How journalists can help the scientists they interview

On May 28, 2013

Newspapers

As a physicist, I’m fond of simple universal principles from which all other results are derived. When a journalist is interviewing a scientist for a story, I think the important underlying idea is that each is doing the other a favor. A quote from a prominent scientist will make a story better, but it’s not an absolute requirement, and there’s certainly no obligation to deal with any particular scientist. Being quoted in a media report about some new discovery incrementally raises a scientist’s profile, but the only concrete benefit is providing a clipping that your parents might read.

At the same time, both sides have other things to do: journalists are frequently juggling multiple writing commitments, and scientists have to worry about grants, and students, and, you know, science. There’s only so much effort a scientist will be able to put into their remarks, and only so much time a journalist will be able to spend translating jargon.

The temptation for each party in this situation is to try to push as much of the work to the other as possible, and that’s where most advice from journalists to scientists (or vice versa) fails. Each side treats the conventions of their particular profession as immutable laws of nature that the other must adjust to accommodate. Even when offered with the best of intentions, as with Ed Yong’s post last week, the advice ends up sounding one-sided: “Here’s what you need to do to work with me.”

In reality, the responsibility is mutual. Scientists need to make an effort to make the journalists’ jobs easier, as much as they can–translating technical jargon to simpler language, framing their comments in a media-friendly manner. And journalists, too, need to make an effort to respect the interests and concerns of the scientists they talk to, avoiding hype and oversimplification.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions (aimed at journalists, because I’m a scientist) of things to do to make it easier for scientists and journalists to help each other.

1) Tell us what you know

One of Ed’s complaints was about scientists summarizing papers he’s already read. As I pointed out, we do this even with other scientists, because it’s important to make sure everyone is talking about the same thing.

If you want to avoid being told things you already know, the simplest way is to tell the other person what you already know. Don’t just ask “What do you think about Paper X?” say “I want to know your opinion about Paper X, which as I understand it does A, B, and C…” That way, the scientist on the other end has a good idea of what you know, and whether your understanding is correct. If they agree with your summary, they can just go right into their opinion, and if they disagree, they can provide the necessary corrections to place their opinion in proper context.

2) Be as specific as you can

If you ask something general and vague like “What do you think about Paper X?” most of the limited resources for the response will likely be taken up by a broad but shallow overview. If you ask something more pointed and specific– “Do you think this measurement has the necessary statistical power to draw such general conclusions?”– you’ll get better, deeper responses.

There’s a trade-off, here– in his piece, Ed claims that vague questions leave the door open for unexpected answers about aspects he would not have thought to ask about. But vague questions also lead to the aforementioned summaries, and to bland, boilerplate responses (another complaint). If you ask a vague question, you’ll most likely get a vague answer, because the available mental resources are spread thin. A more specific question allows more concentration, and get you better, more thoughtful replies.

3) Accept that the truth may be boring

One of the keys to success as a scientist is the conviction that whatever specific problem you’re studying is the most important and interesting question in the field. Science doesn’t pay well enough to justify long hours on unimportant work.

A corollary to that is that the questions studied by other scientists are somewhat less interesting than whatever you happen to be doing. So, when the response to a question about somebody else’s paper is tepid– “It’s a very interesting study, but more research is required”– that doesn’t necessarily mean that the scientist is hiding their real opinion to be diplomatic. Their real opinion may, in fact, be tepid. Pushing hard to get stronger quotes just annoys them, and leaves the impression that you’re working for a tabloid hype machine.

4) Preview your paraphrases

Any mass-media article will require cutting and paraphrasing comments from scientists. A scientist’s job is to be as comprehensive and careful as possible, leading to lots of caveats and jargon terms with precise technical meanings. A journalist’s job involves length and style constraints that are not compatible with full scientific reports.

While editing scientists’ statements is inevitable, to the greatest degree possible, journalists should run their edits by the scientists they’re quoting. Please note the qualifier there–I’m not making the (sadly, all too frequent) demand that scientists get veto power over their quotes in print. I know that’s not practical, and other people get their hands on the text between the reporter and the final product, etc. But as much as you can, run the shorter version past your sources: “So, what you’re saying is…?” or even better “Would it be fair to say that…?” Nothing outrages a scientist more than having what they consider to be essential qualifying comments stripped out of a statement. That kind of thing, even when it’s not malicious, can leave scientists with grudges they’ll hold for years.

Checking back obviously won’t always be possible, given the problems of finite resources (and deadlines, and editors, and production people, and…), but making the extra effort will go a long, long way toward preserving goodwill.

We tend to ask a lot of scientists talking to the media, much of it justified–most of the burden of translating complex technical work into simple everyday language has to fall on them. Given that, it’s important that journalists, for their part, try to reduce the other burdens and annoyances of the process as much as possible, to make the exchange a net benefit for both.

Image: Flickr/NS Newsflash

About Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Union College Department of Physics and Astronomy. He has a BA from Williams College and a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics from the University of Maryland, College Park. He did his thesis work on collisions in laser-cooled xenon at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, MD, and did postdoctoral research on Bose-Einstein Condensation at Yale University. He's been running a physics blog, Uncertain Principles since 2002, and is the author of two popular books (How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog) explaining modern physics through imaginary conversations with his dog, Emmy. He lives in Niskayuna, NY, with his wife, their two children, and Emmy, the Queen of Niskayuna.

3 Responses to How journalists can help the scientists they interview

  1. Maybe it could be too strict, due to the not always generous ammount of time between writing and publication, but I think sending the article to the interviewed scientist and asking for him/her opinion about it – before printing – could be a good idea.

  2. I think it’s great when a journalist has time to bounce drafts off their sources, but realistically, it’s never going to be a general practice. Journalists go from one story to the next, week after week, and there just isn’t time between the time they get the preprint to the time when the story has to be ready to go to add more steps.

    I do think, though, that too many discussions of this sort of thing are too quick to rule the idea out categorically. This is the kind of thing that I meant by the comment about the conventions as rules of nature– the general practice is to talk to sources and write the story, then send it off without checking back, which occasionally leads to utter gibberish even from outlets that aren’t staffed by idiots. When I was a grad student, a reporter for the New York Times hacked a quote from one of my bosses into total nonsense for an article about BEC (rendering it as something like “The closer we get to this strange state of matter, the closer we are to producing matter in this new phase”), and before I got there, I think it was the Times that quoted Bill Phillips as saying “There are no two-level atoms, and sodium is not one of them.”

    That’s a general practice, though, a convention of the profession. There are practical limits, but there’s no reason that couldn’t be bent a bit. A follow-up email to say “Hey, I need to cut what you said down, would it be fair to shorten it to…” is all it would take to catch some of the more egregious errors, and just the attempt would make a lot of scientists happier with the process.

  3. These are all good points, and as you know, good science journalists routinely fact-check the relevant parts of their stories with scientists. It’s important to understand that journalism cannot be peer-reviewed. It’s time driven and intensely competitive. Practical constraints and professional ethics prohibit sharing the full texts of soon-to-be-published stories, or allowing sources to alter their quotes. But scientists can and should ask to double-check the accuracy of key points. Good reporters want to get the story right and will appreciate that opportunity. And if qualifying words or phrases are crucial to accuracy, don’t keep that a secret. Point out the qualifiers and explain why they matter.
    I am struck by this sentence: “That kind of thing, even when it’s not malicious, can leave scientists with grudges they’ll hold for years.” That jives with my experience; some scientists do seem to hold grudges against all reporters based on a single bad experience, and to interpret simple human error as malice.
    If I could get only one message across to scientists, it would be: Please don’t generalize about journalists based on one data point. And to journalists: Please think about how painful it would be to see a lifetime’s work summed up glibly and erroneously for public consumption, and take a little extra care to get it right.