29 June 2015
This is the third 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 one and part two.
- What are some common pitfalls when working with the media and how can I avoid them?
- What are likely acceptable mechanisms (e.g. citation style, draft review, co-authorship, etc.) to prevent inaccuracies in journalists’ stories that will clearly be attributed to the interviewed scientist(s)?
- What are some best practices for discussing controversial topics?
- How can I prepare for and answer difficult or unexpected questions while staying on message?
- How should I discuss uncertainty without making journalists think the science is unsettled?
- How can I tell if a journalist is understanding what I’m saying?
- Why can’t I review a journalist’s story before it’s published?
Part III: Avoiding missteps and pitfalls
1. What are some common pitfalls when working with the media and how can I avoid them?
Common Pitfall #1: Getting into the weeds. Focus on the bigger picture. Prepare your top three key messages ahead of time and practice delivering them to a mirror, to a friend, over the phone, etc. During the interview, bring the conversation back to your key messages. Then, keep coming back to them. Communicating in simple, repeated messages is not a natural skill for many scientists, but it is a critical skill for any speaker. Often, audiences need to hear ideas repeated before they will remember them. For more on this, read “How much detail should I go into when talking with reporters” in Part II of the FAQ.
Common Pitfall #2: Answering irrelevant questions. Practice transitioning from or deflecting off-topic questions using phrases like, “I think what you’re getting at and what I can tell you about our findings is …,” or “Our research didn’t look at that, but what we did find is…” Although you won’t always encounter them, it’s best to be prepared ahead of time. If a journalist persists with off-topic questions, recommend another scientist who can answer his/her questions.
Common Pitfall #3: Answering questions outside your expertise. This can happen all-too-easily with the interviewee having no recollection of the things he or she said after the fact. If you answer a question you aren’t qualified to answer, you may be quoted saying something inaccurate, which could jeopardize your credibility. Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t answer it! Instead, say “I don’t know the answer to your question, but I can find out and get back to you soon,” or “I don’t know, but I can put you in touch with someone who does,” or “That’s beyond my area of expertise, but what I can tell you is…”
Common Pitfall #4: Being unprepared for tough questions. Anticipate the kinds of questions a journalist might ask you, and practice answering them. If a question takes you by surprise, take a moment to think about your answer before you speak.
Common Pitfall #5: Responding too slowly. Journalists are often working on very short time frames, and the amount of time a given story is “hot” in the news is relatively brief. Always respond to journalists’ inquiries as soon as possible. It is not uncommon for a press release to be issued on a Tuesday and for the story to be “old news” by Thursday.
2. What are likely acceptable mechanisms (e.g. citation style, draft review, co-authorship, etc.) to prevent inaccuracies in journalists’ stories that will clearly be attributed to the interviewed scientist(s)?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any journal citations in The New York Times, or in any newspaper for that matter. Unlike the authors of scientific papers, journalists are not concerned with giving credit – they are concerned with facts.
If you feel strongly about giving others credit, mention them during the interview using phrases such as, “We built upon earlier work by Dr. John Smith who was the first to find that the Earth is not flat. We’ve now shown definitively that it is actually round.” Or, “My colleagues Jane Doe, John Smith and I found…” or “I built off of Jane Doe’s original findings to determine conclusively that the Earth is round and not flat, as previously assumed.” There is no guarantee that a journalist will include this credit information, but it improves the odds.
The least effective method of giving others credit is to include a laundry list of previously-published papers and funding information, which may be useful to a journalist seeking background information but will not likely make it into a story.
Ultimately, when it comes to accuracy, the onus is on you. Think carefully about the words you use and the information you share. The more jargon you use the more you increase your odds of being misunderstood. If a journalist can’t understand you, he or she is more likely to unwittingly share inaccurate information. Use clear, simple language and repeat important points often.
3. What are some best practices for discussing controversial topics?
- Be prepared. Prepare your key messages. Think about what in those key messages might be contentious or controversial and prepare how to respond to tough questions.
- Stay calm. Always keep your cool. Take a breath if you need it and always bring the conversation back to your main points.
- Make it personal/relevant. Usually, even for the most controversial topics, you can find some common ground with your audience. Connect with them over that common ground. For example, if you’re talking about water quality, you can say something like, “I want my kids, grandkids and great grandkids to have clean drinking water, too, which is why I’m talking about this issue.”
4. How can I prepare for and answer difficult or unexpected questions while staying on message?
Always prepare your main messages – the two or three points that you want a journalist to take away from your discussion – before any interview. Consider whether anything in your messages might be contentions. Think about the questions you might receive in response to those messages and prepare answers to those questions. When encountering a difficult or unexpected question, tie your answer back to these main messages.
Once you’ve prepared your messages and answers to likely questions, practice the interview with a colleague. This will help minimize your chances of being caught off guard. People love impersonating journalists, so ask a friend or colleague to imitate a heavy-hitting reporter and take a crack at answering some really tough questions. Solicit his or her feedback on your responses, ability to stay in control, and ability to transition from tough questions. More likely than not, your colleague will be a tougher interviewer than an actual reporter.
Here are some tips for staying calm and on-topic during a difficult interview:
- Take a breath and stay in control. If a journalist asks you a difficult question, pause for a moment and think before you answer. Take a breath if you need one. Don’t worry, the journalist will wait if he or she really wants a question answered.
- Don’t guess. This may seem simple, but it’s so easy for interviewees to get in trouble by answering a question when they don’t know the answer. Plain and simple: If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t answer it. Don’t say “no comment” either. Instead, explain why you can’t answer it “Our study did not focus on that…” and transition back to your message, “…but what I can tell you is this.”
- Be brief. The more you ramble, the more you risk saying something you shouldn’t. Be as brief and concise as possible when answering questions.
- Use transitions. If a question is not relevant or is phrased in a way that might lead you to say something you shouldn’t, use transitions to get you back to your main messages. For example, you can say things such as “I see where you’re going with that, but I think what’s really important here is…”
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. You may not like repeating the same things over and over, but repetition is an effective ways to get an idea to stick. Don’t hesitate to repeat your main points multiple times.
- Stay positive. Avoid making negative judgmental statements about other researchers, their methods or their findings. Always stay positive and focused on your reason for being in the interview.
5. How should I discuss uncertainty without making journalists think the science is unsettled?
As TV meteorologist and AGU blogosphere blogger Dan Satterfield says, “Tell them what you know and not what you don’t know.” Use phrases like, “The best science we have tells us…” or “Our research tells us the most likely reason is…”
Avoid phrases that imply doubt, such as “we think” and “it could be.” Often, the science is settled even if there isn’t 100 percent consensus. Focus on the consensus and not on outliers. Focus on relevant findings and not on what is still unknown.
Remember: To the general public, the word “uncertainty” means “unknown.” To scientists, however, “uncertainty” means “known to the nth degree.” Read “Certainty vs. Uncertainty: Understanding Scientific Terms About Climate Change” on the Union of Concerned Scientists website for more thoughts on discussing uncertainty.
6. How can I tell if a journalist is understanding what I’m saying?
Ask! Journalists aren’t the only ones who can ask questions during an interview. If you just explained a nuanced yet critical concept, ask the journalist, “Did that make sense?” Or ask him or her to repeat what you said back to you. If he or she didn’t get it right, politely let the journalist know, and try to explain it in a different way. Help journalists get the details right.
You can also offer to be available after the fact to clarify any points or answer any follow-up questions. This only works, however, if you are available. So check your emails often and make sure your cell phone ringer is turned on.
7. Why can’t I review a journalist’s story before it’s published?
Many journalists will not let you review their stories before they go to print. There is a tradition with the media that to protect a journalist’s integrity, he or she does not let sources review his or her story before it goes to print. This comes from the idea that the journalist is an impartial observer who merely reports the facts and doesn’t let sources influence what he or she writes. This is an industry standard and it does not mean that the journalist does not trust you. So, don’t let it bother you!
If you’ve made an effort to be clear and concise, you’ve asked the interviewer “Does that make sense?” and you’ve offered to be available for further questions, then you’ve done all you can to minimize the chances of something inaccurate making it into a story.
If a printed story has a factual error, email the journalist to let him or her know. The publication might wish to publish a correction. But, if something in the story is simply written differently than how you would write it, accept that the journalist is telling your story in his or her voice and leave it at that.
–Mary Catherine Adams is a public information specialist at AGU and is co-coordinator of AGU’s Sharing Science program.