What Journalists Want:
Nine Things for Scientists to Think about Before Talking to Reporters

By Jason Socrates Bardi

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 educational—more 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 the sun?

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 said.

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 stories that:

  • Are timely. Is the discovery new? Is it related to other breaking news?
  • 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 in society?
  • Have a particular thematic angle. Perhaps a local angle—does the research impact people in the region? Perhaps an industry angle—would the story interest a business writer who covers biotechnology?
  • 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 decades—even specializing in a particular area such as Alzheimer's or AIDS. Others are general assignment reporters who cover everything from local politics to entertainment to traffic.

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 story—short or long, simple or technical—will 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 usually go.

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 conversation—something 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 important—not 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 public."
  • 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 of publication.

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 people.

Scientists should feel free to speculate—with 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 wrong."

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 it—perhaps 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 so.

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.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu