How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 1]

[A woman interviewing a Lego Sculpture. Photo by Matt Brown via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0] 

Let’s say you’re a young lab leader or grad student and you’ve just gotten an email from a journalist asking if you can speak to them about your upcoming paper.  You haven’t heard of this reporter before. You ‘re not sure which outlet they’re writing for, and you’re concerned that a badly botched piece about your research might harm your standing in your field.

At the same time, a well-researched and well-written piece can actually help your research become more visible.  A piece that highlights your research in Nature News & Comment might actually be something you want to (humbly) mention when up for faculty gigs. Plus, links to news articles for general audiences liven up your lab’s home page.

You may ask yourself, “How do I work this?How do I make sure this interview goes as well as possible? How do I make sure that the reporters don’t take my comments out of context?  Which reporters are worth talking to in the first place?!

As a young journalist, I can’t pretend not to have a horse in the race: I’m in favor of scientists taking time to talk to journalists, even (and maybe especially) those of us who are just starting out. There are a lot of resources out there on “media training” for scientists, which focus on telling scientists how to best “sell” yourself and your research, and I’ll link to several resources at the end of the article.

My perspective is that of a young journalist, not a seasoned media training expert. But I have interviewed enough scientists to recognize some behavior patterns. Here are some of the habits that good scientist sources* share and etiquette tips for responding to journalist behavior. 

*[“source” = journalese for person or entity giving a journalist information]

Before the Interview

Step 0: Don’t Panic.

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[Photo by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0]

If you have a paper coming out in a mid-sized journal, you’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours thinking about and carrying out the experiments in the paper. You know what they’re about.  You were there. You probably know a lot about the limitations of the techniques you used, but you also know a lot about the potential benefits of the research and the backstory of how your project got started. All of that information is useful to journalists. 

And if they’re reaching out to you specifically, something about your work caught their eye. If you’re not sure why, ask the journalist why they reached out to you. That information will likely give you an idea of the journalist’s angle.

Step 1: Google the Journalist

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A quick Google will suffice, but here are the key questions you want to think about while looking up a potential interviewer:

  • How do they label themselves? How a journalist identifies themselves will give you some clues about their goals and background. For instance, “science writers” like me tend to have science degrees of some sort and are often more likely to ask about fundamental biology than “healthcare reporters” or “environmental journalists”.  All three of those groups are specialist writers who’ve likely read oodles of papers and interviewed many scientists before.“General assignment” reporters from newspapers will likely have had less practice interviewing scientists, but you’re probably far from the first scientist they’ve interviewed. (General assignment journos are, however, a bit less likely to know how/have time to actually read research papers, so keep that in mind.)
  • Who do they write for? I always tell people, “On good days, I write for Scientific American or The Atlantic, but most days I write for my blog and non-profits.” That tells you right off the bat that (a) I tend to write for audiences of well-educated but non-specialist nerds, (b) I’m ambitious but probably just starting out, and (c) I do actually have a few connections at large(ish) outlets.  And if you’re familiar with The Atlantic and SciAm, you know that those are both outlets that pride themselves on being purveyors of weird ideas. They purvey said ideas without jargon, but they’ll run stories that are a bit more conceptual than most of what you’d see on local TV news. Hopefully, knowing where the reporter works for will help give you an idea of what types of quotes and stories they’re looking for. If you’re not sure, ask them who they write for and look up the outlet if unfamiliar.
  • Are they staff or freelance? Staff reporters will generally tell you their outlet when they introduce themselves; we, freelancers, on the other hand, have to write story proposals or pitches, which we will then send to editors. I tell scientists, “Freelance pitching is a lot like applying for grants, but we propose stories about research people have already done instead of proposing future research.” Success rates for both are in the same ballpark. Still, freelance reporters are worth talking to, especially if you’re in a sub-field that doesn’t get much press. It’s good practice for you, and often ideas from previous interviews find their way into later stories. For journalists, our interview backlog is our idea bank, and it’s hard to predict whose research will come into play in features down the road.
  • What topics have they been writing about lately? No journalist can keep up-to-date with every scientific topic we might potentially write about. But we do tend to have recurring topics (called “beats” in journalese). For instance, if you scroll through my blog’s home page or my clips’ page you’ll see I make a point of blogging about a wide range of topics to show my versatility, but you’ll also spot recurring topics like viruses and epigenetics.  Different journalists specialize in different topics, especially in science, and while our specialties are much, much broader than scientists’, it still helps to know who you’re talking to.
  • Does this journalist write one-study news stories, longer features, or a mix? I’m 24 and still figuring out how to make rent by writing each month, so I pitch a lot of short news stories to editors. (See Pitch Imperfect series for examples.) More established freelancers often spend more time on feature stories that synthesize many studies into one narrative arc.  If I email you about a specific study of yours, it’s likely that I’m thinking about making you the main character (or main lab) in a news story. On the other hand, if someone like David Dobbs emails you, it’s more likely that he’ll be working on a feature and interviewing several different researchers to get an overall picture of your field. Both types of interviews are worth doing. Just bear in mind that feature writers will likely ask a slightly different set of questions. 
  • Don’t worry too much about the reporter’s academic background. When I was picking a science writing grad school, one of my science grad school friends pointed out to me, “If you go to MIT,  scientists will see that and be more likely to talk to you.” There’s a lot of truth to that, but the fact is that if science writing grad schools had official rankings, NYU and Santa Cruz would probably both be ahead of MIT SciWrite. And BU and Imperial College would not be far behind.  Anyone with a master’s from one of those five programs probably has pretty rigorous training in both a science and in writing. (And, prospective science writing grad students, going to MIT for the prestige of MIT’s science reputation is crappy reason for going to MIT SciWrite. I only picked SciWrite because I’d spent a lot of time hanging out at Building 14 and the Media Lab, and I was absolutely fascinated by the conversations going on in those departments….That’s also why getting booted out hurt like a motherf***er.)  If the reporter has a Phd, that tells you they have gumption, time management skills, and probably more statistics experience than non-doctorated-reporters. But many science writers with Phds focus their journalism on a totally different topic. (Nadia Drake, for instance, has a PhD in genetics, but she primarily blogs about planet science.) You’ll get a better sense of what they’re about by looking at their recent stories than by making assumptions based on their academic training. 
Where to Find Answers to the Above Questions (in 15 minutes or less): 

--Start with the author's personal website. Most will have a page with links to their recent work, a brief bio, and possibly a blog. 
--Check out the author's Twitter account. What kind of stories do they share? What kind of jokes do they make? (A molecular biology pun like this one is a dead-giveaway that someone's pretty serious about their bio-nerd-craft.) 
--You can also look at who follows them on Twitter. Look for publications, well-known science writers, and avid outreach scientists. A reporter with several of those folks following them on Twitter is more likely to have connections at big outlets.
Step 2:  Agree to the Interview

This step is pretty simple. Just be decisive. It helps a lot if you and the reporter both agree on a specific time for the interview.

In my initial contact emails, I usually propose a couple of sizeable time windows when I can be available that week (It’s a Jedi mind trick that gets the scientist to actually pull up their calendar and think about whether they have time to do the interview), and it’s super-annoying when a source emails back saying, “Yeah, I can talk to you some time on Monday.”

Like, what time on Monday?

Also bear in mind that if the reporter is on a tight deadline–especially for an online or newspaper piece–they may need to call you later that afternoon. Don’t be frustrated. They are simply trying to be as thorough as they can within the handful of hours their editors have allotted.

Step 2A: If you are asked to be the independent opinion on a paper that is being highlighted in a news story…

Remember that even if you haven’t had time to read the entire paper as thoroughly as you’d like,  you still might be able to provide useful context. You know more about your research topic than at least 99.9% of people running around on the planet.  

You’re also allowed to let the reporter know which of your comments are most strongly supported by your reading and which ones are more off-the-top-of-your-head. Most competent science reporters are not going to quote the off-the-top-of-your-head part. It’s not our job to make scientists look good, but it’s not our job to make scientists to look bad either.  (Unless we’re specifically investigating wrongdoing, but if we are investigating, that fact usually gets disclosed to the source well before the story runs.) And we especially don’t want to make you look bad, if you’re being a mensch and helping us out by outside expert-ing during a time crunch. 

Obviously, if you haven’t had time to read the paper we’re asking about at all, don’t say yes to the interview. But if you can think of a couple of other researchers who might be able to comment on it, recommending their names is super-helpful.  You know who’s who in your field better than we do. (Usually.) 

 

Step 3: Brainstorm.

Every “how to be interviewed” guide ever recommends some form of thinking through your key points–or “take-home messages“. Thinking out and writing down rough drafts of your talking points is definitely a good idea, but one of the reasons reporters call up sources in the first place is because we want spontaneous reactions to questions. We’re also after anecdotes that wouldn’t make the paper.

I’d recommend brainstorming the following the night before an interview:

  • Main Take-home Message: What’s the most important thing you want non-scientists to know about your work?  If you were in charge of writing the headline, what would you put in the headline? Be sure you can phrase your take-home message as a sentence with a strong, vivid verb.  Even more importantly, brainstorm a few different ways to phrase your take-home message without jargon. 
  •  Key Context: As a scientist/expert, one of your jobs in the interview is providing a brief oral history of your specialty.  Ask yourself, what does the reporter need to know to understand why your research is novel?  A run-down of five different key precedent papers might get long-winded, but it you have one or two key precedent papers you want to point out, that’s usually okay. Think up some generalizations you can make about previous research. Something along the lines of “Most people in the field think _____________, but this paper suggests that ____________ is actually going on.” Does your paper mark any important firsts? Don’t throw around the f-word unless you’ve read widely on the topic and are pretty sure you really are the first, because reporters will jump all over the first. Is your topic popular in your field? Why or why not? Would the experiment you did have been possible to do 10 years ago? (You don’t need exciting answers to all of these questions, but you do need an interesting answer to at least one.)

 

  • How would you explain your research to an undergrad? (Or to a 10 year old? Or to a tipsy person at a dinner party?)  Scientists spend so much time on their specialty that speaking in jargon becomes second nature. Seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been scribbling down what I thought would turn out to be an excellent quote, up until the moment the source lapsed into jargon…Even jargon that seems pretty straightforward to you–words like “dysbiosis”, “mass spec data”, “fluid shear”, etc. are things that I’ll have to explain in my pitches and article.  Sometimes I can set up a bit of jargon in the sentence leading up to the quote, but it’s super-helpful if you brainstorm several different non-jargon ways to phrase your key points.  Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, because often having several different phrasing options for an idea makes it easier to write. (Easier writing -> faster pitching -> more likely for story to get picked up.) 
  • Brainstorm some-behind-the-scenes stories you’d like to share. A lot of the scientists I interview work in labs that look a lot alike. Lots of PCR tubes, black countertops, often windowless. Even so, stories about memorable days in the lab can help turn an explanation or research summary into a narrative. For instance, in the interview for the “Inside the Pancreas” post,  Efsun Arda casually mentioned being in the lab at 5:30 in the morning on Thanksgiving Eve.  That detail turned into the lead for the post, and even though working weird hours isn’t unusual in elite research labs, the anecdote helped set up the problem of pancreas’ tendency to self-destruct. The best stories for science journalists are often moments when something almost went wrong but didn’t, (mis)adventures in the field,  interactions with patients or non-scientists affected by your work (although be careful about privacy issues there), false starts from the early stages of your project, and of course, Eureka! moments. Plenty of excellent short pieces get written without including any behind-the-scenes stories, but telling at least one during your interview is a good way to stand out in a reporter’s head.
  • Be prepared to “analogy haggle”. A lot of times when I’m reading a paper or listening to a scientist describe their finding, an analogy will pop into my head. If I have them on the phone, I’ll ask them, “So is this aspect of your research sort of like [whatever analogy I thought up]?” just to see if it works from their perspectives.  Some of the analogies my brain churns out are a lot better than others, and often scientists have their own favorite analogies that are even better.
  • [Update] Brainstorm a few of your colleagues that the reporter could ask for an outside perspective.  Most science journalists are going to ask you toward the end of the interview “Who else should I talk to about this?” Partly because we need to vet science stories with experts who weren’t involved in the research, and partly because we’re always on the lookout for new story ideas and fresh contacts.  If you can’t think of any suitable colleagues off the top of your head, it’s usually okay to ask if you can email us their names later, but it’s faster if you brainstorm 3-4 names beforehand. Bonus points if the colleagues you refer us to are from diverse backgrounds and/or work at institutions that aren’t R1 universities. 

Step 4: Get some sleep. (Or eat a snack or otherwise take care of yourself prior to the interview.)

Academia puts a lot of pressure on young scientists to present themselves as “talking lab coats”, perfectly rational and extremely thorough researchers without personalities of their own. You can find “talking lab coat” type representations of scientists in news reports all over the place, but I bet you rarely remember the names of scientists who are presented that way.

People remember personalities.  So for reporters, it’s best if you show up to the interview prepared to sound like you.  That means coming in relatively relaxed. (Within limits. Reporters are also aware that grad students, post-docs, and lab leaders have about 70 million things to do each week, so we get that you probably have other things on your mind.)

But yeah,

**tl;dr**

Think about what you want to say beforehand, and don’t stress too much about the interview.

And…That’s enough for one post. I’ll be back with Part 2 which covers “During” and “After” the interview. Until then, cheers!

Recommended Further Reading:

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2 thoughts on “How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 1]”

  1. As a science journalist with a bachelors in astrophysics who often writes about space, I actually prefer my sources *don’t* know that. I find that if they do realize I know what the ecliptic is, or something similar, they tend to lapse into jargon and avoid the great analogies I want as a reporter. If they ask about my education, I’ll tell them (and of course it’s on my website), but while I don’t want you to talk to me like a five year old, it’s nice in terms of quotes and analogies when you assume only the most basic starting knowledge.
    (and when I’m writing about something like string theory or reionization especially!)

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