Working with Journalists and the Media

What do you do when you have research findings you want to share with the world? Using social media to tweet, blog, and post about it is one option. However, unless you’re a social media mogul, you’ll likely be more successful by pairing that with using mass media to promote your research. Working with reporters can help to raise awareness of your science, reach a wider audience, and help shape the public’s opinion of scientific issues.

Three main ways to get involved with science journalism:

  • Pitching stories
  • Giving interviews
  • Working with your institution’s Public Information Office

Pitching a story about your research can be difficult without experience with the way journalism works. Pitches must be short—about the length of a paragraph—and must hook the reader almost immediately. Pitches shouldn’t be a list of facts but should be a story, and a good one at that. If you’re interested in pitching a story about your research, the website The Open Notebook is a great place to start developing your science journalism skills.

If a journalist discovers your research and feels that it is newsworthy, they may contact you and ask for an interview. This doesn’t require that you write the news story, but it does mean that you should be prepared to talk about your research in a conversational, quotable, jargon-less way.

Another way to start working with the media is through your institution’s Public Information Office, or PIO. A PIO facilitates connections between scientists and journalists: they can help to arrange interviews, write and advertise press releases, and even organize press conferences.

A press release is the standard product of a PIO. It’s is a 1-2 page summary of your newsworthy research, written for a journalist audience. Sometimes PIO’s will contact you about a recent research paper, but you can also contact them with a short ‘pitch.’ Usually, if the PIO deems your research of interest for a press release, they’ll interview you and then write up the release. This release is distributed online, where is it available to the general public and journalists alike. If a journalist reads the press release and wants to interview you, they’ll contact the PIO to organize the interview.

No matter how you’re involved with the media, timeliness is key. You want to contact the media ASAP (keeping in mind any embargoes on your paper). Journalists aren’t interested in old news, and being ready to go to the press as soon as your paper is published can give you a better chance of getting in the news.

How to Be an Interviewee

Before the Interview

  • Distill your research into a few clear, simple messages. Come up with 2-3 main points that you want to focus on during the interview.
  • Be able to answer these questions: What did you find? Why should I care?
  • When thinking about your content, standard science communication principles apply.
  • Respect deadlines. Often, journalists are on tight deadlines, and delaying your response to an email query can mean your research won’t make it into the news.
  • Provide background material for the reporter to go through before the interview.

During the Interview

  • Stay away from jargon and be enthusiastic about your work. Focus on your previously crafted messages.
  • Make your research relevant to local issues or to your audience.
  • Be conversational. Use stories, analogies, and everyday terms.
  • When discussing uncertainty in your findings, use phrases like:
    • “The best science we have tells us…”
    • “Our research indicates that the most likely reason is…”

To the general public, uncertainty in something means that it is unknown. Make clear that although you may not have 100% certainty, this doesn’t mean that you are unsure about your findings.

After the Interview

  • Send the reporter any graphics or resources you have available.
  • Make yourself available for follow-up questions.
  • Generally, you won’t be able to review a story before it’s published. This is standard practice in journalism and is done to protect the journalist’s integrity.
  • If you see any issues in the scientific accuracy of the published article, contact the journalist with a polite correction.
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