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Vol. LXVI, No. 17
August 15, 2014

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Science Writer Explains Why You Should (or Shouldn’t) Talk to Journalists

For many scientists, the idea of talking to a reporter provokes unease. They may have had a bad experience with a reporter and are distrustful of them as a result. Or they may have had little practice and feel uncomfortable about the media and the interview process in general. Despite these misgivings, talking with the press about NIH and NIH-funded science can be an important—and rewarding—part of the job.

Ultimately, “science is advanced in open societies with a free press,” said former Nature magazine reporter Dr. Meredith Wadman, who recently gave a keynote address at the NIAMS intramural research program’s scientific retreat. “Never underestimate the power of exposure. Plus, talking to journalists looks great on your CV!” she added.

Wadman has had a distinguished career as a science journalist, writing for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine, in addition to Nature. She is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Science journalist Meredith Wadman gives keynote address at the NIAMS intramural program scientific retreat.

Science journalist Meredith Wadman gives keynote address at the NIAMS intramural program scientific retreat.

Photo: Rich Clark

Wadman acknowledged that sometimes the differing perspectives of scientists and journalists can cause friction and give rise to misinterpretations or frustration. Knowing the rules of the road for talking to journalists and understanding how the media operates can reduce anxieties and facilitate better interactions.

First, she noted, it is important to remember that journalists often are given a word limit for their story and are up against a tight deadline. “Simplicity is sacred. We have to distill and we have to do it quickly. Remember that journalism is a business,” she added. She also said that what you say may be used in surprising, unexpected ways. “If you don’t want it in print, don’t say it.”

Good reporters want to get the science right, she said, and will honor any ground rules established prior to the interview. For instance, if you only want to talk on background, which means you will not be directly quoted, make sure the reporter agrees to that before you speak.

It’s also a good idea to do your due diligence before the interview, which can and should be done in partnership with your institute’s or center’s press office. Avoid judging a reporter based on the publication with which he or she is affiliated, but do take time to read his or her previous work and get a sense of the reporter’s style and overall reputation. In addition, prepare for the interview by identifying ahead of time the three or four main points you want to make and write them down in the clearest, briefest sentences possible. Your media liaison can help you do this as well.

Once you’ve done the interview and the story is published, what should you do if you aren’t happy? What if the facts are wrong or the story misinterprets what you feel is a key point? “Don’t go away mad,” said Wadman. Follow up promptly to ask for corrections and post a comment online if appropriate. Wadman cautions that there is a difference between errors of fact, which any reputable publication will correct, and a disagreement about context, nuance or emphasis, which few publications will view as needing correction.

Wadman ended her talk with a plea to intramural researchers to get involved. Quoting climate scientist Simon Lewis, who successfully elicited a retraction and apology from the London Sunday Times after what he felt was a distortion of his views, she reminded all that “the media dictate what most people know about contemporary scientific debates. Given the need for informed policy, scientists need to learn to better read and engage with the media landscape.”

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