The Mad Biologist and Science Journalists

Over at Aetiology, Tara has an interesting post about interview requests from journalists. Since part of my job is to deal with journalists, I thought I would offer some thoughts.

First, Tara’s absolutely right: don’t bother scientists at scientific meetings. We have far too much to do as it is. If you don’t get that, you’re probably not very knowledgeable about science–which doesn’t make us inclined to want to talk to you. Here’s my list of thoughts and advice on the subject.
How does talking to you solve any of my problems?
If you call me out of the blue and ask to speak with me, you’ve just interrupted the work I was doing. Whenever I hear the phrase “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”, I’m always tempted to respond, “Sure, because all scientists do is sit around in our offices and jerk off all day. Thank goodness you called to save me from devastating ennui.” My advice: contact scientists by email and set up a time.
Now, my answering your questions solves your problem–you have a story to write. But has it solved any of my problems? In my case, I usually figure that the publicity is good for the issue I work on and for the organization, but if I were in a research lab, how does this help me, given that there can be some serious downsides (e.g., being misrepresented and thus earning the ire of your colleagues or the committee that decides whether you receive tenure)? That leads me to my next point….
I won’t be your fact checker.
You have just interrupted what I’m doing, as well as taken my time, when you could have used the Google and the internets and found out what you needed to know. Verifying facts won’t get me or my organization mentioned, so you’ve essentially burned that bridge. And on a related note….
Do your homework.
I don’t expect you to know that much: after all, I’m the expert, not you. But if you’re writing a story about MRSA, and you don’t know what it is (and it’s clear that you didn’t go to the CDC website), you are now wasting my time with the remedial biology. Again, that’s a great way to burn bridges. At least, show me that you tried to understand.
Don’t be disappointed with me when you ask a question that does not lend itself to a simple answer.
I’ll be the first to admit that scientists don’t always give good quotes. But sometimes that’s because you want a simple answer that just does not exist. I was recently asked by a fact checker (see above complaint) if a statement that 70% of bacteria from agriculture are resistant to one or more antibiotics used in human medicine. The most obvious problem with that statement is that it depends based on which species you look at. E. coli are at about sixty percent, while enterococci are at about ninety percent. I think my thoughts about the agricultural use of antibiotics are pretty damn clear, but, as a scientist, I am not going to endorse such a vague and vacuous claim. “Hi! You don’t know me from Adam, but would you like me to flush your credibility on this issue down the shitter?”
Don’t get upset when you discover that the topic of your story is far more complex than you initially thought. If this stuff were easy, we would have already figured it out.
Predetermined storylines and quote mining.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been tempted to say, “Why don’t you just send me some quotes you would like me to say, and I’ll just sign my name to them?” When someone calls me up and asks me if I think X is a concern, and I tell them that it’s a pretty insignificant problem, it’s amusing in a sick, twisted way to watch them to try to get me to say something suggestive (e.g., something that led to this post*). Few things anger scientists more (or at least this scientist) professionally than a closed mind. If you have all of the damn answers anyway, why are you wasting my time?
Editors suck.
This statement, no doubt, will endear me to our Benevolent Seed Overlords… Anyway, even if the reporter does everything right, editors can hack out or change the story to the point where the end result doesn’t bear much relationship to anything you said. More importantly, unlike the reporters who have done the research, editors often don’t understand the science, and make really bad editorial decisions. Decisions that can make me look like a jackass.
Given all of these downsides and pitfalls, scientists need something in return for giving an interview. If I were in academia, the downsides of talking to reporters would probably outweigh the benefits of speaking with them most of the time. I don’t need to see my name in the paper for its own sake (if it helps plug an important issue, that’s a different matter).
*I was contacted by another newspaper (not the NY Times) regarding the same story.

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12 Responses to The Mad Biologist and Science Journalists

  1. hibob says:

    “don’t bother scientists at scientific meetings. We have far too much to do as it is. If you don’t get that, you’re probably not very knowledgeable about science–which doesn’t make us inclined to want to talk to you. ”
    Who are you trying to kid???
    If you’re attending (not organizing) the conference, you’re not that busy. You’ve got a talk or a poster to present, there are talks and maybe a workshop you need to attend, There are people you need to talk to. You’ll probably be spending some time at the beach or sightseeing. You’ll also be spending at least one night getting s**tfaced with the people you went to grad school with. But if you’re in town for a four to six day conference, that leaves a LOT of downtime. A better rule would be to avoid approaching people before noon – the chances of them being too hung over to speak intelligibly in the morning are much higher than the chances of them being to busy to speak at length in the afternoon.

  2. QrazyQat says:

    hibob, you must go to some really boring conferences with uninteresting subjects in a field which has little research going on. How sad for you. Maybe you should get into another field, because usually conferences have too many things going on, several things at once is a common problem. We used to have to choose between two conferences at least once a year, not to mention choose beteen talks once we got to the one we’d decided on.

  3. hibob says:

    QrazyQat- Wow. That’s quite a collection of assumptions to make about chemistry and chemists.
    Of course there are days at an ACS conference when you want to be in three different places simultaneuously; there are also afternoons when there is nothing going on that relates to your field at all.

  4. Andy says:

    One major reason for reporters to go to conferences is to meet a lot of scientists in one place and hear about new work. But actually reporters don’t get to conferences much these days. Their editors don’t like letting them out of sight for days on end without a guaranteed flow of copy back to the desk. The reporters most likely to go to scientific conferences are those writing exclusively about science, and if you haven’t noticed, they are heading for endangered status.
    From the other side, on the timing issue, remember reporters live in a world of daily and hourly deadlines. I have to write this story by 4 pm today. Surely this professor has 10 minutes between 9 am and 3 pm?! (I know, you don’t. But that’s the point: academic and journalistic time runs on drastically different scales).
    But my main point for scientists is, do you want the public (who most likely pay for your research and support your institution) to know about your work or not? If you want their continued support, better communicate with them. And sorry blogs, that means working with the news media.
    You probably have a media relations unit on campus. They probably know what they’re talking about — some of them may have been reporters and some may even have a Ph.D. If they’re any good they can smooth the process for you.

  5. John Wilkins says:

    I worked as the PR hack for a college, and also in the field for a medical research institute before joining the Dark Side. I’m here to tell you that this is exactly right. Especially the bit about editors.
    I also worked in the editorial room of a large metropolitan daily newspaper (*ahem*) and I have to say I never worked with such an ignorant bunch of know-nothings.

  6. Mike, the notion that reporters should not both scientists at conferences is, to be blunt, absurd. As a journalist with 20 years of experience, much of it covering science, I have to argue that scientific conference are among the best, most efficient and productive places to find stories, sources, complementary or dissenting opinions and get facts checked. At the very least, they are great places to make contacts, exchange emails, and start the discussion rolling. This is fact of life for a science journalist. And if a scientist can’t take five minutes on a coffee break to meet and greet an interested journalist, then perhaps he/she should stay in the lab.

  7. SLC says:

    Relative to talking with reporters, I would suggest that interested parties download one of Ken Millers’ presentations where he talks about being contacted by a reporter for an Atlanta newspaper concerning the controversial sticker being affixed to a high school biology textbook he co-authored. His response is an excellent example of how to handle reporters looking for a controversy.

  8. Anonymous says:

    SLC- could you point us towards one of the presentations you are talking about? There is so much stuff by and about Ken Miller on the web that I could spend all day wading through it.

  9. SLC says:

    Re Anonymous
    Attached is a link to a speech he delivered at the Un. of Kansas. The comment about the sticker starts about 10 minutes into the presentation. The presentation can be watched online or can be downloaded by a download manager like NetTransport, Streambox, or Streamdown (for Windows; I have been unable to find a MAC program which will download streaming video). Note that, in any case, the RealMedia Player is required.

  10. shoa says:

    While there are some reasonable points here (like ‘do your homework’, ‘we’re not fact checkers’), the general attitude of this piece is immature and somewhat ignorant. As scientists, it is not only in our own interests, it’s our responsibility to help the general public become more aware of science. Right now, ignorance or misunderstanding of science has led to many policies which hurt the scientific community. To ignore journalists or only treat them as nuisances exacerbates the problem. Science is for everyone, and scientists need to take an active role in sharing their science with the public (who generally are the ones who fund the research in the first place).

  11. Hank Roberts says:

    Uh, yeah.

  12. QrazyQat- Wow. That’s quite a collection of assumptions to make about chemistry and chemists.
    Of course there are days at an ACS conference when you want to be in three different places simultaneuously; there are also afternoons when there is nothing going on that relates to your field at all

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