Unsolicited Advice, Part Six: Talking to the Media

It’s about the time of year when prospective graduate students are making one of the most important decisions of their lives: where to go to grad school. So we really should give some advice about that, but happily we already have! And it still seems pretty relevant. Meanwhile, today I’m at the KITP in Santa Barbara, speaking on a panel on The Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking to the Press. (One in a series organized by the KITP’s Journalist in Residence.) So I have to give a short talk about that, and thought I could take advantage of the opportunity by turning it into a blog post.

Sadly, I eventually realized that I do not have a Grand Unified Theory of interactions between scientists and journalists. It is a complicated relationship, in which there is much overlap in objectives on both sides, but also undeniably some tensions here and there. Consider the following two anecdotes:

  • My first direct interaction with the science press was as a grad student, when I was working with Edward Farhi and Alan Guth on whether it was possible to build a time machine out of cosmic strings (as proposed by Richard Gott). Our work was written up in Science News, and they did an extremely careful job — Ron Cowen interviewed us in depth, asked good questions, and the magazine even sent us a draft copy of the article to check for accuracy before it was printed. (That almost never happens, don’t expect it.) But when we saw it in print, an editor had helpfully inserted just one new sentence to make things more clear — explaining that open universes were ones that would expand forever. Except that we were working in the slightly unusual context of 3 spacetime dimensions, not the usual 4, and in that case open universes don’t really “expand” at all. Good intentions gone awry.
  • I was once in the audience for a panel featuring David Kestenbaum, a science reporter for NPR. He played us a tape of a radio journalist talking to a scientist about the fear of avian flu spreading from the Bronx Zoo. The scientist babbled on at length about open systems and complex environment and disease vectors in a rapid-fire stream of utter incomprehensibility. The journalist stopped him for a second, and basically said “Look, cutting to the chase, does the zoo pose a danger?” The scientist said “No, absolutely not.” “Okay, could you say that directly?” “Sure, no problem.” And then the journalist asks the question again, to which the scientist — well, you can guess. A rapid-fire stream of dense jargon, in which the word “No” never appeared. Completely useless for the radio.

As far as the Very Big Picture is concerned, scientists and journalists are on the same side. We all want to tell interesting and true stories to a wide audience. But when it comes to specifics, aims and competencies often diverge. Understanding what each others’ goals and constraints are can definitely help to make for a better final product.

So here are some things that I, as a scientist, have figured out about what journalists want. At least I think I have figured them out; actual journalists are welcome to jump in and explain what they really want in their own words.

  • Journalists want stories that are interesting. This goes without saying, but for better or for worse the judgment about what is “interesting” may be different from person to person, and from scientist to journalist. I was once interviewed about a paper I had written, in which I mentioned that we had calculated a number that was possibly the smallest positive number ever to appear in a physics paper. To me it was just a joke, but the journalist seized on it and wanted to make it the centerpiece of the story. I thought that our speculations about the origin of the universe were really more important than that, and I didn’t even know for sure whether any other smaller numbers had appeared, but to no avail.
  • Journalists want stories that are understandable. Again, pretty obvious, but again a danger lurks, and here is a case where a conscientious scientist can do some good. It is often possible, as we all know, to string together a series of words that conveys the illusion of understanding, without actually conveying any real information. To a journalist who is not an expert in the field, it can be hard to tell the difference. Scientists should be careful to ensure that the explanations they give are actually increasing the amount of understanding in the recipient’s brain, not simply providing a warm feeling of being smart.
  • Journalists want statements to be tangible. Abstract thought is a necessary component of being a physicist, but we are used to taking leaps in ways that non-experts are not. (Back when you were learning various bits of abstract math and physics for the first time, was it all clear to you immediately, or did it take some practice?) So journalists feel extremely grateful when a lofty-sounding idea can be brought down to earth with a useful analogy or illustration. No professional cosmologist should ever be surprised when they are asked “What is the universe expanding into?“, and they should have an answer ready.
  • Journalists are not in the business of science education, generally speaking. This seems puzzling to scientists, who like to see a greater understanding of all of science, both the brand-new parts and the more established parts. But more than one journalist has tried to explain to me that they’re job is reporting news, not providing a general education — the same would hold for reporting on economics or politics. Of course, as scientists, if we can figure out a way to educate people about a general principle by relating it to a specific news story, all the better for everyone.
  • Journalists are not in the business of allocating credit. Another sticking point for scientists, who (as academics more generally) live and die by an allocation of credit. Journalists don’t want give credit to the wrong people, of course, but doling it out to every possible person in precisely appropriate measure is not their primary concern. Scientists will generally want to see all of the collaborators on a paper being mentioned in a story, and funding agencies certainly want to carefully distinguish who made what telescope and so on. And that’s not even counting what happens when more than one group is responsible for something, and a story only mentions one. It makes sense to try to strike some sort of middle ground here, giving credit as fairly as possible, but scientists need to understand that a detailed list of all the people involved in some piece of work is generally not what a journalist is looking for. (Maybe in a magazine article, unlikely for a newspaper, and essentially never for broadcast media.)

But there is one goal that is worth separating out from the others, and should be shared by scientists and journalists in equal measure.

  • Everyone is interested in saying only things that are true, not things that are false. Well, sure. But it’s worth emphasizing, as there are so many other pressures — on both sides! — that the truth occasionally gets compromised, and in my view that should never be acceptable. The WMAP headlines we wrote about some time back are a great example. Both scientists and journalists worked hard to turn a scientific result that was undoubtedly interesting and important into a story that was punchy and palatable, and a lot of truth got sacrificed in the process. When that happens, we can only blame ourselves when the public gets confused about what is going on.

So, absent a detailed underlying theory, I can suggest just a few helpful hints to keep in mind when you get called on by a journalist. Again, only idiosyncratic impressions by someone who hasn’t really done this all that often — feel free to chime in with your own.

  • Think of what to say ahead of time. This is probably the single most important thing I have learned, and is especially important when you are being interviewed on the air. You might think “It’s an interview, I will just be asked questions and answer them.” Even if that were true, you can very often anticipate many questions, and your answers will make much more sense if you’ve thought about them ahead of time. But a lot of the time the interviewer won’t know the best questions to ask — you are more likely than they are to understand what are the interesting bits, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t gently guide them in that direction.
  • More generally, take an active role. Talk to the journalist about what they have already learned and plan to say. You might be able to make useful suggestions about other people to talk to, or directions to take the story; or you might be able to correct some lurking misimpression.
  • Think of analogies and metaphors. Bring it down to earth, and they will love you for it. Tell them that visible matter is “the olive in the martini of dark matter,” and they will want to have your children.
  • Use language carefully. One of the hardest things for professionals in any field to remember is how to disentangle their terms of art from ordinary language. When we use words like “energy” or “dimension” or “vacuum,” we have specific things in mind, but so does everyone else — they’re just not the same things. Try to anticipate the connotations your words will have in people’s minds. Even when we use our own technical jargon, we don’t always do so consistently, and it’s worth the effort to sort out the precise meanings of each word we use. (Does “Big Bang” mean a framework in which the universe expands from a hot, dense early state, or a specific moment in time of infinite density and curvature?)
  • Put things in context. What is important, less important, known, still speculative? I’m a big believer that it’s good to let the wider world in on the messy process that science really is, showing them our work in progress rather than waiting until we have rock-solid findings to reveal to the unwashed masses. But if you do that, make sure you draw very specific distinctions between what we know (“the universe is expanding”), what we feel has a good chance of being true (“there was a period of early inflation”), and what is a simple speculation, as well-motivated as it may be (“the quantum state of the universe is described by the Hartle-Hawking wave function”).
  • Boil it down to the essence. You’re not giving a lecture or teaching a course; you can’t rely on the audience’s attention over the long term. What is the point you would like them to remember a year later? (And if there isn’t one, why are you bothering?) Take that point and express it in a sentence of no more than twelve words. You’l genuinely be doing some good.
  1. Pingback: HowTo: talk to the media (for scientists) « Entertaining Research

  2. I would add to that: make up your own quotes/soundbites. Otherwise the journalist will do it for you, and then there is no telling what may happen.

    I one explained an interesting and complicated new quantum trick to a New Scientist journalist, and told him how it was mathematically and physically correct, even though it was highly counter-intuitive (using entanglement, etc.). The quote I got was “It’s a cute idea; it follows the laws of physics”.

  3. And add to that the `hook’. I was asked some time back from a national newspaper reporter about the effects on Earth from planetary alignments (sigh…), and after 10-15 minutes of good conversation (and the person interviewing seems to really take an interest in what I was saying), the primary hook that made the paper was `hogwash’, and a couple of words thereafter.

  4. Good point about allocating credit. There’s a physicist who wouldn’t talk to me for years because I hadn’t listed all his umpteen co-authors in a short news story. I think the desire to share credit is laudable, but folks need to understand that every word of credit is one word less of explanation.

  5. Sometimes it’s not possible to think about what you’ll say ahead of time (you have no warning). As a grad student studying the superrotation of the atmos of Venus, I was suddenly bearded in my office by a reporter who was making a report on the close approach of Voyager 2 w/ Uranus (she worked for the local TV station). My advisor had referred her to me. FORTUNATELY, I knew a great deal about the subject, AND oral exams + teaching proved to be excellent preparation…there’s a reason for that stuff.

  6. This is really helpful advice. One rule I have when writing for the public (a somewhat similar experience, given how blogs link and re-report — I blog, and write for places like slashdot at times) is the following: your readers are lazy, stupid and mean. Obviously, I love readers — the trio is a joke of sorts — but it’s easy to remember, and it’s harsh because it’s hard to understand, as a writer, what it’s like to be a reader even when you’re the latter 99.9% of the time. So — again:

    lazy because they don’t want to do any thinking; if you want to convey something, you have to be explicit, and not leave it implied or implicit.

    stupid because everything that’s self-evident to you is completely new and unbelievable to them. The simplest fact is unknown; the most obvious conclusion is beyond their comprehension.

    mean because if there’s a way to misinterpret you to be saying something foolish, or offensive, or crazy, they will. People want a conflict, they want someone to beat up, they want a story to tell (“can you believe what this guy is saying?”)

    In the end, of course, you will find your readers to be nothing like this at all. They are usually hardworking, clever, charitable creatures. But you need to help them to be all they can be — and protect yourself when they’re not.

  7. Thanks Sean, this is very useful. Quick question: what are usually the mechanisms out there to have some sort of control over what you are quoted as saying and how you are represented? I think it is probably not an issue if you are writing a longish article concentrating on the science. It may be more of an issue when you are asked for a sound bite for the news media, especially for a story not entirely dominated by the science.

  8. Side note: Speaking of prospective graduate students, Sean, do you have an opinion on whether it’s okay to stay at your undergraduate institution for your physics Ph.D.?

  9. ‘Tell them that visible matter is “the olive in the martini of dark matter,” and they will want to have your children.’

    I saw that wink.

  10. I have had some bad experiences with science journalism. Several years ago the SNO experiment put out its first results, and was to be featured on Nightline that very evening. Early in the afternoon I received a call from a fact checker at ABC News who wanted to confirm some points. The first words out of her mouth were “So you guys have shown that the universe will expand forever, right?” My immediate response was “God, no!” As patiently as I could, I told her that we’d done no such thing, and briefly summarized what we had done (solve solar neutrino problem, vindicate Ray Davis & John Bahcall, etc). There were several seconds of deadly silence, then she said “Um, this wasn’t the story my producer was planning to tell. I’ll need to go talk to someone.” That night I turned on Nightline and watched Ted Koppel gush that SNO had shown that the universe will expand forever. I concluded that for Nightline the story they wanted to tell was more important than the story which was actually true.

  11. Moshe, you have almost no control over what you are quoted as saying. In the panel discussion yesterday we heard horror stories of quotes being made up from whole cloth by overzealous editors, but putting aside that for the moment as very rare, you are basically entrusting yourself to the journalist’s good faith when you talk to them. They can make you look dumb if they want to or don’t know any better. If that is a worry, it would be better not to ramble on at length to a journalist that you don’t know or know but don’t trust. (Most are trustworthy, especially if you try to make your meaning very clear, but not everybody.) In particular, you can not say something and afterwards declare it “off the record” — just ask Samantha Power.

    Tony, it’s certainly okay to do a Ph.D. at your undergraduate institution, but you would really be missing out on the opportunity to get a fresh perspective on how science is done, not to mention a different pool of potential letter writers. In most circumstances, going elsewhere is a good idea. (But there are always exceptions.)

  12. Thanks Sean, this was more or less my gut feeling, but I didn’t have too much to substantiate it. Actually my main worry is more from a consumer viewpoint: since I know the relationship between the facts and how they are presented in a few recent news stories, stories I understand or have inside information about, I now have a knee-jerk suspicion about most science stories in most news outlets. I believe though that science journalism is much more reliable than the news media on these matters, at least when you screen out the obviously nonsensical stories. Then there are those blogs as a source of information… something to consider when I hear about the next cure for AIDS, or signs of life on an exo-planet, or pretty much any stories about economics…

  13. Moshe, if you talk to a journalist on the record then I’m afraid you don’t have a lot of control over how you will be quoted, which is why it’s worth thinking ahead of time what you’ll say. Most journalists won’t show you your quotes before publication. Why? Because a phone or face-to face interview is often a lively and spontaneous conversation that produces fresh quotes. When scientists see their quotes in writing, they tend to backtrack and add all sorts of caveats, which often kills the point the journalist is trying to make using a quote in the first place. Plus, we work to tight deadlines and often don’t have the time to send quotes and wait for scientists to reply. Many newspapers and magazines make it a rule not to show quotes. If you insist on seeing the quotes as a condition of the interview, then we’ll call someone else.

    Some scientists panic when they see their quotes in print and deny they ever made such a comment. I’m not saying that journalists never misquote, but sometimes interviewees misremember what they’ve said in the heat of an interview. Once a researcher wouldn’t believe me, so I sent him the recording of the phone interview. It didn’t make him any happier, but journalists have professional pride too.

    Scientists are not as completely powerless as I’ve perhaps made out here. You can stipulate that you’ll talk to a journalist “off the record” – especially if you’re talking about something sensitive. This is a signal to journalists that we cannot quote you. If you’re not sure if you’re talking on or off the record, just ask us. We’re reasonable people. We also understand embargoes and it’s not in science journalists’ interests to write about your, say, Nature paper ahead of publication. Nature would take away our advance access to their papers.

    When I started in science journalism, I was told that today’s news stories will be used to wrap up tomorrow’s fish and chips. (Maybe that’s a British thing.) The point is that stories get forgotten, so don’t get too hung up on them.

  14. Valerie, I can certainly see the constraints from your side. Eventually it all comes down to trust. When I judge the purpose of the story is explaining a difficult and interesting story, I am happy to help and will not shoot for perfection. When I judge the purpose to be different I’d tend to be suspicious.

  15. Sean — a tangent to Tony’s side note: Do you have any advice on taking a post-doc at one’s own PhD institution? Or taking a post-doc with one’s own PhD advisor, who is about to move to a different institution? Both possibilities have suddenly presented themselves. It seems like there is a danger of getting stuck in a local bubble, but the advantages of having the position in hand are pretty compelling too.

  16. Every situation is different and should be analyzed on its own merits, but all else being equal, the “go someplace else” advice is even more persuasive when choosing postdocs than when choosing grad schools. Same reasoning applies: you’ll get a different perspective on how physics is done, and you’ll accrue more potential letter-writers. Especially the first — early in one’s career, it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which different assumptions and methods about how to do physics can pervade different departments and groups, and it’s really good to be exposed to other ways of thinking. All else being equal, of course.

  17. Valerie J. — my opinion is that if the New Scientist put more effort into writing stories that stood the test of time, rather than flashy stories that “get forgotten,” then the scientific community might start to give it a similar level of respect as that given to solid scientific journalism, e.g the NYT Science section, or Science magazine.