When a journalist calls [Updated]

Ed Yong counsels scientists on giving comments to reporters

[Original post, May 28, 5pm] There is no shortage of advice for scientists on talking to journalists. Just look at the resources page provided by AAAS, the country’s largest general scientific society. There, among other titles, one can find classics such as:

They’re great books, with excellent tips, but the focus tends to be encouraging scientists to be proactive - how to publicize their research, garner media attention, and explain their work clearly. There are suggestions for reacting to media inquires as well, but they’re usually not the primary concern, and they’re often couched in terms of a researcher describing his or her own work.

Thankfully, Ed Yong, a freelance science reporter, has drafted a concise crib sheet for what might be the more likely scenario: what to do when a journalist calls asking about someone else’s work. As Yong explained in an introduction to the guide, which he posted on his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science:

The daily business of science journalism includes getting independent comments on new studies, and (in my opinion) providing those comments is one of the most important ways in which scientists interact with the media.

When sending papers to various experts for review, however, Yong has encountered “a lot of nervousness about giving comments to journalists,” and after conducting a straw poll on Twitter that suggested a tutorial might useful, he wrote one.

It begins with some “assumptions” that scientists should make when journalists (that is, “the good ones,” Yong carefully noted) ask them to comment on a colleague’s paper, including the assumption that the reporter has read the paper and doesn’t need a recap. The guide then moves on to the types of comments that are useful to journalists, including remarks about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses, and the types that aren’t, including boilerplate statements about the need for more research.

Those are just the basics, though, and the guide has a lot more practical advice to offer. Also, though Yong dubbed it, “A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists,” it could just easily be used as, “A Guide for Journalists on Getting Comments from Scientists.”

[Update, March 29, 12:15pm] Bora Zivkovic, Scientific American’s blogs editor, pointed out a worthwhile response to Yong’s guide by Chad Orzel, a blogger and physicist at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

While acknowledging Yong’s good intentions, Orzel said the guide rubbed him the wrong way, but the examples he offered for what offended him seem to reveal a misunderstanding of what Yong was suggesting. For example, Orzel, took issue with Yong’s recommendation that when commenting on a colleague’s paper, scientists shouldn’t summarize it because a good reporter will already know what’s there.

“This bugs me, because I’m a person who will start off any comments I make with a capsule summary of the paper…” Orzel wrote. “But I think it’s important, because what I see as the crucial elements of a particular proposal or paper may not be the same as what somebody else sees as the crucial elements. And that can lead to confusion unless both parties in the conversation know exactly what the other thinks they’re talking about. The best way to avoid that confusion is to tell the other person what you’re talking about, even if that takes a few extra seconds of their time to skim.”

Orzel is right, but his definition of a summary seems to differ from Yong’s. Orzel is talking about summarizing what he thinks are the crucial points in a paper, which any reporter would appreciate. Yong is talking about a rote summary of what the paper says with no concern for the relative merits of its various parts, which is a waste of both the journalist’s and the scientist’s time.

Another of Orzel’s bugbears was Yong’s suggestion that scientists avoid “boilerplate adjectives” and “banal quotes,” such as, “This research is interesting, but more work needs to be done.” Orzel wrote that he was “a little dubious about the push for really strongly worded comments… There’s only so much you can inflate your comments about a fairly cool but not utterly amazing new paper for media consumption. At some point, it becomes deceptive.”

Clearly, though, Yong was not calling for inflated or deceptive comments. Nor was he advising against “qualifications and equivocations,” as Orzel also suggested. Rather, Yong seemed to be calling for specifics. If something is interesting, but not enthralling, a scientist should try to explain why that’s the case. It’s just like the classic line of advice to journalists: “Show, don’t tell.”

Ultimately, though, Orzel conceded that what really bothered him about Yong’s guide was the “sense that the ways scientists talk to journalists are wasting the journalists’ time, which they would otherwise be using to do Important Journalism.” As he explained in a follow-up post at PhysicsFocus.org, he’s sick of the lecturing, which goes both ways:

The temptation for each party in this situation is to try to push as much of the work to the other as possible, and that’s where most advice from journalists to scientists (or vice versa) fails. Each side treats the conventions of their particular profession as immutable laws of nature that the other must adjust to accommodate. Even when offered with the best of intentions, as with Ed Yong’s post last week, the advice ends up sounding one-sided: “Here’s what you need to do to work with me.”

One might point out that in both journalism and science, there is as much lecturing and advice that comes from within, as there is that comes from without. While there is plenty of obstinacy to go around, at some level, both sides recognize that their conventions are not, in fact, immutable.

Orzel is correct, however, that journalists and scientists could do more to fulfill the mutual responsibility to make each other’s jobs a bit easier, and “with that in mind,” he drafted four tips for journalists—including “tell us what you know” and “accept that the truth may be boring”—that complement Yong’s guide for scientists. Like some of the best books on covering and/or communicating science, which have a scientist and a journalist on the byline, it helps to have both perspectives.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , ,