Science. Communication. Community.
Media interviews are a challenge for both journalists and researchers. Here’s a list of tips that can help you prepare — and ensure favorable and accurate coverage of your science.
In my last post, I discussed how news stories about science are frequently fueled by a press release. You know that research group from your campus that always seems to show up on the news time, after time, after time? It’s not necessarily because the professor just happens to be a media darling, or because reporters happened to call him/her up out of the blue on the day of a big break (or, at least, it doesn’t usually start out that way). Groups that get a lot of publicity are usually headed by media-savvy individuals who work with their institution’s public information officers (PIO’s) and media relations offices.
So, assuming you’ve got a big story and you’ve contacted your institution’s PIO, what happens next?
First, you’ve got to work with the PIO to draft a press release that is both informative and succinct. Don’t worry about the writing part—that’s primarily the PIO’s job. Your role is to tell the PIO what you’ve done and, more importantly in the world of publication, why it matters so he or she can draft an accurate and interesting press release.
Remember, the PIO is probably not an expert in your field, so things that may seem self-evident to an expert such as yourself need to be spelled out. For example, the average reader knows what bleach is but won’t connect their experience with your article on sodium hypochlorite if you don’t clearly state that what you’re working with in lay terms. While your article in Science is almost strictly for other scientists, the publicity put out by the PIO is meant to appeal to readers that same article wouldn’t otherwise reach.
When I’m talking about my own work, I try to make sure it passes what I call the “Grandma test.” My grandmother is a very intelligent woman, and she’s interested in learning more about what I do. However, she doesn’t work with me on my research projects, and she is not an expert in my field. I can’t assume that she knows any detail I don’t explicitly state. You can’t say everything in your press release, but try to make sure it passes the Grandma test.
The final press release will probably be 2-4 paragraphs long, contain a direct quote or two from you or another member of the research team, and it should have a a short title that very directly states what your news is. Journalists get hundreds of press releases each week, and they don’t read each one, or even most of them. The title needs to tell them, as they scroll through the list of press releases, whether your press release is not only news, but news that is relevant to their reporting goals. For this reason, do not, under any circumstances, try to be clever with the title by using puns or jokes: it’s a surefire way to get ignored. Personally, I like to see the name of the institution included in the title, since that helps flag your story for reporters who are specifically looking for local interest.
The press release will also contain your PIO’s contact information, and it may contain direct contact information for one or more members of the research team. Once you have your press release drafted, the real fun begins. Simply writing a press release is no guarantee of media coverage, but assuming reporters pick up your story, here’s what you need to know:
Reply to all contacts quickly. The turnaround time between when a reporter is reviewing a list of press releases and when they need to have their own story published is often as small as just one day. Journalists don’t work on academic time scales. They need responses quickly—sometimes within a few hours. They want to schedule an interview for tomorrow, or maybe even later today, in order to meet press deadlines. Don’t wait until after lunch to email or call them back. Don’t read their email on your smartphone then forget to reply. If you’re sitting at a computer when their email comes in, don’t wait to reply just so you don’t look like you were sitting at a computer. (Yes, I know you’ve done this.) Don’t screen your calls. Reply quickly and the reporter will love you.
This guideline is especially important if your press release is embargoed. An embargoed press release is a confidential release of information to reporters so that they can prepare their story in advance of a predetermined time. Embargoes are frequently used by top-tier journals like Science and Nature so that media coverage can coincide with the publication date of each journal issue. If you send out an embargoed press release, you need to make yourself immediately accessible to reporters. Don’t go on vacation that week, and don’t plan activities that will take you away from your phone and email. If you have nonrefundable plane tickets or are going to be deep in the field away from cell service, put another member of the research team’s contact info on the press release instead, or don’t send out an embargoed press release. If reporters can’t contact you, they won’t run the story, and if you waste their time, they may not run a story the next time you have news, either.
Prepare talking points for your interview. A reporter is going to want to interview one or more scientists who conducted the study. Unless the reporter is local, the interview will probably happen over the phone or, potentially, Skype. Email interviews happen as well, but they are less ideal—agree to a phone interview unless you have a compelling reason not to, such as if you suspect your words may be misrepresented.The journalist is going to ask you questions. Some will be general, and others will be specific. Some will be astute, and some will be way off target. In the case of the latter, don’t get frustrated, but help recalibrate the reporter’s expectations with clear statements of fact. Remember the grandma test: the reporter is not an expert in your field.
It’s important to have a set of talking points prepared ahead of time so you can clearly spell out the important details of your work without too much fumbling. The fastest way to get misquoted is to be unclear when you describe what you did and why it matters. Remember, the journalist is probably not an expert in your field. Their story is going to be based on what information they have: their interview with you, your press release, and if you’ve published a paper, a copy of that (although you can’t assume that they understand all that’s in it, nor all the context of it). They may have done a little background reading, and if you’re lucky, it won’t be exclusively from Wikipedia. The rest of the story is going to be whatever you tell them, so make sure it’s clear and accurate.
Avoid hyping your story. Be clear and positive about its significance, but don’t over-sell it. Overhyped science gives all researchers a bad name, and an astute journalist will detect hype anyway. They may even interview someone else who calls you out on your hype. It’s fine to discuss future implications of your work, but state them as such.
Similarly, assume that everything you say during the interview may be directly quoted. Don’t make jokes or comparisons unless they are accurate and unless you would be comfortable seeing them show up in print. As a journalist, I’m always on the hunt for color commentary that shows scientists’ human side. Help your interviewer represent you correctly by minimizing off-topic chatter.
Provide media. Having art, audio, or video clips to go along with a story is key to turn a good story into a great story. Readers skim text, but good media will make them pause and consider the story. If you have something visibly or audibly engaging that you are willing to share, let the reporter know. However, no matter how elegant the data or how significant the p-value, graphs are not what the reporter is looking for. Do you have photos or video from your study? Are you working with an unusual piece of equipment? Show those off instead. Remember, anything you’ve published in a scientific journal is copyrighted, so you cannot share those without written permission.
You don’t get to approve the article. After the journalist produces the piece, you will not get to see it before it is published. This is a matter of journalistic integrity—by allowing you to approve the article, you would then be able to manipulate the content or tone of the piece, or veto anything you didn’t like. In some cases, you may get to approve your direct quotes to confirm their accuracy, but some organizations like The New York Times forbid even approval of quotes. After the article comes out, if it contains a significant error, contact the journalist. Politely explain what is wrong and ask that they correct it. Professional media outlets will not hesitate to do so. I literally once had to run a correction that clarified that the online Facebook/Twitter personality “Luna the Lamprey” was not a real lamprey, but rather a fictional character intended to promote awareness about the lamprey life cycle. Such corrections may seem silly, but newspapers report facts, and even small differences can be taken as falsehoods.
I hope these tips inspire you to give interviews and not to be afraid to talk to reporters about your work. Remember, if you have a story, contact your institution’s PIO about sending out a press release. Journalists have dozens of ideas for stories and hundreds of press releases coming across their desk each day. You can’t just wait for them to find you — be a go-getter for science!