .

One of my father's jobs in the newsroom was to lay out pages: decide which articles go where, choose the points to break the front-page articles which are continued deeper in the paper, and so forth. While working on the page layout, he would put in headlines, just to see how they worked with the space. He always used nonsense strings of letters ("Xyzzy xyx") to make absolutely clear that these weren't real headlines. Some people, he said, used silly phrases about brown foxes jumping over lazy dogs and such, but there are risks to doing that.

For example, he said, one editor (Kirk Scharfenberg) stuck a joke title on an editorial about President Carter. He thought it would get a chuckle out of his Boston Globe coworkers, but somehow, the paper got printed and, oops, Carter's speech on inflation was forevermore known as "mush from the wimp."

This has nothing in particular to do with science journalism; I just think it's a great piece of lore.

I'd suggest that you judge your audience a bit before employing some of these suggestions.

The "stick to the message" and "don't answer the question asked" can have you coming off with that sort of smug condescention some folks in the Bush administration are famous for.

Personally, if anything will make me hostile, it's this approach--the epitome of PR bullshit merchants.

I'd suggest that if you are so threatened by talking to a reporter that you can't imagine doing it without following guidelines like these, then you shouldn't talk to reporters. But you SHOULD acknowledge you're kind of neurotic.

One of the biggest problems in the journalist/scientist relationship is when it comes to talking about risk. It is an issue that comes up again and again in stories about the spread of diseases, tsunamis, meteorite collisions etc. Journalists always want to know the size of the threat from the latest potential disaster - and turn to the expert for the definitive answer.

There was a story in the UK about a serious childhood disease that could be communicated in various ways from parent to child. A reporter asked the researcher whether it was possible for the disease to be caught through a kiss. The researcher replied that it was theoretically possible. The headline was something along the lines of - 'Parents could kill with a kiss'.

Of course, the real risk of passing on the disease through a kiss was negligible. You could say that the problem here was the scientist's use of technical terms to describe the level of risk involved. If he had been trained to find other terms to describe risk levels when talking to the media - perhaps saying "there is no real risk" rather than "there is a theoretical risk" - then the reporter wold not have picked that line.

Sometimes it is just a question of learning each other's language.

I think about half of all complaints about news stories are actually about the headline.

Dr Padian's advice is good. I would just add a couple of things that we tell people in media training:

1. Respect deadlines, but don't get bounced into responding off the cuff. You can always say you're busy right now and ask the reporter to call back in fifteen minutes. That gives you time to write out the two or three key points you want to get across. Use everyday analogies, real-world examples, and figures to convey a point.

2. We don't advise trying to go "off the record." If you don't want to say it, don't say it. Good journalists are information sponges, so always assume that anything you say to a reporter in any situation could find its way into print.

Contact your press office and find out what services they offer; if you think your work is going to get into the news at some point, build a relationship with the reporter at your local paper who covers that -- that could be science, medicine, higher ed or business/technology, depending on the size of the paper.

Some tips on what to do "When a reporter calls" here.

journalists don't write their own headlines!

As a reader, I long ago learned to assume the headline was written by someone who didn't read beyond the first paragraph.

Thank you Carl -& Kevin- for an informative and interesting post! And thanks also to Ed Yong (see comment no. 2) for that tidbit about creatures called subeditors! I think you are quite right in thinking that scientists could be unaware of who writes headlines...
I really wonder too, about just what other aspects of the news media science journalism process scientists might be unaware of.

It would be useful for non-journalist science people (and anyone else interested) to understand how information flows through and what tends to be done to it at various stages of the journalistic and publishing process.

After all, as Kevin Padian states in his e-mail: "we don't get trained in this"..!

By Shilpa R. (not verified) on 20 Jun 2007 #permalink

I'm glad to see the point made that "a lot of science reporting these days is not done by self-professed science writers." Parallel to that is the unhappy fact that a good many topics should be approached in a scientific way but never get coverage from a technical angle. John Allen Paulos's example in Innumeracy (second edition) was the 2000 presidential election.

In the infamous presidential election of 2000, for example, many of the crucial issues were statistical in nature, but the commentators were almost always lawyers and journalists. Regression analysis of the Buchanan vote in the various Florida counties would have clearly demonstrated how much of an outlier Palm Beach County was. An examination of the tiny difference between Gore and Bush in the official vote totals, especially given the crude Florida election apparatus, would have shown it to be statistically meaningless.

Paulos also mentions Alan Dershowitz's bad probability arguments made about the O. J. Simpson trial (during which, David Blatner observed, there was also some chicanery about the number pi). The Australian writer Russell Blackford and I analyzed some claims about the Essjay incident, a briefly scandalous affair regarding Wikipedia, and found the numerical accuracy of media reporting to be astonishingly bad.

In short, on subjects where a scientific talking head should be televised, none is in evidence.

Of course, even coverage of clearly scientific topics shows abominable gaps in its fact-checking. Exhibit A is the uncritical reporting about Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain.