Tips for scientists talking to the media
Today’s guest post is contributed by Robin Bisson, Director of the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS).
For scientists, talking to the media can be exciting, intimidating, powerful, or frustrating, and often a combination of all the above. It’s gratifying to read about your research in newspapers and well-read websites, or to see your name in print as a third party authority on a science story, and engaging with the media can help raise awareness of your field and make sure it is represented accurately in the public eye.
But most researchers know of colleagues with bad experiences talking to the media, and you don’t have to make the kind of remarks Tim Hunt recently did at the World Conference of Science Journalists to find yourself suddenly in the spotlight. Nonetheless, bad experiences pale in comparison to the countless examples of scientists providing crucial context to news coverage and having a positive impact on how science issues are portrayed to the public. The tips below on how best to work with journalists will help make sure you don’t have your own story of being ‘burned’ by the media.
It might be tempting to leave media work to a few experienced spokespeople and focus on the time-consuming job of being scientists. But although engaging with the media brings some risks, there are also tremendous benefits. I would argue there are even some big-picture risks of not engaging.
I come from the UK where our tabloid news culture caused giant science scandals in the 1990s and early 2000s, with impacts that are still being felt today. During mad cow disease, the furor over genetically engineered crops, and the MMR vaccine scandal, all but a handful of brave scientists distanced themselves from the news, enabling politicians and agenda-driven voices to fill the void and propagate scientific myths into the public consciousness. To its enormous credit, the UK scientific community underwent something of a cultural revolution, recognizing that not engaging was damaging public trust in science. Now in the UK, the visibility of scientists in the media is higher, news coverage is less sensational (mostly!), and the relationship between the media and science much healthier.
I have recently launched a non-profit organization — the Genetic Expert News Service, or GENeS for short — which aims to increase the amount of robust, evidence-based information in North American mainstream media by connecting researchers with journalists working on stories with a genetics or biotechnology angle. We feed into the news by identifying stories ahead of time that are likely to get major attention. By reaching out to scientists with relevant expertise, and sending their analysis to media outlets, we aim to help journalists understand the wider scientific context behind the story at hand and push back against media hype. (Take a look at this SciLogs blogpost to see the process in more detail.)
Because one of our main goals is to increase the field of scientists whom reporters can access, we work with any and all institutions.
Since moving to the US, I’ve met scientists who talk about a culture that can discourage engaging with the media; and I can understand the trepidation when a reporter calls. But the mainstream news media is still the number one source of the average American’s scientific information, so when a call comes in I would urge you to take the time to engage.
Talk in straightforward language. Even the most seasoned science reporter is unlikely to have a vocabulary big enough to cope with all the technical terminology used in science, let alone their readers. Talking in lay terms is not the same as dumbing down, and will ultimately help get your message across.
Metaphors are brilliant. Abstract concepts can be hard to grasp, and very large or small numbers can be difficult to visualize. Metaphors are a great way to add clarity. For example, in a recent story that GENeS covered about genetic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predicting the likelihood of being a creative professional, David Cutler from Emory University described the size of the effect as:
“…if the distance between me (the least artistic person you are going to meet) and an actual artist is 1 mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of that distance.”
It’s fine to say ‘I can’t answer that.’ Reporters don’t expect you to be the fount of all knowledge and, on the whole, are trying to understand a topic so they can report it accurately. If they ask questions that are hard to answer, explain why they are hard to answer; if you need to take some time to check sources or read through a study, tell them you will call back; and point reporters toward colleagues who can answer a question that you can’t. They will thank you for helping them tell a better story.
Broadcast interviews are a little different from print or online, since the questions are asked in real time, but you can always ask a reporter to run through the questions before the interview is recorded so you know what is coming. If you feel like you are being dragged away from your area of expertise in an interview, it’s always better to say so than have a stab at something you’re not confident about.
Have your main points prepared. You may have a hundred things you want to say about how the media gets your field wrong, but it is much more effective to decide on three key points you want to say, and repeat them, than to go down the ‘and another thing!’ route. On controversial topics, like genetic engineering or animal research, comments are more likely to be taken out of context ‒ so it’s worth running what you want to say by friends and colleagues to avoid inadvertently saying something you may regret later.
Be aware of what a journalist’s job is like. Many reporters will be working on multiple stories with strict deadlines and limited word-lengths, and must keep their editors happy and their readers entertained. If your long and beautiful quote gets cut to one sentence, they will have good reason for having done so! You can always let a reporter know what you think of their story, or ask for a correction if anything is inaccurate. The more you show you understand their constraints, the more likely they will see you as a trusted source.
Be prepared to give a ‘good enough’ answer. In an ideal world, scientists would have a few days to digest a new piece of research and think about all the issues at play before giving a considered response (indeed, at GENeS we contact scientists as early as possible for this very reason). However, the 24-hour news cycle works on much faster timescales, and may move on from a story within hours. Overall, it is better to give a ‘good enough’ answer than no answer at all.
Talk to your media relations team, or GENeS! Almost every institution has a media team. Helping academics with media work is their job, and they know their stuff. They can tell you about the outlet and maybe even about the reporter who has called. Your local news office also likes knowing when members of their community are talking with the press, so giving them a heads-up about your potential moment of fame will be much appreciated. The staff at GENeS are also always here to help and support scientists engaging with journalists, in particular dealing with messy or controversial topics.
If you are interested in being part of GENeS’ expert database, we would love to hear from you. The time commitment is small and we would only get in touch when working on a story in your specific area of expertise. Contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 833-4613 if you would like to find out more.
|The views expressed in guest posts are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Genetics Society of America or its employees.|