Communicating with the Press

“Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming. And many of them don’t trust the public or the press: According to a recent Pew study, 85 percent of U.S. scientists say it’s a ‘major problem’ that the public doesn’t know much about science, and 76 percent say the same about what they see as the media’s inability to distinguish between well-supported science and less-than-scientific claims. Rather than spurring greater efforts at communication, such mistrust and resignation have further motivated some scientists to avoid talking to reporters and going on television.

They no longer have that luxury. … What’s more, amid the current upheaval in the media industry, the traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public are losing their jobs en masse. As New York Times science writer Natalie Angier recently observed, her profession is ‘basically going out of existence.’ If scientists don’t take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them.” — Chris Mooney, a Knight fellow in science journalism at MIT and the co-author with Sheril Kirshenbaum of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” (January 3, 2010 Washington Post)

Preparing for an Interview

  • Know what you want to say prior to the interview.
    • Be ready with your most important point and several secondary points.
      • Reporters face constant deadline pressure and often have only a few minutes to talk. Make your limited time count.
      • Have reference material handy in support of important points.
      • Reporters like statistics. Have a couple of key and easy to understand statistics available.
  • Identify and answer potential questions in advance.
    • If you’re being interviewed about your study, identify what’s most interesting, exciting, surprising, troubling, etc.—that’s what a reporter will likely ask you about.
    • If an interview is prearranged (as opposed to a situation where the reporter is on deadline), ask about the types of questions that might be posed, or even for the questions themselves—so you can be as prepared and helpful as possible.
      • Many reporters don’t like to provide questions in advance. That’s OK. It never hurts to ask.
  • Put your study findings or the topic you’re being interviewed about into perspective.
    • Reporters are always looking for perspective. (i.e., Is this part of a national trend? What does this say about society as a whole? Has something like this happened before? Is this study the first of its kind?)

DOs and DON’Ts of Interviewing

  • Take your time.
    • Think about what you want to say for a few seconds before launching into an answer.
    • Speak slowly. This is important and can’t be emphasized enough.
      • Remember, the reporter is taking notes.
      • For TV or radio, your sound bite will be better if you’re not speaking at “warp speed.”
  • Speak in lay terms—avoid technical jargon.
    • The reporter is likely a non-scientist who has the challenging task of communicating science to an audience of non-scientists. Don’t make the job any harder.
      • Be patient and don’t be condescending.
        • A reporter isn’t unintelligent because he or she doesn’t immediately grasp something.
  • Be concise.
    • Be prepared with your main talking points.
    • Answer questions directly.
    • Don’t go on tangents.
    • Don’t talk too much.
  • Listen carefully.
    • Make sure you’re paying close attention to the reporter’s questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
    • If you don’t understand a question, say so.
  • Don’t feel obligated to answer every question.
    • If you’re not sure of an answer, you can tell the reporter that you will get back to him or her.
    • If you simply can’t or don’t want to answer a question, briefly explain why. (i.e., “I can’t answer that because I haven’t seen the report you’re referencing.”)
  • Don’t be careless or casual.
    • Remember, anything you say could end up in print or on the air.
      • This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be friendly.
  • Dress appropriately.
    • If you’re dressed too casually, it diminishes your credibility.
      • If you’re doing a TV interview, this is particularly true.
        • Suits are always good for TV interviews—business casual at a minimum.
  • Be confident.
    • Remember you’re the expert. Act like it.
      • Make eye contact.
      • Sit up straight.
      • Don’t fidget.

After the Interview

  • Find out when the story will run.
    • Ask the reporter if it would be possible to send you a link to the story after it’s published or aired.
      • It’s a worthwhile exercise to review the article or segment to see what the reporter thought was most interesting or newsworthy from your interview.
  • Build a relationship.
    • Say thank you.
      • The reporter could have written about many different things and interviewed many different people, but he or she wrote about your area of expertise or study and interviewed you. Thank the reporter for his or her work/interest.
  • Tell ASA.
    • Let us know after a story you were interviewed for is published or aired.
      • Email us at footnotes@asanet.org with “In the News” as the subject and we will mention it in the “In the News” section of Footnotes.
        • Sample submission: “Ted Mouw, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, was quoted in an October 19 News & Observer article about the opening of a new U.S. Census Bureau facility.”

Additional Items

  • Reporters have tight deadlines.
    • Respond to interview requests as quickly as possible.
  • Reporters sometimes make mistakes.
    • Let a reporter know if he or she made a mistake, but be nice about it. The reporter didn’t do it on purpose.
      • If it’s not a big mistake, then let it be.
    • Reporters strive for accuracy.
      • A good reporter will generally try to address a mistake by running a correction or making sure the same mistake is not made in future articles or broadcasts.
    • Often a reporter isn’t responsible for a mistake in an article.
      • A lot of people edit an article before it goes to print.
  • Reporters face time and space constraints.
    • You might talk to a reporter for 20 minutes and two sentences from the interview will appear in an article or a 15-second sound bite in a radio or TV broadcast.
      • This is normal—don’t be discouraged or offended.
  • Reporters don’t write headlines.
    • Sometimes a headline won’t be quite as accurate as you might hope—that’s not the reporter’s fault.
    • Headlines are meant to draw the reader in and give a taste of what’s to come in the article.
      • The article is where the real substance is found.
  • Be accessible.
    • Don’t go off to some remote location where you don’t have phone or email access if a press release has been sent out about you or your study.
  • ASA is here to help.
    • ASA members can consult with public affairs and public information specialists prior to and following interviews.
      • The staff includes a veteran journalist with more than six years of reporting experience at Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Examiner in Washington, DC, “The Pink Sheet” DAILY in Rockville, MD, and The Herald News in Fall River, MA.
    • Contact pubinfo@asanet.org or 202-527-7885 if you have any questions.

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