3 June 2011

Becoming Media Savvy: Bloopers to Learn From

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Guest post by Ellen Prager, marine scientist and President, Earth2Ocean, Inc.

Camera lenses and microphones are not as intimidating to me as they once were.  That may be because I learn well from my mistakes, and I’ve made many of them when dealing with the media.  I still make errors when doing interviews, but the lessons I’ve learned continue to prove beneficial as I strive to bring Earth and ocean science to a broader audience.

In a recent interview for NPR, I was asked if the research I had done into the strange reproductive strategies of marine organisms for my new book had made me contemplate human sexual relations in a different light. In preparing for book-related interviews, I had considered what zingers hosts might ask going for a laugh, but this was one question I was totally unprepared for.  I babbled something about female octopuses having eggs with varying paternities so that some might have a genetic predisposition to survive, but that humans are clearly very different animals.  Luckily, it was a taped interview and the exchange landed on the cutting room floor.  The lesson here is two-fold: be prepared for both the questions you expect and want, as well as possible bombshells and seemingly out of context puzzlers.  Secondly, don’t be afraid to redirect a question by answering something slightly different than what was asked.

Taped interviews also allow you to stop, go back, and re-answer a question. If you think you can do better, don’t be afraid to ask for a do-over.  The editing process can, however, hold other hazards that as an interviewee you should be aware of.  The use of the word “but” can be a perilous tack to take.  Years ago, when discussing the business of diving with sharks, I said in a taped interview that the experience provides people the opportunity to appreciate sharks for the remarkable non-people-eating creatures that they are, BUT, these operations may also establish a potentially harmful connection between people and food, and it disrupts the sharks natural behavior and feeding.  That “but” was an easy chopping point for the reporter, and thus I became an unwilling promoter of commercial shark diving operations.

On camera or radio, a certain amount of enthusiasm is needed to hold the viewers’ attention; overly serious and monotone are two descriptors you need to avoid.  But how much is too much, especially if the topic you are talking about has had tragic consequences?  Once while talking on-air about migrating sharks, I had a bit of fun with the hosts on how not to become shark food.  The network morning show loved the interview; however, a colleague that studies sharks was not so pleased.  He pointed out a recent incident in which a person had been seriously injured by a shark. While sometimes political correctness can go too far, in this case I believe he was right and I had been a bit too glib. On the opposite side of the spectrum, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I did numerous interviews having had collaborated with USC tsunami expert Costas Synolakis in a book explaining the science of tsunamis.  I was shocked and saddened by the unfolding catastrophe and it showed.  Looking back, my interviews were not my best, due to my demeanor, almost dour.  I have since queried meteorologists who cover hurricanes about how they stay animated while covering something that causes significant human suffering. They unanimously told me to put aside my emotions, while remaining respectful of the situation.

Here are a few more tips to consider.

Many television or radio shows have assistant producers or researchers that will interview you before the actual on-air interview.  This may be the person coming up with the relevant questions, however, they may have little time to prepare, or a weak background in the subject at hand.  Don’t be afraid to suggest additional questions.

We all make mistakes. If you see, hear, or read a misquote or subject being inaccurately described, send the media outlet or individual involved a diplomatic note with the correct information.  This can be especially productive if you have built a relationship with individual reporters or producers.  After I recently complained to a major nightly news reporter about misinformation in his story on the science of tsunamis, he altered it between their east and west coast broadcast.

And lastly, always pay attention while on hold to go air.  Once seconds before going on live radio, the host announced that the guest after me would be a conservative radio and television host and well-known climate change denialist. I should have then been prepared for what happened next.  To my dismay, climate change inappropriately came up and was vehemently decried as a conspiracy by tree-hugging socialists.

There are risks to doing interviews, but representatives of the media are our main pipeline to the mass public, an audience that as scientists we need to engage and reach more effectively.  I hope by revealing a few of my bloopers and a bit of what I’ve learned so far, it will help others to avoid some of the same stumbles.

– Ellen Prager is an author of popular science books and consultant who now focuses much of her time on bringing Earth and ocean science to the public.