10 June 2015
By Mary Catherine Adams
This is the first in a three-part series answering scientists’ frequently-asked questions about working with the media. This FAQ series accompanies the Working with the Media webinar, offered by AGU’s Sharing Science program on May 29. Read part two and part three.
- What should I expect when working with the media?
- What are the ways the media reports science?
- How do reporters choose what to write about?
- What do reporters want from scientists?
- Are there any rules of thumb regarding interacting with the media?
- What is the typical news cycle for a story (i.e. how long is a story in the news)?
- How has the media world adapted to talking to scientists?
- Is the media only interested in covering ‘controversial’ science (e.g. climate change)?
- How do journalists strive for accuracy in their stories?
1. What should I expect when working with the media?
Journalists may or may not have a science background, and may or may not have covered the topic before. So, it is best to talk to journalists as if they are new to the subject and don’t have a science background. They will ask for more detail if they need it.
2. What are the ways the media reports science?
Journalists report science in just about every way. It’s not uncommon to see science stories in the newspaper, on blogs, on TV, Twitter, in photo slideshows or videos on the web, or to hear them on the radio. Some newspapers, websites and radio stations have dedicated science sections, though these are rarer these days.
3. How do reporters choose what to write about?
When it comes to writing about science, journalists look for research results that:
- Are new or previously unknown
- Represent a significant advancement to the field
- Relate to current events (i.e. Western U.S. drought, New Horizons mission to Pluto…)
- Might impact our daily lives (i.e. sea level rise causing flooding in Miami)
- Go against the current scientific consensus (debate over Voyager spacecraft leaving the Solar System)
- Would catch your eye in a newspaper, etc. (Whether escapees from Alcatraz could have survived)
- Include striking photographs or videos
Ultimately, reporters write stories that they think will be of interest to readers, so if you’re thinking of pitching a story to a reporter, take a few minutes first to think about what will be of interest to their audience and be sure to mention that in your pitch.
4. What do reporters want from scientists?
Most reporters generally want to know two things:
- What did you find?
- Why should I care?
Reporters report news to their readers, so it’s paramount that you highlight what is new and significant. In addition, they need to connect that news to their readers’ interests and values. Explain how and why the news will affect Joe Smith at the local pub or Jane Doe at the local library and you’ll make the reporter’s job much easier.
5. Are there any rules of thumb regarding interacting with the media?
Yes. Here are four rules of thumb to keep in mind when working with reporters:
- Reporters are on short deadlines. You should respond quickly to their requests and get back to them when you say you will.
- Everything you say (and write in an email) is on the record which means that it might show up in a story.
- You likely won’t be able to review the story before it appears in print.
- Be available after an interview via email or phone for any follow up questions a reporter might have.
6. What is the typical news cycle for a story (i.e. how long is a story in the news)?
The news cycle is short! More straightforward news stories might only be in the news for a day or two. Big news stories might last a little longer – as much as a week (or longer in the case of really big stories, including major natural disasters with the Fukushima earthquake and subsequent nuclear reactor disaster being a recent example.)
It’s safe to assume that the average news cycle is short (for most stories – science and otherwise – this is true.) Accordingly, if you know you’re about to send out a press release or participate in a press conference, it’s very important that you prepare to respond to journalists’ inquiries as soon as possible. Set aside time on your calendar to be available to reporters after the release goes out. Prepare your notes so that you can return their phone calls and emails right away.
For one scientist’s experience with this, read “You can hide under your desk … as long as you still answer the phone” by Kat Compton on The Plainspoken Scientist, AGU’s science communications blog.
7. How has the media world adapted to talking to scientists?
In short…it hasn’t. And it won’t. These days, there are fewer and fewer dedicated science journalists. Most newspaper reporters, for example, cover a variety of topics, which can include anything from sports to business news. In today’s media landscape, few employers can afford to pay a journalist to cover one “beat.”
As a result, it is critical for scientists to make themselves aware of how journalists do their jobs, and how scientists can present information in ways that helps journalists get the facts right. Don’t expect a journalist to adapt his or her work style to accommodate you. It’s each and every scientist’s job to be a marketer, a public speaker, and a translator. A little preparation goes a long way, and with practice, every scientist can excel at working with journalists. AGU’s Sharing Science program has workshops and webinars to help you improve your skills and our website has resources to help you prepare for encounters with journalists.
8. Is the media only interested in covering ‘controversial’ science (e.g. climate change)?
The media is interested in covering all sorts of science, including new results, results that go against norms, gee-whiz stories, and more. At the end of the day, all journalists are writing for their audiences. In order to get an editors’ approval to write (or record) a story, each journalist needs to be able to “sell” a story idea to his or her editor. So, if you are considering pitching a story to a journalist, it’s important to consider what will be interesting to his or her audience.
9. How do journalists strive for accuracy in their stories?
Journalists are experts in journalism, not science. While they, of course, want to be accurate in their reporting, they most likely will not evaluate the methods sections of scientific papers or quibble with the interpretation of results. If you find a reporter has gotten the science wrong in an article, inform him or her—in a polite way—of the mistake. But don’t overburden journalists with responsibilities beyond their expertise or jobs.
–Mary Catherine Adams is a public information specialist at AGU and is co-coordinator of AGU’s Sharing Science program.