Ben Thomas writes articles about a variety of topics for the Riley Guide, an online repository for career and education resources. As a freelancer, Ben also covers scientific research and technological breakthroughs as well as social issues involving the sciences. A regular contributor to several leading science news websites, Ben helps scientists and academics connect with the general public by explaining their latest discoveries and controversies in clear, down-to-earth terms.
In a perfect world, every scientific message would travel from the workbench to the press with perfect clarity – but journalists and scientists are only human. The needs and functions of each profession tug at every story in different ways; whereas scientific research values proof and quantitative analysis, journalism often values punchy headlines and online debates, making it tough yet crucial for scientists to convey their announcements clearly. Here, three professional science communicators share the lessons they’ve learned through years of working with the popular press.
Take time to prepare
Any time you’re about to talk with the media, practice, practice and then practice some more. Rehearsals accomplish a lot more than just calming nerves – they’ll train you to tailor your message into a compact, easily understandable format that leaves plenty of room for questions and discussion. As you’ll find out for yourself, this is surprisingly difficult on the very first run.
The vast majority of communication errors are avoidable if you take a few minutes to put together a list of talking points. Journalists are only human, and may read unintended implications into incomplete explanations. In other words, make sure you can explain what the announcement means – along with what it doesn’t mean – in a relatively foolproof way.
“I suggest using a tool we call ‘the message box’ to prepare,” says Brooke Smith, executive director of COMPASS, an organization that helps scientists connect with the public.
The “message box” is a simple window diagram in which a summary of your topic is literally framed by summaries of the problems involved, the information’s relevance to the audience, possible solutions to the problem, and potential benefits of a solution. This box principle can help prevent you from straying off topic, while also making sure you hit all your salient points.
Though all this preparation might sound like extra stress for an already stressed mind, its entire objective is to reduce your stress in the real interview. The less attention you have to devote to remembering points, staying on topic and making yourself understood, the more you can devote to sharing your excitement about the announcement.
Speak passionately and precisely
If you’re in love with your field, keeping your explanations on-track can be tricky – but that doesn’t mean you should let caution get in the way of honest excitement. This is a balancing act that takes a little practice, but it really boils down to how well you know your topic. As long as you’ve practiced enough to convey the thrill of discovery without straying into sheer speculation, you’re well-positioned to walk this line with confidence.
Although it’s fine to flesh out your story with personal details, you’ll be doing yourself and the journalist a favor if you avoid rambling into separate topics – particularly when you’re answering a direct question.
“It’s important not to distract the journalist with extraneous bits of information,” says Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Stick to either answering the question directly and briefly, or to answering the question you wish the journalist had asked.”
Many journalists appreciate in-depth answers but in the press, as in science, the most valuable answers are those that provide the most useful information. Sometimes that means a dense body of facts; more often it means a well-phrased statement.
“It’s a good idea to repeat key messages several times in the interview,” says Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an advocacy organization for health research.
When you rehearse your story, you’ll find that unexpectedly pithy phrases can pop into your mind on their own; jot them down as they occur to you. But keep in mind that brand-new ones will pop up in the interview itself.
Manage your expectations
“Journalists usually have assumptions that are perfectly normal for a journalist, that a scientist just isn’t operating on,” Woolley says. “And the biggest of those assumptions is that they’re not necessarily going to retell your story exactly the way you tell it.”
The whole point of having a free press is that we can’t control how others portray us and our words in the media – as long as they’re telling the truth.
Some journalists may be happy to show you a review draft of the article prior to publication – but there’s no law that requires it.
“Many journalists, in my experience, don’t appreciate being asked for a review draft,” Woolley says – and in fact, some publications forbid their writers to allow any outside review during the editorial process. Video appearances are even less likely to be subject to your control. Even so, it’s unlikely that you’ll have anything to sweat about as long as you stayed on topic and repeated your key message.
If you strongly disagree with a journalist’s opinion in a published work, you are (of course) free to tell your own side of the story in the press and let the public decide. Still, a public response to a misquote isn’t always the most effective way to get the truth out. “I never respond in print – like writing a letter to the editor – unless it would serve a broader or bigger purpose,” Leshner says. “Just correcting an error almost never accomplishes anything positive – and one doesn’t want to make an issue into a controversy by overstating the misquote.”
Before you take action over a misquote or inaccuracy, get in touch with the journalist directly and state your case – you may learn that the journalist is already in trouble over the mistake and is working to fix it; or you may find out it was you who misspoke after all.
“We often see scientists saying they were misquoted, when they were really simply misunderstood,” Smith explains. “There’s a big difference. Misunderstandings can be prevented by practicing and preparing for your interview to get your message across clearly. No journalist (or editor) wants to misquote. If it does happen, it wasn’t intentional – even if it feels that way – and scientists need to keep in mind the severity of accusing a journalist of misquoting them.”
Science and journalism might not seem like similar ways of life at first glance, but you’ll find that it’s easier to get journalists on your side if you emphasize the traits and values you share with them: Inquisitiveness, healthy skepticism, a desire for clarity, and so on. These traits may be so fundamental to your day-to-day life that you’ve never taken the time to notice them – which is all the more reason to use them as common ground as you talk with members of the press. They are, after all, the traits that inspire your work.