A Time for Scientists to Give Voice to the Facts
A guest post by Meredith Drosback, Becky Hazen, & Rick Weiss
The COVID-19 pandemic has vastly increased journalists’ demand for access to scientist-sources, triggering a gold rush of sorts for articulate experts in virology, epidemiology, drug and vaccine development, and the social and psychological impacts of physical isolation, among other topics. The need for scientific expertise is especially acute among newsrooms that—as part of their all-hands-on-deck response to the pandemic—have pulled reporters onto the story who have never covered science or public health, let alone a health crisis of this magnitude. Lacking a ready bench of go-to scientists they can call, these reporters are scrambling to find trusted sources who can help them convey, accurately and clearly, health advice and insights for a nervous and news-ravenous public.
While this sudden increase in appetite for scientific expertise is in some respects refreshing, it has also resulted in a number of scientists being flooded with media requests, including those with little or no training in best practices for speaking to reporters. And while clear communication with the media is a skill that can most certainly be learned, it requires time and practice if counterproductive results are to be avoided. Given the ever-increasing demands of their day jobs, especially during this crisis, time is something that few scientists with pandemic-relevant expertise today have much of.
SciLine, a free service based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been connecting journalists to scientists for 2.5 years. Through our facilitation of more than 1,100 such interviews across print, radio, and television, we’ve observed time after time the practices and behaviors that make for an effective interaction between an expert and a reporter. Recognizing that many scientists with limited media training are being called upon to share their expertise or opinions about aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we share here some tips we have found to be most useful for a successful interview, whether you have a few minutes or a few days to get ready.
- BEFORE AN INTERVIEW, WRITE DOWN 3 POINTS YOU WANT TO MAKE.
Consider these your “vital takeaways”. If the journalist gets nothing else from the interview, what would you want them to remember and use? If you are not on camera, you can have these notes in front of you during the interview. State your points early in the conversation and repeat them as opportunities arise. Importantly, whenever possible don’t just assert these points but back them up with data and studies. You’re uniquely positioned to inject evidence into the news. In doing so you can do more than simply convey the facts; you can help remind the public there is a difference between research-backed evidence and mere opinion.
- DESCRIBE THE BIG-PICTURE PROBLEM.
Even if not asked, you should step back from the specific questions being asked and briefly describe the overarching issue or challenge in simple terms. Explain why addressing the larger issue demands a methodical, scientific approach, and then get into the details. Reporters often push for quick answers—to get to the point they think they need. But if you explain even briefly why this is a question that science is in the best position to answer, you again speak up not just for the findings of science but also for the scientific process itself.
- USE ANALOGIES, VISUAL EXAMPLES, AND ANECDOTES WHEN POSSIBLE, AND AVOID JARGON.
As you plan ahead for the ideas you want to convey, think about how you can make your knowledge more accessible, relatable, and memorable to nonexperts. Avoid using acronyms, abbreviations, or jargon—including terms you might not at first realize are jargon. (You may describe a mounting threat as resulting from a “positive feedback” loop, for example, but some non-scientists think “positive feedback” means “praise” and is generally a good thing!) Remember, even a single acronym or overly technical term in a sentence increases the odds that your otherwise valuable quote will end up on the cutting room floor.
- IF YOU DISAGREE WITH THE PREMISE OF A QUESTION, SAY SO.
It’s not rude to say to a journalist, “Actually, that’s not quite right. Let me explain …” or “I don’t think your premise is correct. What I see is …” or “That may be one factor, but the bigger issue is …”.
- WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER, IT’S OK TO SAY SO.
As tempting as it can be when asked by a reporter to weigh in on a science-related question outside your area of expertise or to address a topic on which you are not fully up to speed, don’t risk your reputation (or, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health) by doing so. It’s okay to say: “I’m sorry, that’s outside my area of expertise.” or “I don’t have the answer at my fingertips, can I get back to you on that question?” or “That isn’t something I focus on, but [a knowledgeable colleague you know] might be a good person to talk to.”
- KEEP IN MIND THAT ANYTHING YOU SAY COULD END UP IN A STORY, AND DON’T TRY TO GO “OFF THE RECORD”.
The default status for all journalistic interviews is that the reporter may quote anything you say and is not obligated to share quotes with you ahead of time for review or approval. Anything different from that default necessitates an agreement ahead of time by both parties, the reporter and the interviewee. We recommend you do not attempt to go ‘off the record’ during an interview, as that phrase can mean different things to different reporters and may result in a statement being traceable back to you. Only share remarks that you’re comfortable having attributed to you by name. Similarly, if asked a question you don’t want to answer, avoid responding by saying, “No comment,” which, in itself, is a comment—and not generally taken positively. A good neutral approach is, “I’m not prepared to talk about that right now.
- CONFIRM YOU GOT YOUR MAIN MESSAGES ACROSS
Close every interview by asking the reporter to summarize the most important points they gathered from the conversation. If they don’t include your key points in their review, or state something that isn’t quite right, this is your final opportunity clarify any misunderstandings and remind them of your main points. Whenever possible, also offer to be available for follow-up questions or fact checking.
It would be gratifying if one result of the COVID-19 pandemic were to be a lasting increase in public and media interest in scientific expertise, and appreciation of the importance of science in decision making at every level—from personal health decisions to state and federal policy making. And it is inspiring to see so many scientists stepping up to the plate to share what they know in this time of need. Handling interactions with journalists skillfully today can pay off personally, professionally, and for society for many years to come.
SciLine is a philanthropically funded free service for journalists and scientists, based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC. It is editorially independent from AAAS’s business operations, including Science magazine and related publishing ventures. PLOS regularly shares with SciLine science-related news-story ideas from its journal pages for consideration by journalists. Scientists interested in public engagement with the media are encouraged to visit www.sciline.org/for-scientists
Meredith Drosback, PhD, is Senior Associate Director for Science at SciLine; Becky Hazen, MS, MA, is SciLine’s Senior Associate Director for News & Operations; Rick Weiss, MJ, is Director of SciLine.
Communicating author: Meredith Drosback, PhD firstname.lastname@example.org