30 March 2015

Q&A with journalist-turned-geologist Rex Buchanan (Part 3): A reporter on the other side of the media

Posted by mcadams

Rex Buchanan

Rex Buchanan is a regular guest with Kansas Public Radio, where he talks about water, earthquakes, and science. Photo courtesy of Kansas Public Radio.

After decades as a science reporter, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) Rex Buchanan now finds himself at the epicenter of a media frenzy. This is the first in a three-part series featuring an interview between Buchanan and University of California, Santa Cruz, science journalism student, Kerry Klein. Klein interviewed Buchanan after a symposium on induced seismicity at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, Calif. Read the first and second posts in this series on The Plainspoken Scientist.

(Part 3): A reporter on the other side of the media

Since getting this job, what’s been your impression of working with journalists?

I would say 80 to 90 percent of those interactions are positive. The ones I like are the ones that work the hardest. A reporter from a Wichita paper called me probably 20 times in one day, including 3 times at home that night. The upshot was a much better story.

In an earlier conversation, you mentioned you had a bad press experience recently. What happened?

That was a story that made a strong link between earthquakes and fracking, as opposed to saltwater disposal. The reporter did two stories for the Lawrence paper, but they got picked up by the AP and went nationwide.

After the second story, I called the reporter. She felt she had done an accurate story; I told her she hadn’t. It was pretty clear to me that continuing to talk to her wasn’t going to work, so I told her I wouldn’t talk to her again. Did that help? Shoot, I don’t know. It didn’t feel very good, but in 35 years I’ve never done that before.

What are the stakes of bad publicity?

I can guarantee you that I heard from the governor about [that story]. Every time it happens I hear from the oil and gas folks about it.

I didn’t ever used to get hate mail. I didn’t used to get called ugly names by people in public. But it happens now.

What’s the worst mistake a journalist can make when interviewing you? 

If they make it clear they haven’t done their homework; that really irks me. Or, if they come with an agenda—like that reporter I had the biggest problem with.

Here’s something: when I was teaching, I always taught students to end interviews with, “What didn’t I ask you that I should have asked you?” Do you ever do that?

Sometimes, yes.

A reporter did that to me one afternoon when I was not in a good mood, and I said, “There’s a lot of stuff you didn’t ask me. That’s not my problem; that’s your problem, now, isn’t it?” I’ve thought about that a lot because it wasn’t a very nice thing to say.

I always thought I’d be one of those guys that got along with reporters really well. Well, maybe I wouldn’t. I had another television reporter just this week that I basically said, “Don’t call me again because I ain’t talking to you.” I went home and my wife said, “You know, you’re picking ‘em off one by one; sooner or later you’re not going to talk to any of them.”

If you were to go back to teaching journalism, what’s one piece of advice you’d give your students based on your experience now?

The worst time to develop a relationship with somebody is when you need that relationship. The reporters I like dealing with are the ones who call me regularly about water and regular oil and gas issues. So when they call me about earthquakes, I know who they are and I know what their background is.

Ok, last question. 

And it’s, “What question should you have asked me?” Go ahead, ask it! [laughs]

No, actually! A few days ago, you suggested that retirement may not be that far off. What would you do in your retirement? 

I told my wife I would go drive around. [laughs] Ok, here’s a story. State geologists met in Deadwood, South Dakota, the year before last. I drove to North Platte, Nebraska, spent the night, and went through the panhandle up to the Black Hills. It was a Sunday afternoon. I stopped in this little town and bought a limeade and a barbecue sandwich. I took off cross country. I was in the middle of nowhere, 4-wheel drive, no cell phone coverage, 75 degrees, no humidity—gorgeous day. Jimi Hendrix came on the radio and I stopped the vehicle and I thought, “Right now, this is as good as my life will ever be. It will never be any better than this.” I almost started crying. It was just so cool.

– Guest blogger Kerry Klein is a geologist turned journalist currently studying in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She talks science and the media on Twitter. This post also appeared at the SciCom class blog, Out of the Fog–Emerging Science from California’s Central Coast.