Madam Speaker, I Yield My Remaining Time to the Paleontologist from the Great State of California

Over at Aetiology, Tara Smith launched an interesting discussion by talking about why her heart doesn’t automatically leap when a reporter wants to talk to her. That post was followed by a lot of scientists swearing up and down about the awful treatment they’ve experienced at the hands of reporters. Chris Mooney, a reporter, thinks the ranting is all misplaced, and wants us to understand that reporters who write about science are the best trained journalists of all.

I thought I’d join the fray. I think, first off, that Chris is a bit off-base. He’s not feeling the genuine pain being expressed in the comments to Tara’s post. These are people who have had lousy experiences with reporters. You don’t have to be a prima donna to come out of the journalistic process feeling queasy. Even as a science writer, I’ve had that queasy feeling. A couple years back I wrote a piece on musical hallucinations. The NY Times headline writer took a little poetic license and dubbed it, “Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod.” I didn’t mind. Most of the story was about how mysterious this condition is, and how little scientists understand about it. But within a couple weeks I saw the story transmogrified by other reporters into stories with unbelievable headlines, such as “iPod users in musical hallucination threat.” There is no ipod hallucination epidemic, of course–just an offhand comment from a scientist that our increased exposure to music in the modern age might increase musical hallucinations–presumably from a very very rare condition to a very rare condition. Ridiculous, and depressing. It’s an example of what some commenters to Chris’s post pointed out–even if you want to claim that science writers can walk on water, a lot of science reporting these days is not done by self-professed science writers.

So, given the not-so-pretty reality, what to do? More thoughts beyond the jump…

Some commenters take a vow of silence, and others assume a hostile stance. A few blog to take vengeance on dunderheads. I don’t think such hopelessness and antipathy are inevitable. Reading over the comments, I recalled something paleontologist Kevin Padian wrote a few years ago in a paleontology journal. (Padian was an expert witness at the Dover intelligent design trial, FYI.) He offered some good tips on how to deal with reporters–not to walk away, but to have a useful interaction with them. I couldn’t find the piece online, so I emailed Padian for the source. He just fired back with some of his thoughts, and he agreed to let me post some excerpts…

I remember doing such a thing you ask for, but it was many years ago, and the world of journalism has changed a lot with blogs and such. A lot of what I wrote at that time had to do with filmed interviews, given the rage for dinosaur documentaries made by people who (unlike today) had no idea about dinosaur research…In general I’d say that scientists should consider who’s calling and what they want (feature story on your work or just a stringer wanting a new quote for the 5 pm deadline?), and then determine how much time to spend and what if anything to send to read. If an inexperienced writer is making a cold call looking for a quick explanation and a quote, I tell them I have five minutes and that usually facilitates things. Or I ask them to read the paper or press release and call back.

Many reporters and documentary makers assume that scientists want publicity, either because they like to see themselves on TV or they think it will lead to more funding for their work. Hardly ever. Certainly not from granting agencies. You MIGHT get a lead on a private donor, but these mostly do not pan out. Donors have to be cultivated, they seldom come in over the transom….

Scientists can “control” an interview better if they keep things to a few oft-repeated points, speak in plain English with colorful (but not distorting) language and use analogies and metaphors, and be upbeat. Speak in reasonably short sound bites. (Randy Olson of Flock of Dodos has a good list on this.) In a film interview, don’t necessarily answer the question asked if it is not a good one (they seldom play the question in the film) but rather say what you want to say that’s more or less on the topic. That actually helps the interviewer more. Repeat as necessary until the point is made, and made effectively. You might say something in a film interview but not very well, so they won’t use it. Do it again. They’ll wait.

Some rules: always say “off the record” in advance. Be clear when you’re going back on the record. Ask in advance to check quotes (this is reasonable) but it is not reasonable to ask to edit the article. Remember that the article is what the reporter says, not what the scientist says, and yes, they do have license to interpret. It’s kosher to ask what the angle of the story is early in the game, so you don’t waste time explaining stuff that the reporter doesn’t need (they usually don’t cut you off). Be clear about what’s embargoed. Give credit to your team members. Provide good human interest angles, if any, on the people who contributed.

I don’t know, this all seems rudimentary to me. But we don’t get trained in this, as Olson says, and we really should. If for no other reason than to raise science literacy, because it’s clear that knowledge about science for most people comes from the press, not from their schooling. Amazing.