What Journalists Want:
Nine Things for Scientists to Think about Before Talking to
By Jason Socrates
When I was in Seattle a few months ago at the annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
and the National Association of Science Writers, I asked a
number of seasoned reporters what advice they have for scientists
who speak with the press.
Here are some of their responses.
1. Understand that Science Journalism Is Educational
When scientists speak to reporters, they are ultimately
speaking to the public, helping to not just educate people
about what they do in particular, but to educate the public
about science in general and to help gain support for science.
Science reporting is educationalmore educational than
other beats. Weather reporters don't explain the difference
between hail and snow. Traffic reporters don't waste time
explaining the nature of congestion or expounding the meaning
of "a ladder in the number three lane." But science reporters
need to take those extra step to convey their news, for example
explaining how cellular gene expression works or defining
basic terms such as "DNA."
Because almost all basic research today is funded at least
in part by taxpayer's money, scientists have a vested interest
in communicating the nature and benefits of their research
to a broad audience outside of the scientific community. And
the public has the right to know.
2. Understand Your Audience
The public at large knows very little about science. In
fact, in the most recent report of National Science Foundation
science indicators, more than a third of all Americans responded
incorrectly that radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling
it and almost half of all people could not answer correctly
the question, How long does it take for the Earth to go around
Interestingly, the same NSF survey shows that the American
public is overwhelmingly supportive of basic science and is
interested in knowing more about it.
A scientist speaking with a reporter should assume the audience
will be interested in science and will able to understand
it, but will have zero knowledge to begin with.
"Keep it fundamental," Associated Press reporter Paul Recer
3. Know What Makes a Good Story
Science stories are no different from stories on any other
subject in that they include all the classical elements of
narrative stories. When evaluating a potential story, journalists
are not simply looking for information. They are looking for
- Are timely. Is the discovery new? Is it related to other
- Are wide in scope, affecting many people directly or
indirectly. Is the research related to a health condition
that many people are concerned about? Does it speak to trends
- Have a particular thematic angle. Perhaps a local angledoes
the research impact people in the region? Perhaps an industry
anglewould the story interest a business writer who
- Reflects conflict. Can the story hold the audience's
interest by describing competing theories, competing groups,
or competing individuals? Scientists should be aware that
conflict is the backbone of much reporting.
- Demonstrates human drama. Who are the characters? A young
scientist who dazzles colleagues, an old scientist who still
has the passion, or middle-aged scientist who is motivated
by personal tragedy or triumph?
4. Understand Who Reporters Are
Science reporters come from a great diversity of backgrounds.
They include former scientists but also those with little
or no science background. Some have been science reporters
for decadeseven specializing in a particular area such
as Alzheimer's or AIDS. Others are general assignment reporters
who cover everything from local politics to entertainment
A scientist should feel free to ask reporters what their
beat and backgrounds are. But they should also keep in mind
that a reporter who trained in medicine 35 years ago may not
understand modern molecular biology any better than a reporter
with no science training at all.
Reporters will, in general, do as much preparation before
an interview as they have time for. This could be reading
a press release and going over a paper in fine detail, but
sometimes it means no preparation at all. They may be handed
a story from their editor or producer and jump straight into
an interview when a deadline is looming.
Even if a reporter is familiar with a subject, they may
be working on multiple unrelated stories simuntaneously. A
print reporter may be writing about the effect of toxins on
fetal brain cells in the morning, about canine heredity at
lunch, and then about the use of facial cues as predictors
of marital stability in the afternoon. A local television
crew might in a single day cover a police car chase, the opening
of a new petting zoo, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
5. Have a General Knowledge of Print Media
Print media, such as newspapers, magazines, and internet
publications (or internet versions of print publications)
pick up stories from a variety of sources.
Top scientific journals email tip sheets to the press, which
include the titles, abstracts, or topical summaries of articles
appearing in an upcoming issue. Institutions such as Scripps
Research may also send out their own press releases around
the same time.
Many reporters will generate stories based on these discoveries
as they come out. Often stories will appear on the wire services,
such as the Associated Press or Reuters or more specialized
services such as HealthDay, and these will often generate
additional stories at other media outlets.
Many reporters also write stories that are not on some breaking
discovery but on a much larger trend in science or society.
Editors or producers may assign stories to reporters, or reporters
may become interested in a story then pitch it to their editor
or producer. The story may be more complex, drawing upon multiple
interviews with a wide variety of sources, and reporting a
larger trend or featuring a whole field of research.
The nature of the storyshort or long, simple or technicalwill
be influenced by its venue.
In general, wire reporters need to report stories rapidly,
and cover the basics of who, what, where, when, why, and how.
One wire reporter told me that he averages about three stories
a week. Another told me that she does as many as 10 a day,
though these are often stories of just a few sentences.
Newspaper reporters or journalists working for monthly magazines
may write stories that are thousands of words long and reflect
weeks or months of research or interviews.
6. Know How to Give a Broadcast Interview
In many ways, television is king of the media. According
to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People
and the Press, people get their news from local television
stations more than any other source. While audiences of the
national network news shows have decreased in the last decade,
multiple 24-hour cable news stations have been launched in
recent years, and audiences for these have increased.
At the same time, television stories are usually much shorter
than stories in print. And they must have pictures.
According to a 1998 survey of local television stations
nationwide sponsored by Columbia University's Project for
Excellence in Journalism, more than half of all local television
stories are less than 45 seconds long, and some 43 percent
are less than 30 seconds long. This includes the introduction
from the anchor, the interview, and the field reporter's commentary.
While television news magazine programs like 60 Minutes
and National Public Radio's All Things Considered do
exist, these are the exception, not the rule.
This means that the entire length of a scientist's time
on camera could easily run less than 10 seconds.
Unless participating in a news magazine or call-in format,
a scientist should prepare for a broadcast interview by creating
a few sound bytes of six to seven seconds each that focus
on the most interesting parts of the story. Then, the scientist
should practice these sound bytes in the same way he or she
might prepare for a lecture.
Scientists should put qualifiers in the middle of
a sound byte and not at the beginning or end where it might
be edited out ("People who inherit a single copy of this gene
from one of their parents are usually the same ones
who develop the disease").
Television reporters are intensely interested in pictures.
Scientists can have drawings, charts, and other graphics to
help illustrate what they want to say. A good graphic helps
tell a story, but scientists should keep in mind that the
most interesting graphics may not be the most relevant ones.
Scientists should also be prepared to accommodate reporters'
search for a visually interesting setting, which may turn
offices into sets and position people in places they don't
Scientists would do well to prepare their sound bytes, but
they should also be themselves.
I asked Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio's Science
Friday what he thought were the characteristics of a perfect
guest, and he answered that it would be someone who could
carry on a great conversation, who could relate his or her
ideas without speaking in jargon, and who has a sense of humor.
A good interview is a good conversationsomething that
could perhaps be read and enjoyed as a transcript quite apart
from the stories it inspires. In fact, these days many of
the major media outlets have taken to printing transcripts
on their web sites along with video, stills, and other materials.
This does not mean that the interview will be all wine and
roses. One reporter I spoke with described a good interview
as a cross between a cocktail party and a rugby scrum.
7. Know How to Give a Print Interview
Most print reporters will try to schedule an in-person interview
if time allows. This way, reporters can see the scientist's
facial expressions and environment. They can observe details
like how the scientist dresses, what is on the walls, and
what the lab's graduate students are doing. These peripheral
details provide the reporter with additional angles to draw
upon, and may even make it into the story.
Of course, phone interviews often must suffice. And, as
a last resort, for factual clarification, or conveying specific
follow-up questions, a journalist may opt for e-mail.
Scientists can help an interview go well by:
- Thinking beyond the description of what they did to the
reasons why it is importantnot why the research is
different but why is it compelling;
- Considering the context for the research;
- Starting out with simple descriptions and increasing
the complexity as time goes on;
- Avoiding complex terms, for example saying "heart attack"
instead of "myocardial infarction;"
- Avoiding jargon and acronyms that are meaningless to
the average reader or viewer;
- Telling the reporter what is not being said (e.g., "Having
this gene does NOT mean you will necessarily have the disease;")
- Taking the time to develop messages and selecting the
two or three key messages to communicate;
- Couching messages in language that signifies the importance
of that message ("The most important thing to remember is...");
- Keeping the language to short, clear sentences, as if
describing research to a neighbor or relative;
- Offering some technical information, but not too much.
A reporter will always ask for more technical details if
he/she needs them;
- Using analogies. Journalists love to quote scientists
at their most metaphorical. A story is improved through
the use of these metaphors;
- Restating key messages at the end of the interview.
Scientists should also anticipate follow-up questions. Reporters
are usually looking for those interesting hooks that can make
their story more compelling. If a scientist mentions he or
she has been interested in curing cancer ever since childhood,
a reporter's next question will probably be "What happened
to you as a child?"
8. Help Journalists Get It Right
Journalism, says former New York Times science editor
Cornelia Dean, is an exhausting profession. Journalists work
long days and are worried all the time about getting the facts
straight, lying awake at night worrying that they missed something.
The most important thing for a journalist is to get the story
right. "If you get the facts wrong, the whole enterprise is
pointless," she says.
Scientists should know that journalists are committed to
getting the facts correct. The same can be said for their
news organizations, since the reputation of the show or periodical
is at stake. (Of course, there are unscrupulous individuals
in journalism just as there are in science).
At the same time, journalism is a human endeavor and journalists
occasionally make mistakes. Also, science reporting covers
very complex and technically difficult material.
Scientists can play an important role in helping the reporter
get the facts straight by:
- Always being honest and forthright;
- Being willing to say, "I don't know" if something is
way outside of your field;
- Being willing to call journalists back or email them
with specific information that they may not have available
at the time of the interview;
- Recognizing that journalists operate on tight deadlines
and giving them prompt replies;
- Referring reporters to colleagues who might help with
the story. In general, it's always a good idea to provide
the names of colleagues or peers who agree with you and
(more importantly) who disagree. "It helps the reporter
get a better story," says U.S. News & World Report
senior writer Charles Petit. "It serves the reader and the
- Suggesting at the end of an interview that the reporter
should feel free to call back with additional questions.
A scientist can also offer (humbly) to help check facts,
but should never expect to be shown the story in advance
9. Avoid Common Pitfalls
Scientists should take care to avoid the pitfalls of talking
to the press.
Sometimes scientists spend 15 minutes carefully discussing
science with a journalist, then 15 seconds talking off the
cuff. This distribution will not necessarily be reflected
in the article. To the reporter, off-the-cuff remarks might
be the most interesting thing said all day and may be featured
prominently in the story.
Scientists should never assume that anything is "off the
record". Off the record means many things to many different
Scientists should feel free to speculatewith caution.
Intelligent, informed speculation is frequently welcomed by
the press. A former football coach may be interviewed for
an expert opinion on the outcome of a game not yet played,
a Hollywood insider might be sought for speculation on the
success of a celebrity marriage, and a scientist might be
asked to speculate about some area of science that is still
being discovered. But scientists should always make absolutely
sure the reporter understands their speculation is speculation
and not fact.
Scientists should never ask to see a copy of an article
before it is published, and never expect that it will be offered.
Many reporters are explicitly instructed by their media
outlets not to send copy to a source before the story appears.
Tom Siegfried, the science editor at the Dallas Morning
News was adamant about this when I asked him. "A story,
once it is done," he said, "does not go outside the paper
to anybody else."
Not everyone agrees completely. Some reporters do show unpublished
pieces (or parts of them) to their sources.
Boyce Rensberger, who is the former science editor of the
Washington Post and runs the Knight Science Journalism
programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues
that it is acceptable for a journalist to show parts of stories
to a source to avoid what he calls "the heartbreak of being
In general, when reporters do solicit feedback from scientists,
they will not send a scientist a complete draft of an article
to read, but they may send some portion itperhaps the
technical parts or quotes. Some journalists will read parts
of the story over the phone. Some will send the quotes but
not the other copy. Some will send the copy but not the quotes.
At the same time, Rensberger points out, no journalist is
obliged to do this and no journalist is ever forced to do
Scientists who are reviewing copy should always resist the
urge to edit for style (unless of course invited to do so).
They should also resist the urge for precision. Words that
a journalist chooses are not always the same words that a
scientist would choose, but what is imprecise is not necessarily
untrue. Technical precision is often put aside for the sake
of clarity or even style.
At the end of the day, the story is the reporter's and not
the scientist's. The reporter's name is on the byline.
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