Not long after SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in the US in January 2020, emergency medicine physician Esther Choo’s inbox began buzzing with interview requests. One TV station even wanted her to appear live several nights a week during the early stages of the pandemic to help viewers understand what the virus’s arrival meant.
Choo hesitated at first. She had no formal training in media interviews, and although she had spoken with journalists about basic health topics in the past, it was a different matter to speak authoritatively about a pathogen that was brand-new to science. “Getting contacted by the media is definitely this high-anxiety thing,” says Choo, a professor at Oregon Health & Science University. “At the beginning [it] was like, ‘Can I do this?’—especially at a time when we were scrambling to figure out what we were actually doing in our clinical practice.”
Persuaded by a sense of responsibility to share what the medical community knew so far, she ended up agreeing, she tells The Scientist. Choo has since given more than 100 interviews to national and local newspapers and TV and radio stations about everything from COVID-19 vaccines and shortages of protective equipment to topics closer to her own field of research: the health disparities that were amplified by COVID-19. Today she sees interviews as a key weapon in the fight against misinformation.
Journalists have their own goals when reporting and writing their stories. But especially during the pandemic, most journalists and scientists strive to get good, accurate information to the public. Choo says, “It felt like we both had a stake in sharing what was happening on the ground.” At its best, she adds, “it felt like a partnership.”
But interactions with journalists don’t always go as smoothly. On top of the usual gripes that scientists can have when media organizations cover scientific findings—that they can sensationalize research or get it downright wrong—many have had disappointing experiences due to confusion over journalistic practices and challenges in getting scientific messages across. While some researchers emphasize that the responsibility for a story’s accuracy lies with journalists, scientists can improve the outcomes of interviews by gaining a better understanding of the journalism world and honing their own communication. When successful, researchers often find that giving interviews both provides a public service and can benefit their own research.
For all their similarities—a focus on facts and an outlet for curiosity—science and journalism are different worlds. For one thing, the pace of science is far slower than the news cycle. And while researchers’ main audience is the scientific community, journalists typically convey information to the wider public. Such cultural differences are “where I think a lot of pain points pop up between scientists and journalists,” says Tori Fosheim, a neuroscientist turned science communicator, “and where having an understanding of each other’s cultures can help alleviate some of that.”
That’s why many communication training programs for researchers—such as the ones offered by SciLine, a Washington, DC–based nonprofit affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that strives to improve the media-science relationship, or the Oregon-based nonprofit COMPASS—spend some time unpacking how journalists operate in addition to sharing communication strategies scientists can use. For example, some scientists express annoyance at being given short notice for interviews, says Fosheim, SciLine’s scientific outreach manager. But rather than the reporter being disorganized or disrespectful of a scientist’s time, “it’s that the speed of journalism moves very quickly,” she explains to researchers.
Scientists typically have little say over the shape a story takes, which can be unnerving for those used to assisting their institution’s media officers in crafting press releases.
Another point of confusion, adds Matthew Libassi, the lead media relations specialist at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York State, is why journalists typically don’t send interviewees a full list of prepared questions. According to US journalists surveyed in 2015 by Sense About Science USA, a nonprofit that aims to promote public interest and literacy in science, the practice is deliberate: it helps to ensure spontaneous, lively conversation and to avoid the answers being influenced by third parties such as university press offices.
Additional frustrations stem from the fact that scientists typically have little say over the shape a story takes, which can be unnerving for those used to assisting their institution’s media officers in crafting press releases, Libassi notes. He says that in his experience, most reporters convey scientific research accurately, but they cannot allow interviewees to influence the framing or choice of material published. That’s for much the same reasons that journalists wouldn’t give a politician editorial control over a story, according to The Open Notebook, an online publication for journalists. Indeed, the vast majority of US journalists who responded to the 2015 survey said they never send drafts of articles to sources to review, and most only infrequently send quotes.
As a result, the final product might present information differently than scientists would have, or omit aspects important to scientists. In such cases, Libassi often tells his institute’s scientists, “‘This is still a great article,’ because nine times out of ten, it is. They highlighted you; they highlighted your research.”
Fosheim also cautions scientists that certain parts of the writing process are out of a reporter’s hands—like headlines, which she notes are often written by editors. Unpleasant surprises can also occur when little or no material from interviews makes it into the actual publication, due either to a reporter’s decision or an editor’s. For instance, after ecologist Anabelle Cardoso of the University at Buffalo sent a journalist a page or so of detailed answers about a citizen science project she was running, she was disappointed to see that the article only included a single quote from her. “When I spoke to my supervisor about it, they were like, ‘Oh yeah, journalists do that all the time. You just have to know to not put two hours into answering the questions,’” Cardoso recalls. Echoing Libassi’s point, she notes that “loads of people still read about the project, even if it was only one sentence.”
Fosheim adds that while scientists may have little control over a news story, their hands are not totally tied. “You do have control over the way you frame the information that you give to a journalist.” The key, she says, is clear communication.
Mastering the interview
Researchers are often asked to distill years’ worth of research in the space of a brief interview. That’s become particularly challenging in recent years, Fosheim says, as industry-wide layoffs have forced many local newsrooms to let go of journalists who specialize in science writing, while the pandemic has pushed reporters from all specialties to cover the latest research.
That is something that computational biologist Rafaël Najmanovich of the Université de Montréal says he experienced when a flurry of local news reporters interviewed him about a coronavirus-related preprint he published with colleagues in December 2020. He explained to them how his team, through a complex computational approach that simulated molecular structures, was able to determine that a novel mutation made a SARS-CoV-2 variant circulating at the time more transmissible than the virus first detected in Wuhan.
But to Najmanovich, it appeared that some of the journalists hadn’t completely grasped the basic elements of the research, as he found many of the published articles both oversimplified and unclear, he says. Although he argues that the onus is on journalists to make sure they understand the research, he has begun to simplify his explanations. “I think from now on, I will actively ask the person to explain to me what I explained to them, almost as if I was in a classroom.”
Miscommunication can also arise when scientists converse with reporters as they would with colleagues. That happened to evolutionary biologist Louise Johnson of the University of Reading in the UK, when a journalist asked her to send emailed comments about a new study by a different research group. The research in question reported a correlation between a molecular characteristic and a population-level effect in a complex, noisy ecosystem, and the study authors had hypothesized there was likely a causal relationship between the two. Johnson wrote back to the reporter, expressing caution around that interpretation of results similarly to the way she would write to a journal editor, “saying something along the lines of, it’s remarkable that they found such a clear relationship, given all the noise in the system.”
Many scientific institutions also offer media training.
When the story was published, she realized that her comments had been misinterpreted—“not unreasonably,” Johnson says—as enthusiastically affirming that the study had detected a causal relationship. Even worse, she tells The Scientist, there were quotation marks around a statement to that effect that was attributed to Johnson, suggesting she’d said this verbatim, even though she hadn’t—something Libassi writes in an email is “morally, ethically and journalistically wrong.” Libassi adds that reporters should make sure they understand and represent their source’s views correctly. “I do remember feeling very aggrieved,” Johnson says of the experience, adding that it taught her to be more direct. Faced with a similar situation now, she’d stress that “you probably need to do a bit more work to find out whether this is a situation where the X is causing Y.’”
Johnson didn’t let the experience put her off speaking with other journalists. In fact, she attended a day-long media training offered by an association in the UK called Media Woman, and says that for her, the workshop “really helped build confidence.” Many scientific institutions also offer media training. For instance, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, science communications specialist Christina Procopiou helps prepare researchers in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area for interviews, guiding them in distilling key messages to levels that laypeople can understand. “With repetition, [scientists] get better and better” at this, Procopiou says.
Another common fear scientists have about giving interviews is being put on the spot with a “gotcha” question, according to one 2021 survey of some 3,300 scientists conducted by SciOPS (Scientist Opinion Panel Survey), a science communication platform developed at Arizona State University. Even experienced science communicators can be caught off guard if reporters unexpectedly ask them to weigh in on a political issue related to their research, such as an administration’s response to a pandemic. “I definitely have had these moments where I felt I’m on this show to bash a certain political party,” Choo says. In such situations, she tries to stay assertive and steer the conversation back to her main scientific messages.
That’s advice cognitive psychologist Michael Silverman says he wishes he’d followed some years ago, when he was asked to speak on live TV about a recent incident in which a woman had killed her newborn. Silverman, who studies reproductive psychiatry—including postpartum depression and psychosis—at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, wanted to shed light on how such rare, yet catastrophic, situations can occur. Unbeknownst to him, the moderators had also invited three prosecuting attorneys on air, who cut Silverman off, fiercely arguing that the woman’s act was premeditated, he recalls. Stressed under the pressure, Silverman fumbled, and shut down entirely. “At the time it was humiliating,” he writes to The Scientist in an email. “Even worse, by not standing my ground I ended up hurting those I’ve worked so hard to help.” (In her experience, Fosheim notes, the reporter-scientist relationship isn’t an adversarial one.)
Silverman says he now avoids interviews with certain news outlets that he perceives as prioritizing entertainment over facts, but continues to give interviews to others because he enjoys communicating.
He says he thinks that many reporters he’s worked with genuinely want to understand and represent scientific information accurately and fairly. When interviews go smoothly, “that’s great, because we’ve just informed a whole group of people about something that is worthy of being informed of.”
Procopiou says she has seen increasing interest from scientists in media training and other forms of science communication, often as a public service. But scientists can reap personal benefits, too. In fact, the vast majority of researchers who responded to the SciOPS survey said that “helping me advance professionally within my university” was the top benefit they saw from interacting with the media.
Molecular and cellular physiologist Susan Wray of the University of Liverpool says she has reaped other kinds of benefits from giving media interviews. She experienced a media splash in 2018 when speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program and several newspapers about the results of a small trial that tested a new treatment for a particular childbirth complication. Afterward, friends, colleagues, and her university’s vice chancellor reached out to congratulate her. “If it goes well—and most the time it’s going to—it does give you a lift,” she says.
Giving media interviews has even enriched her perspective on her own research, Wray says. “It’s a good mental exercise on the whole, to talk to journalists, to see where they’re coming from. . . . It makes you hone your arguments.”
TIPS FOR WHEN A REPORTER REQUESTS AN INTERVIEW
Vet the journalist. Communications specialist Matthew Libassi of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research recommends researching the journalist and publication to get a sense of their tone, purview, and specialty. If you feel the reporter would represent your message fairly, arrange the interview, he says. Cognitive psychologist Michael Silverman of the Icahn School of Medicine says to “respond as soon as you can” to a request, as “reporters are often working last-minute.”
Practice. Mock interviews with your institution’s press officers, mentors, or colleagues can help hone simple, concise messages that can serve as answers during interviews; one 2015 survey compiled questions that journalists typically ask. Science communications specialist Christina Procopiou of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab recommends staying away from scientific jargon and detail that might be confusing, instead focusing on key messages about the research and why it matters.
Consider other perspectives. “Most reporters want a balanced story,” Silverman says. “As such, expect that they will be speaking to colleagues whom you may differ with in the field. It’s helpful to take into consideration the position of those in the field who disagree with you.”
Keep it interesting. Mental imagery and metaphors that can help communicate complicated scientific processes, as well as personal reflections and anecdotes related to your research, can increase the chances of being quoted in the final publication, says science communicator Tori Fosheim. “Those are going to be what adds color to a story, [which is] something that a journalist is going to want to include.”
Consider journalistic practices. Although most reporters don’t provide questions in advance, you can ask for general discussion points, Libassi says. He adds that scientists should assume they’re “on the record” during interviews, meaning that what they say can be printed and attributed to them. “If you don’t want something said, don’t say it.” If in doubt, Fosheim advises scientists to ask reporters about their practices—whether they’ll circle back to fact-check material or quotes after the interview, for instance. “Before you even leave the room, make sure everybody is on the same page.”
Prepare for the unexpected. If you don’t immediately have an answer to a question, “take a breath, and . . . if it’s really not coming through to you, ask them to rephrase it,” says biologist Susan Wray of the University of Liverpool. For questions you don’t feel comfortable answering, stay on message, adds emergency medicine physician Esther Choo, who helped compile some other media interview advice last year in Science. “Usually there’s ways to be like, ‘Well, I’m not sure about that. But the main point here is this,’ and really focus on the key points that need to get across to a broader audience.”
Manage expectations. If a published article contains an error or “really needs clarification,” Libassi recommends contacting the reporter to ask for a correction. But he and Fosheim remind researchers that they don’t have control over the framing or wording of an article or over whether their quotes or research make it into the publication. Understanding more about how journalists work, Fosheim adds, “makes it a little easier not to take it personally.”
Katarina Zimmer is a freelance science and environment journalist based in New York City.