Scientists are often nervous about being interviewed by reporters. This is often because they are worried that reporters will misrepresent their work or make them look foolish. Human ingenuity is boundless, so there is no foolproof way to ensure that reporters will get everything right. However, there are things that scientists can do to help ensure that they communicate their work effectively, and significantly improve the odds that their work is presented accurately.
(Note: interviewing scientists is no picnic for reporters either. The previous post dealt with how reporters can prepare for science interviews. Also, this post focuses primarily on how to prepare for a phone or in-person interview with a print or online reporter. I wrote a separate post on preparing for radio and TV interviews.)
Take Your Time, Do Your Homework
If you get a call from a reporter who wants to interview you about your work, don’t rush yourself. Ask the reporter a couple questions first: Who is the reporter? Who is he/she writing for? What, specifically, do they want to know about? For example, if the reporter is calling about a specific paper, are they interested in the science for its own sake? Or are they primarily interested in potential medical/technological/whatever applications of that science? In short, know your audience.
Once you know who they are and (broadly speaking) what they want, tell them you can call them back in 10 minutes and get their phone number. Most reporters are perpetually on deadline, but if they want to talk with you they can spare you 10 minutes. This gives you time to prepare.
Use that 10 minutes to do some quick homework on the reporter and the news outlet, if you’re not already familiar with them. If a Google search turns up information that makes you nervous, trust your gut. Odds are good that a reporter for GlobalWarmingIsAHoax.com is not going to write an evenhanded article about your atmospheric chemistry paper. (And, yes, I just made up GlobalWarmingIsAHoax.com – I think.) Also, if you don’t know anything about a news outlet or reporter, ask someone about it. E.g., if your institution has a public information officer, ask them what they know. Or talk to any media-savvy colleagues or friends who you trust. You don’t have to walk into an interview blind.
Once you’ve done your homework, write down the two or three key points you’d like to make about your research – and limit each point to one or two (fairly short) sentences. This helps you organize your thoughts, and gives you a fallback that you can use during the interview (more on this later). Once you’ve got your key points written down, call them back.
Help Them Get It Right
Reporters usually contact a researcher because reporters want help understanding the researcher’s work. This means the researcher will have to explain his/her work to a non-expert. This is when researchers often get nervous. But it’s important to note that the reporter does not want to get it wrong. Reporters HATE getting facts wrong. They want to get it right. And you can help them.
An obvious point: don’t use words the reporter can’t understand. Scientists are often so accustomed to speaking the jargon of their particular disciplines that it is sometimes difficult to speak in language that is accessible to non-experts. Please try anyway. And remember, some words have different meanings in different contexts. “Significant” means one thing in a statistical context, and another in conversational use. Be clear about what you mean.
But to significantly improve the reporter’s odds of getting the story right, take steps to make sure he/she understands you.
Here’s how: after explaining a salient point or a particularly complex issue, say this: “I want to make sure I’m doing a good job of explaining this. Could you please paraphrase that last part back to me?”
English is a tricky language, and it is difficult to paraphrase something correctly if you don’t understand it. By getting the reporter to paraphrase what you told them, you can often spot a misunderstanding and address it. When I was a reporter, I used to paraphrase big chunks of an interview back to whoever I was interviewing. I caught a lot of mistakes this way – which means those mistakes never made it into my stories. Since most reporters do not do this, you can take the lead and ask them to do it for you.
Equally important is that by saying “I want to make sure I’m doing a good job,” you are putting the onus on yourself and making the reporter feel magnanimous. This keeps the interview from becoming confrontational, which is probably what would happen if you said “I want to make sure you’re not a moron who is going to screw this up.”
How to Answer “Stupid” Questions
Sometimes reporters ask questions that don’t make any sense. This is usually because they don’t fully understand the material. When you get one of these questions, you can steer things back on course yourself. You could take the time to explain why that question isn’t relevant to the work. If you have the time, this is the way to go. If you don’t have the time, you could, for example, say something like: “I think the important thing about this research is…” and then insert one of those “key points” you wrote down earlier.
This second technique, where you ignore the actual question and answer the question you wish the reporter had asked is called “blocking and bridging.” Done well, it’s an effective way of conveying the information that is really important. Done poorly, it will make you sound like Sarah Palin.
The best approach might be to simply say, “Look, let me cut to the chase. Here are the things that I think are really important here.” And then lay it out.
Also, there are some questions that you shouldn’t answer at all. Almost all (if not all) hypothetical questions aren’t worth answering. Wild speculation can get you into trouble.
You Are In Charge
Lastly, remember that you are in charge. You can hang up the phone or cut off the interview at any time. The reporter contacted you because, presumably, you have knowledge that they want. That gives you some control of the process. Be patient. Be understanding. And try to help the reporter understand your work. Most reporters will appreciate this because they are reasonable, patient and want to do a good job. But all reporters are human, and some humans are assholes. If you run into one of these, don’t be bullied into answering questions you don’t want to answer.