When Interviewees Record! An experiment/interview on journalism

How can journalists make the most of the interviews that they do? And how can interviewees protect themselves from being misquoted? I’ve been thinking about both of these questions for some time and was delighted when an excellent opportunity presented itself for testing a potential answer.

A few weeks ago, Zoe Corbyn asked to interview me about science journalism and blogging for a feature she was writing for the Times Higher Education Supplement. I agreed and suggested that we try a little experiment: I would record the interview myself, transcribe it and post it here to coincide with her piece.

As a journalist, I’ve done this on past features, as has Mark HendersonOthers have supported the practice for many reasons:

  • It allows you to get more value out of work that’s already been done. Interviews can be lengthy affairs that condense into a few brief quotes in a final feature. Indeed, Zoe’s piece has just one or two sentences from me (right at the very end) and as you can see here, we talked for about 20 minutes.
  • Everyone’s readers get a little something extra, a chance to delve into a topic beyond the realms of the feature just like the extras on a DVD give you the chance to look at the making of a film.
  • It gives readers a chance to see how much work goes into crafting a feature.
  • It improves transparency, an argument that people like Julian Assange have used.

During a Twitter discussion, Ed Gerstner suggested to me that interviewees could do the same thing, recording their own conversations and posting them on their own sites. It would afford interviewees some measure of control and hopefully some protection against being misquoted. Now to clarify, I knew Zoe’s work and I had no concerns about been misquoted here. This was more of a proof-of-principle.

[Update: Thinking about this further, these transcripts should also help interviewees to provide their views in full, rather than just a condensed soundbite. This is a different issue to misquoting. People have complex viewpoints full of nuance and subtlety. Quotes often distill out a lot of those qualities. I have seen several write-ups of talks that I’ve given where I couldn’t find anything wrong with what was reported but nonetheless thought, “Yes, but I balanced that point with another one later,” or “Sure, but I said that in relation to a different problem.” Putting up your own transcripts gives you a chance to tell the full story that you want to tell, regardless of what ends up in the interviewer’s final package.]

Zoe kindly agreed and she sort of saved the idea when I realised that I had forgotten to pack my recorder on the day! So here’s a transcript of our chat, with big thanks to Zoe for preparing it and for agreeing to do this. And do read her piece in the THES.

Transcript of interview between Ed Yong and Zoë Corbyn on the topic of  mainstream science reporting for a Times Higher Education feature article “Trial by Error”.

ZC: Is science reporting by the mainstream media interesting enough or critical enough in the sense of being a watchdog? What is your view? How much is blogging challenging mainstream science journalism?

EY: I have certainly been saying for a while that when it comes to the reporting of the type of daily science news you get –  summarising new papers for lay readers – I think there are a lot of bloggers that are providing a very high degree of service to readers by going into things in more detail; by having  enough expertise to not make common mistakes and by really getting into the science behind things rather than just hyping things up as big new discoveries without providing all that sort of background and context that you really need to appreciate where new discoveries fit in. And I think that a lot of bloggers are doing this incredibly well and they are doing it for free which raises the question – if you are a mainstream journalist working for a mainstream organisation being paid to report on science what type of reporting is going to make you stand out or give your readers the value that they would demand? And I think the answer to that would include things like looking at the interactions between science and policy and business and society and culture. And also doing deeper investigations, uncovering fishy stories, areas of bad practice – a lot of the watchdog elements that you just described.

ZC: So are you saying this is perhaps a better use of their time? To do less daily science news and more fourth estate reporting?

EY: I think so. Why spend all your time doing stuff that suddenly a huge number of people are also doing, some better and most for no money? Why not redirect your resources? I have a lot of respect for mainstream journalists. I think that bloggers underestimate the skills and abilities they have at their peril. But I think those skills and abilities could best be diverted to other things, like the areas they are best at.

I recently judged the Association of British Science Writers Awards and I was struck especially in the features category at the sheer quality of the entries that we were getting in. Another area where mainstream reporters can do really well in is an overview of an area of science by someone who is sitting outside the field. They can make those stories and narratives come alive for a lay reader. So I don’t think anyone in their right mind would ever say bloggers would replace mainstream journalism. A lot of bloggers are journalists. But the emergence of blogs as a source of science journalism means that mainstream journalists just need to think about where best they can divert their energies.

ZC: Do you think the criticism that lots of the mainstream science news isn’t interesting enough is fair?

EY: I think that to a certain extent mainstream news journalists and probably more news editors have this pre-conceived notion of what type of science news the public finds appealing and I don’t necessarily think that actually gels with what the public does find appealing. So you hear a lot of people are after things with practical benefits, things that everyday people can relate to in their everyday lives. So you want stories on medical advances and cool technology and things that are actually going to have a dramatic impact on people’s lives. But actually I think if you look at the type of stories people like you see a different picture. Like on my blog, whenever I blog about that sort of science with practical element it doesn’t really do very well in terms of traffic. But all my highest traffic posts are all ‘wow’ stories. They’re inspiring, eye-opening science often on things which has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to people. Like over the last couple of months, the post that I wrote which had the most traffic is about how robins and other birds can actually literally see magnetic fields – like areas of light and shade in their field of vision. Now that is pretty damn cool. I think people get that and those are the sorts of stories that people read and enjoy sharing. And it is not just on my blog, the New York Times did a study of stories that get emailed around more frequently and it included stuff like that – awe-inspiring science.

So I think that traditional news values don’t necessarily reflect the type of science that people actually want to read. And I think that bloggers are in a very interesting place to actually deliver that. Not only because that is the type of science we want to write about because it is cool but also because we can see very directly what type of stories people respond to. We have access to our own site’s statistics.  We can see which posts get the most traffic, which get the most discussed and commented on so we have got a very direct link to readership in the way that mainstream journalists don’t or perhaps aren’t necessarily taking advantage of.

ZC: The BIS report  – Science and the Media: Securing the Future – that came out earlier in the year didn’t really look at science blogging. Did it miss a trick?

EY: I think the problems in the report stem right from the title. It is ostensibly a report about journalism but it calls itself science and the media. And I think the media often forget that they aren’t the be all and end all of journalism. Journalism is craft that can be practised in a lot of different channels, the mainstream media just being one of them. And the Internet and direct medium communication like blogs and twitter are by far I think the most interesting and quickly emerging channels of science journalism. And I think to ignore all of that is very short sighted because not only does it change the playing field but I think it is where the big developments are going to happen in the future.

ZC: Where I struggle a bit is that okay maybe in the mainstream media you don’t have the depth and the context or necessarily that appeal to nerds but sitting just outside it are the   popular science magazines like New Scientist, Scientific American. Aren’t they right there to deal with the ‘nerds’ that you and others say are not being catered for?

EY: Those magazines obviously cater to people with an interest in science. And the argument I have heard before about the limitations of science blogs and other direct to the public routes of communication is that they too only cater to people interested in science already. Newspapers however – someone could be flicking through and stumble across a science story that they might not necessarily have chosen to go and read.

But I think that the rise of social media does create those sort of opportunities [that newspapers do] online too. We are moving into a culture where one of the major sources of news for people will be things that are pushed to them by their friends and by their colleagues and by the people who they interact with online. And that presents a huge opportunity for getting science out to people who would not be interested in science and who would not deliberately go out and seek science stories.

It is not that they have to click onto your blog or subscribe to your RSS feed. It is that their friends could like a story on Facebook or their followers on Twitter could recommend a story. So I think we are all becoming each others’ news editors, which makes it easier for more and more people to get access to science news inadvertently.

ZC: But what about specifically when it comes to those popular science magazines – are they not addressing people’s needs either?

EY: I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are doing anything wrong. I think those popular magazines do have a huge amount of really good content and really good writers on them. I don’t see this as a zero sum game. I don’t think either blogs ought to succeed or popular science magazines ought to succeed. I have always said that bloggers should try and get experience in mainstream media to try and improve their own skills and I think mainstream media would do well to try and look at the current pool of bloggers and try and harvest this new talent that is emerging. I write a lot for New Scientist. I have done a fair few features for them and I really enjoy the experience and I certainly wouldn’t denigrate popular science magazines.

Every year I have a tradition where I start an open thread for my readers asking them to say who they are: what their interest in science is; what their background is; and why they read my blog. And it is absolutely fascinating because every year I discover that my readers are a very diverse bunch. They include people who really have no interest in science but have started to because of reading the blog and other such things. And it makes you realise that even scientists are effectively the general public in fields that are not their own. My readers include people from one field who are trying to catch up in another field. They include not just scientists but artists and lawyers and bankers and musicians. So it encourages me that there is a huge potential on the Internet to reach people – quite broad audiences beyond what maybe a specialist magazine would reach.

ZC: That’s true. And I guess you can easily click onto people’s links, to Ed Yong’s blog or whatever, through someone else. It’s a bit different to when you buy a popular science magazine I suppose, because you’re not buying into a whole package.

EY: Absolutely. It is much easier to dip in and out [the blogosphere] and it relies on the fact that people want to share interesting things with their friends.

ZC: It’s going to be interesting to see, putting the mainstream stuff aside, how the specialist magazines respond to this because that’s who I would have thought the bloggers would pose a bigger threat to.

EY: I said that I think features are an area where the mainstream media does incredibly well and bloggers just really don’t have the time. Most posts are really quite short. You don’t get that sort of medium- or long-form pieces that magazines like New Scientist and Discover excel at and I think it would be an absolute travesty if those pieces died out. So I think there is definitely scope for all these interesting players to sort of evolve and co-exist with each other quite happily and for all types of media to complement each others’ strengths….which is why I think the BIS report was a big shame. The interesting questions are things like the ones we are discussing today – how these different types of media going to interact with each other. [But the BIS report is] just ignoring all the emerging ones and focussing on the old legacy ones.

ZC: The BIS report also does not look at the whole issue of accuracy and distortion and misrepresentation, which obviously for the scientists is a really big issue. And it doesn’t do this because it says Ben Goldacre is already doing it through his “brand of media criticism”. Any reflections on Ben Goldacre’s “brand” of media criticism?

EY: I think Ben provides a vital service because he keeps people honest. He is the watchdog who guards the supposed watchdogs and I think that the efforts of people like Ben are a net positive. But where I would disagree with some of the statements that I see online are in sort of blanket criticisms of science journalism or of the mainstream media. Now I am not saying that Ben does this but I think it is very very easy to look at a piece of reporting and go ‘well aren’t science journalists all awful’ whereas I personally know a huge number of very very good science journalists. And I think the danger with acting as a watchdog is that you run the risk of confirmation bias and antagonising a lot of the people who are actually doing a good job.

I think it is just as important to praise good science journalism as refute bad examples. On my blog and on Twitter I do my absolute best to point people towards examples of what I think are really really good science reporting.  And that has many purposes. It shows people what mainstream media is good at, what the strengths are. There are really good examples of good science journalism. And it gives the reporters themselves a bit of a boost. No one likes to be told that their industry is crap and they are not doing a good job especially when they themselves are doing a good job.

So I think [Goldacre’s] is a valuable service and I think it absolutely has to be done. I suspect that journalism as a profession isn’t particularly great at taking criticism, hence a lot of the backlash against Ben. But I don’t think you could argue the field isn’t rife with some really bad examples and most of the journalists I know also frown at examples of bad science journalism.

// Image by Glide

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