Every journalist – editors, reporters and everyone in between – knows the feeling. It is a busy day in the newsroom and somebody has just uttered a sentence like “This is an interesting study, can you try to make a story out of it?” or “Somebody needs to speak to a scientist about this.”
In these situations, journalists are often placed in a difficult situation. They have to cover a story while it is still fresh, and before rival publications or broadcasting, outlets do. A scientific expert has to be located quickly, and he or she has to be asked the right questions before the article can be written or the report produced.
A new scientific study can be very long and complex and might contain a large amount of information which would be hard to understand even if the reporter tasked with analysing it had a little pre-existing knowledge about the issue. What’s more, the journalist who is asked to interview a scientist is more likely to have been chosen on the grounds of availability than due to their expertise in the field. Newsrooms are shrinking internationally, and there are only so many science correspondents to go around.
In addition, journalists are often called upon to find scientists who are willing to speak and to conduct interviews with them in a time period which does not allow for much preparation beforehand.
The bad news is that this situation is part and parcel of journalism in the modern era, so you had better get used to it. The good news is: you are not alone. There is help, and here are some guidelines for how to interview a scientist effectively:
1. It is OK not to know everything.
When covering science, journalists learn very quickly that no matter how much time they spend reading particular studies, they are never going to become experts in a scientific field. But the job of the reporter is not to know what the answers are, but to know what questions need to be asked so that ordinary members of the public can get those answers from scientific experts.
2. Be the resource that the readers need
A journalist needs to be aware of the information gap between themselves and the author of a scientific study, or any other scientific expert. Reporters should be open about that, just as they should be open about explaining which areas they are unsure about, and what concepts they do not yet understand. After all, the main job of a journalist is to bridge that information gap, by making important issues accessible to the widest possible audience.
3. Seek clarification where necessary
The most important thing a reporter can do is ask the scientist anything that he or she is not completely sure of. Often, reporters come back from speaking to experts, and set out to start writing, only to find that they have not understood the key points of what was discussed – simply because they did not ask enough questions. Most of the time, it will be the really obvious questions which they neglected to ask, possibly due to fear over looking ill-informed.
4. Insist on enough time
It is not only newsrooms that suffer from a lack of resources; scientists work under a lot of pressure too. A journalist might not be able to speak to the author of a new study, for instance. Alternatively, a scientist might only have a couple of minutes to spare, meaning the interview will be a short one. Then, it’s time for honesty: the journalist should make it clear that they cannot write the piece until they have gotten the information they need from the scientist. While this might make the process somewhat slower, it is still far better than publishing inaccurate or misleading information.
5. Build up contacts in the area of science
It is often hard for a journalist to locate a scientist who they can speak to in the short period of time before they have to file a story about a scientific topic, but there are ways to minimise such difficulties in the long-run. Journalism is a relationship business, and building a network of scientific contacts can be an invaluable step in ensuring that a reporter can interview the right scientist at the right time. One useful tip is to build close ties with press officers in universities and other scientific institutions. These press officers will know the pressure that journalists are working under, just as they will know which experts to point them towards.
6. Cross-check the facts and aim for balance
Just as everybody – even an esteemed scientist – can sometimes be mistaken, it is also the case that the divisions within society in relation to different issues are reflected within the scientific community too. Fact-checking should be part of every journalist’s DNA, and the reporter should read as much as he or she can about the scientific issue at hand, and weigh the merits of the science behind boths sides of any contentious issue before producing journalistic reports. One useful step before interviewing a scientist is to research the contrary views which other scientists have put forward, and to include questions about these views in the actual interview.
7. Consider the source
Before carrying out an interview or writing a news report, a journalist should not forget to research where a scientist receives his or her funding from, and where the institution to which they are attached receives their funding. Scientific research is made possible by the financial support which researchers are given, and sometimes this financial support can cloud the findings in a study, or affect how those findings are represented to the outside world. There is nothing wrong with a scientist receiving funding to engage in research, but it is always worth asking the question about where that funding comes from, or whether the organisation providing it has their own agenda.