Don’t be a pony: media training for scientists from Liz Neeley and Ed Yong

I have a scientist friend whose work received a little mainstream media attention last year. He surprised me by telling me that even though he was fielding interview requests from a variety of hallowed and respected magazines and radio shows, he was saying no to all of them. He had several reasons for not wanting to engage, but even when he put those aside, he still felt something that many scientists articulate in his position: there was no chance of the coverage benefiting him and there was a good chance it could hurt his standing amongst his colleagues.

Although I agree that this is true for scientists in many fields, I also think that pretending media coverage isn’t happening isn’t the right response. If your research or field is newsworthy, a journalist will write about it, irrespective of whether you co-operate. Scientists owe it to the public—who probably funded the research—to promote decent reporting of their work by communicating clearly with the media.

Of course, I can act all high-and-mighty on this issue because I’ve never done any research that would be of the slightest news interest. So I was completely unprepared when I was interviewed in an unfriendly tone by the otherwise friendly journalist Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus. He asked me something about the motives of scientists working on GMOs; I replied with silence and a look of terror. Of course, Seth was only pretending to be evil as part of a workshop I attended last week, which was designed to help terrified scientists regain their confidence during an encounter with the media.

The workshop was On the Record – a Media-skills Workshop for Scientists and was just one of the many amazing sessions at ScienceOnline, a beloved annual gabfest for science bloggers and other people with a stake in the communication and practice of science online. Hopefully I will eventually catch up on enough sleep to tell you more about ScienceOnline, because it was awesome and I hope I get to go again next year. The media skills workshop was moderated by Liz Neeley, who trains scientists to communicate without shooting themselves in the foot, and Ed Yong, who used to be a spokesperson for a cancer charity and a science blogging wunderkind, and is now a freelance journalist and a science blogging rockstar. The main thing I took from their advice, the subsequent discussion, and Seth’s mock interview, was that you can have more control over the process by being prepared and by being clear.

Liz particularly stressed the importance of understanding the nature of the relationship between you and the journalist. In most cases, they are not your enemy and they want an excellent and accurate story too, but they are also not your friend and their goals are not identical to yours. This is why it is crucial that you do your background before doing an interview. You need to know exactly who you are talking to and what their goals are likely to be. If someone calls you up and asks for an interview, don’t start answering questions until you have know who it is, who else they have interviewed, when the deadline is, what the piece is about and what type of piece it is. You should also follow up after the interview—ask them for more details about the story, offer recommendations for who else to talk to, and of course, check the published piece for errors.

She also pointed out that scientists can be surprisingly obedient in interviews, waiting for the interviewer to lead and ask all the questions, when it should really be a conversation. This is the point at which Liz pretended to be a pony to illustrate that you should not be one.

Ed had ten tips that went something like:

1) Be aware of the medium (e.g. print vs. TV) and do your background on the journalist.

2) Just consider everything to be ‘on the record.’  If you really want to say something off the record, you will need to negotiate the meaning of ‘off the record’ in advance.

3) There are obvious questions that would arise for any non-specialist hearing about your work, and a good journalist will definitely ask you those questions. You could ask your Mum what those questions might be.

4) Rehearse some lines or answers to the obvious questions, not because you want to come across as a robot, but  because it can help with nerves and deer-in-the-headlights panic.

5) Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, especially when being filmed or recorded. Sometimes the journalist will need a nice soundbite and will ask you the same question until you say something that is intelligible.

6) Explain your work as you would to a child.

7) Don’t get distracted and don’t distract others. By which he means don’t have other stuff going on during an interview (like your Twitter feed) and don’t wear distracting clothes on TV or make distracting noises on radio.

8) Expect dumbass questions. Don’t be thrown, you can always try to answer a different, more sensible question.

9) If the journalist keeps asking the wrong questions, don’t be afraid to suggest the right questions.

10) The most important, most unbreakable cardinal rule is: Don’t get angry. No matter what. No matter what the provocation, you will always end up looking like a dick.

Amen to that.

The session was interesting and useful, and was one of several spurred by the repetitive cycles of debate on the relationship between the media and science. Ed has summarized the state of the recent discourse in handy diagram form (on the suggestion that emerged from another session, during a discussion of how to get people to click on links, I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO IMMEDIATELY CLICK ON THE LINK RIGHT NOW AND READ ED’S EXCELLENT EXPLAINER THANKYOU KINDLY). If you still can’t be bothered to click on the link, I can paraphrase the worst of the mood as:

Scientist: Journalists are hacks. They get everything wrong and don’t care about science. They should stop questioning us and just write what we tell them to write.

Journalist: Scientists are whiney babies. If we didn’t keep them in line they would go around being all fraudulent and blowing stuff up.

Public information officer: Why doesn’t anyone listen to us?

Even though the debate does get totally pointless sometimes, there are important issues hiding in there. One of those is that scientists have a real, and occasionally justified fear of being misquoted or duped. Unfortunately, if every good scientist gave in to that fear, then we’d be left with the agenda-pushers and self-promoters as the only scientists doing the talking.


7 thoughts on “Don’t be a pony: media training for scientists from Liz Neeley and Ed Yong

  1. I feel funny leaving a comment in the midst of these experts and expert advice but here’s a tip I stumbled on, the hard way. If you’re the scientist giving the interview, especially TV or radio, don’t include the reporter’s name in your reply, as in, “Well, Bob, the reason this is important is…” or, “The reason this matters, Bob, is…” Including the reporters name can make the clip unusable for a re-edited story that someone other than Bob is telling.

    • Good point – someone at the workshop also mentioned that for radio/TV t it can help to restate the question in your answer, since it makes a more self-contained clip. And that it can also pay to signpost some of your statements for the editor. For example, if you preface an answer with “The most important thing is…” nobody has to guess what you think is important.

  2. I clicked the link! I whole-heartily believe it is not just possible, but likely, you’ll find good scientists in a Public house.

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