Sunday, May 3, 2009

Communicating Science

The phone rings. It’s a reporter from the NY Times who wants to interview you about a recent paper one of your colleagues has published in Science and the general topic of “global warming”. Do you:

a. Hang up.

b. Say “sure,” and answer the first question, followed by a long monologue stating your opinions and giving details about your own research; basically taking charge of the interview.

c. Ask for more details and the reporter’s deadline, and then suggest a better time to talk, giving you some time to prepare.

The answer is c. It is always appropriate to ask a reporter for time to prepare for an interview as well as for a list of questions. This will give you time to not only think about your answers, but to develop concise, accurate answers illustrated perhaps with a vivid analogy to get your point across. Rambling on and on, interrupting the reporter, and failing to note the reporter’s impending deadline will increase the chances that most of what you say ends up being cut (maybe your entire interview).

Here are some tips from a science and technology reporter, Robert S. Boyd (from

What are you looking for from scientist sources?

I look for scientists who will respond to my questions in clear layman’s language, with a minimum of jargon. They should be well-qualified in the subject matter and be able to explain complex topics.

How important is the scientist to your story, generally?

The scientist is essential to my stories, either in person, by telephone or email, or by his published papers and books.

How do you handle the balance between scientific accuracy and "dumbing down" information?

It is a major challenge to maintain the right balance between scientific accuracy and successful communication with ordinary readers. That’s a science writer’s job. I don’t like to think of it as “dumbing down information.” I use a mental yardstick: the scientist is at one end, the reader at the other end, and I want to be nearer to the reader than to the scientist.

What suggestions would you give scientists for how to successfully communicate to journalists and the general public? What should they keep in mind?

To successfully communicate with journalists and the public, a scientist must first engage their interest, which is not always easy. He/she has to supply context and explain why this material is important. He cannot assume that his audience has a lot of background information. Scientists who appear on Public Television usually are very good at this.

Talk about some ways scientists have been useful to you in covering a story.

Scientists have been extremely helpful when they let me observe them at work. For example, I camped out with geologists in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. I spent 20 days on a research ship in the Northeast Pacific studying underwater volcanoes. I visited the hot springs in Yosemite with biochemists like Norm Pace and WOMAN. It’s also good when a scientist corrects misunderstandings, supplies papers and photos, and refers me to other experts.

What would you like to see scientists do differently in interviews with you?

I would like scientists, in interviews, to try very hard to explain their work in clear, vivid language that I can pass on to my readers. A punchy quote, colorful analogy or catchy sound-bite, is always welcome, but not at the expense of accuracy.

What's different about your medium/outlet/format that scientists should keep in mind?

My medium, McClatchy Newspapers, deals primarily in words. But we are always eager for pictures or graphics to illustrate the story. And now, like everybody else, we are on the web, and can use video and audio.

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