On dealing with journalists

The ScienceBlogs are abuzz with discussion of how scientists should handle the media. The concern from scientists seems to focus on the fear of being misquoted, and the journalists are responding by pointing out that misquotations are rare, and that when they occur, they rarely are substantive. The problem is that what the journalists mean by a misquotation is different from what a scientist means.

Consider the case of Jack Balkin. He describes how he tried to explain to a reporter for the AP why Arnold Schwarzenegger would not be able to run for President or VP without a constitutional amendment. Then he shows the piece, in which the reporter wrote the story that he obviously intended to write anyway, about how there might possibly be some way in which Arnie could sue his way into the race.

I don't doubt that all of the words in quotation marks are the actual words that Balkin spoke. But, from reading the article, you would not know the central point that Balkin was trying to express, and might even think that Balkin thinks that a lawsuit might succeed.

Short of ending the interview when it became clear that the reporter was just looking for people to validate his wrong idea, you as an interviewee are powerless against bad reporting. Once you speak to a reporter on the record, you run the risk that your words will be rearranged to fit a particular story, or that your brilliant ideas will be put next to the ravings of some lunatic. That, I suspect, is why scientists are sketchy about talking to journalists.

It doesn't have to be that way. Scientists are accustomed to writing long articles, and to responding at length and in detail to arguments in their field. Learning to talk to the media is a different skill, but it can be learned.

Brad Delong and Susan Rasky wrote a brief guide for economists as journalistic sources, and the advice holds for (other) scientists as well. Know the reporter, and know who the reporter's audience is. That's who you are talking to, not the reporter. Know what the reporter is writing, and what he wants from you. Most importantly, "help him figure out what he should be asking you." Speak in short sentences, use lots of examples, and cut through the complexity so the reporter won't have to misinterpret your detailed explanations.

Knowing what your reporter is up to can help you make her a better reporter. Delong and Rasky's companion piece on how to be a good economic reporter advises: "Ask your experts what their ideological opponents would say on the issue. Take what your experts say and advocate only as seriously as they can make a strong case for the other side – the side they oppose." If you are the expert, be prepared to explain the opposing view, and to explain why that view is wrong. That will help the reporter follow the admonition "No matter how limited your space or time, never write '[scientists] disagree.' Write WHY [scientists] disagree."

Before you start an interview, decide on no more than three points you want the reporter to come away with. Don't be afraid to answer a bad question by turning it around to the points you want to make. In Balkin's case (above), he might have been well-served not to have given a simple yes-or-no to a the question of whether anyone had ever sued over the issue of the non-native-born running for VP. Rather than saying "no," he might have said "It doesn't matter because …," or "No one would bother suing because the case would be tossed out." It doesn't answer the question asked, but it answers the bigger question that the reporter is trying to understand.

Returning to a few simple points may seem repetitive or silly, but it actually helps the reporter. By emphasizing points that way, you help the reporter learn what really matters about the story (or at least what her sources think really matters). You are also more likely to stumble into a phrasing of those points that will work well as a quotation in an article, which makes it less likely you'll be misquoted or quoted in a way that doesn't really represent your views.

For more suggestions and insights into how to be a good scientific source or a good science reporter, check out Scientist's Guide to Talking With the Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman. That sort of public outreach is vital to building public support for science and scientific research. As Neil Lane, Bill Clinton's science advisor, put it in a speech at the University of Oklahoma (quoted in Hayes and Grossman): "The risk of not speaking up is that if people are allowed to let special interests, narrow ideologies, or political agendas trump the truth in science, then two things will happen: we will get bad policies (even dangerous ones); and the public will begin to lose trust in the value of science and the government's ability to use science for the public good."


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Speaking as a journalist...

I'd say that if you can create the time, while forming a relationship with a journalist, take the time to be an educator.

My first job at daily newspaper involved covering criminal courts. I didn't know crap. But one of the prosecutors would take a substantial amount of time when I came to court to explain all the workings and the law. It made me a lot smarter, my stories better, and everybody benefitted.

This isn't always possible, I know. But you sciencey types -- many of whom are educators, anyway --should be looking for the opportunities.

You weren't trying to bait me with this, were you?

Just to reply to Joel's comment, I'd like to offer my perspective as a common garden-variety scientist. I've had a few small occasions to interact with the written and televised press, without much pressure.

This limited experience has shown me two things: the reporters I've been in contact with have been good-willed, and they absolutely had an agenda in trying to demonstrate the story they had already conceived in their heads. That's legitimate, but it's not the open mind of a student who wants to learn what you have to teach.

While you may be an exceptionally open-minded journalist yourself, the ones I have encountered only wanted to learn enough to make their sentences sound reasonable to their editor within a predetermined context. I tried hard in one particular case to both spark interest and correct some misinterpretation on the behalf of the reporter. He was kind enough to send me back a draft for me to make sure that the science was correct. Then he made that a small part of his article, of which a significant segment was devoted to my "delicious" American accent in French and how I ended up doing science in France. Yes, I understand the human interest side of this sort of article, but it would have been courteous to let me know he was going to take that angle.

This is a tiny example of why scientists feel wary of how traditional media, even benevolent, are going to represent their work. However, it's not only scientists - my husband, a European manager in the defense industry, is quite concerned that the German press is going to quote him out of context with the purpose of showing up the French. But then there's that "risk of not speaking up" - which is much more serious. Shifts in meaning due to changing contexts can sometimes be corrected, at least.

Joel, I agree with you 100%.

I think scientists ought to cultivate journalists and vice versa precisely because a reporter on deadline is not a reporter with time for a deep educational experience. I think you can see in Alethea's response (or the comments by other sciencebloggers linked to in the post I cited above) how the scientists' expectations of journalistic interactions are simply different from the journalists' expectations.

Hayes and Grossman point out another, deeper disconnect. "Journalism is rooted in a conceptual framework that is not always especially suitable for covering science. The earliest journalists in the United States reported on discrete events with relatively clear beginnings and endings . Science, however, is a process, not an event (or more colorfully, it is news that doesn't break, it oozes). In contrast with crimes and disasters it advances incrementally without a clear beginning or end."

They argue that science ought to be covered more like an unfolding political campaign, rather than as a series of discrete events. With discrete events, a reporter can gather a lot of knowledge and make a definitive report on who, what, where, when, how and why. A scientific result is intimately connected to ideas that came before, and to ongoing research that will be released soon. Of course, "released soon" in science means "within the next year or so," while it means "today or tomorrow" to a journalist.

Because journalists report science as discrete events, they tend not to court scientific sources they way that they court political sources. Politicians have, and manufacture, opportunities to educate journalists while scientists don't have those opportunities and don't manufacture them.

That isn't a criticism (or provocation) of journalists. Knowing these different mindsets can help scientists be better sources and help make reporters better science reporters.