Interviews between reporters and scientists are an essential aspect of science communication. But they are also a frequent cause of anxiety for both parties. Scientists sometimes find interviews nerve-racking, and fear that their work may be misrepresented. And reporters may be unsure of where to begin their line of questioning, and possibly find themselves frustrated by a researcher’s reliance on technical jargon. As with most things, preparation can be the difference between a good experience and a bad one.
So I’m writing two posts about how to prepare for an interview. This is the first post, and it focuses on how reporters can prepare to interview a scientist. The second post will be on what scientists can do to prepare.
While I used to be a reporter, I am now a public information officer. To avoid any perceived conflict of interest, I’ve asked several reporters/science writers to share what they do to prepare for interviews.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize-winning former reporter for the Sacramento Bee, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wired blogger and author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” among other titles.
Blum: “I’m a big believer in homework before interviews. Obviously, if it’s a story on a short deadline you don’t have the luxury of doing an encyclopedic backgrounder. But If I’m interviewing a scientist about a research paper, I won’t do the interview until I’ve read the paper. I figure out what I want to ask when I read the paper and the citations let me see who else is involved or might have perspective if I’m looking for other comments. Also, reading the paper is a great way to establish comfort level in an interview: ‘So, I read your paper and….’
“I’m a fairly neurotic over-researcher, so on a longer-term story, I want a lot more background. I did a piece for Scientific American on chemical communication [in 2011] and I focused it on Martha McClintock at the University of Chicago. Before I drove down for the interview, I searched for previous news stories, for her publications throughout her career, for other leading scientists in the field and so on. So I set the interview up a couple weeks in advance and then spent a lot of time studying up. And aside from knowing the material, this also allows me to start thinking in advance about how I want to focus the story – so rather than ‘tell me everything,’ it is more ‘tell me about these aspects of your work.’
“Having said that, some of the best interview moments are completely spontaneous. So I’ll do research and I’ll write down questions, but I also think a good interview is akin to good conversation and if you’re too rigid in your prep work, too obsessive about your written questions, you lose those moments where the story may open up into something more.”
Jeanna Bryner is the managing editor of LiveScience, which maintains its own news site and also sells stories to NBC, Fox News, Yahoo! News and other mainstream media outlets. Working for LiveScience means Jeanna (and her staff) can focus solely on covering science, but they cover a wide variety of scientific topics – and have a fairly short deadline. They have to turn their stories around pretty quickly.
Bryner: “I like to be prepared for an interview with a scientist, but not ‘over’-prepared, for two reasons: I’m busy, yes, but more importantly, I like to remain flexible and not have a preconceived outcome in my head for how the interview should go.
To prepare, I read through the journal article or other academic summary; while reading I note areas that either I don’t understand or would love to hear more about because they seem fascinating. I generally look over the scientist’s bio or personal page online. If it’s a controversial scientist or study (or topic area), I also do a Google search to see if there’s anything particular I should be sensitive about or make sure to ask about carefully.
On the interview, I generally start with pretty basic questions, such as: What spurred this study or this question? I like to tease out what they think is most interesting or coolest about the work, whether that’s how they made the discovery, a surprising setback or a quirky characteristic, say about a new species or fossil organism. I always ask the researcher what else they have in the works and to keep me updated with new findings.”
Tom Breen is a public information officer at the University of Connecticut, but was a reporter until last year. In addition to his work for various newspapers, he spent six years as a “newsman” for the Associated Press, which translates to “general assignment reporter.” That means he wrote about everything from local events to elections to the occasional science story – and had very little time to report and write his stories. I asked him how he prepared for science interviews, because I wanted input from a general assignment reporter. They aren’t science communication specialists, but they do write a lot of the science stories that run in mainstream news outlets.
Breen: “There were two things I liked to do before interviewing a scientist, although how much I did of each often depended on deadline and workload. The first thing was to read everything I could get my hands on relating to the scientist’s research and field. As a general assignment reporter with occasional specialties, I couldn’t count on a thorough grounding in subjects that would often change completely from one story to the next – from boning up on pulsars for a story about the National Radio Astronomy Observatory one week to learning about advances in veterinary surgery in another week.
“Academic journal articles were good places to start, but often assumed a level of prior knowledge that I just didn’t have. Often, I’d look to see if the researchers themselves had tried presenting their work in a more layperson-friendly way, which was gratifyingly common: scientists who ‘get it’ when it comes to educating the public about their work often maintain personal websites or publish in popular journals in ways that were extremely helpful for me.
“On the ‘third tier’ of pre-interview reading, I’d look for articles about the scientist and the field of study in the science press, both to make sure I was actually reporting news as opposed to something that was old hat, and because science journalists are reliably good communicators of complex research.
“The second thing I liked to do, and this wasn’t always possible, was to consult informally with other scientists in the field, usually people I’d worked with on previous stories and maintained a good relationship with. When I worked for the Associated Press in West Virginia, I reported a lot of stories about narcotic painkillers, often writing stories based on newly published research in academic journals. A professor in the University of Charleston’s School of Pharmacy who specialized in opiate pain medication was a great sounding board when I’d come across a new article, or in terms of helping me develop worthwhile questions when talking to a scientist for the first time. Being able to speak to someone in the field and say, ‘Is this research significant?’ or ‘What would YOU ask this scientist?’ was a huge help, particularly on stories that turned on complicated research.”
So, reporters, what do you think? Are these tips realistic, based on the deadlines you face? Do these writers go far enough in doing their background preparation?
And check back soon for my tips on how researchers can prepare for an interview.