Let’s be Honest

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: August

One week done. I’ve gotten to write five stories so far. Most of them should come out in tomorrow’s weekend edition. They’ve all been nice and short with no frills — just present the news of the science as concisely as possible. That might not be an easy task but at least it’s straight forward. I’ve covered biology, psychology and fundamental physics. As a wonderful treat, I even got to write a brief about some non-equilibrium statistical mechanics (my field), which may be accompanied by an interactive that I helped to put together.

One thing that I noticed after doing a few interviews was that I wasn’t always truly listening to the researchers. Instead I was hunting for good quotations and when I would nab one, I would scramble to scribble it down.

To make matters worse, many (not all but many) of these researchers would just natter on about details that I had already read in their papers and press releases. These people generally wouldn’t think long enough before speaking. Often they would change thought mid-sentence ruining potentially good quotations.

If I am ever interviewed by a journalist for a print piece, I will strictly adhere to the following rules:

  1. I will listen to the question.
  2. Before speaking, I will silently remind myself that journalists are looking for quotations to broadly encapsulate the point, not to have it explained to them (they’re playing dumb).
  3. I will pause to chose my words carefully.
  4. I will give a one sentence answer that includes any essential caveats.
  5. Then and only then, I will continue on to information that I think journalists will need to write their articles.

Since most scientists don’t do this, I’ve started using a strategy to drag it out from them:

  1. I’ve started recording all my interviews in their entirety — believe it or not this is slower than transcribing quotes as I hear them, since I have to go through the entire recording afterwards.
  2. I ask the question that I would like to get an answer to and listen closely to the researcher’s first answer.
  3. Once the researcher has answered, I say, “So I asked” and repeat the question followed by “If you were to encapsulate all of what you just said into a single sentence for my article, what would you say?”
  4. After I have asked all my questions, I ask if I have missed anything.
  5. I also ask, “If you could have just one quote or point made in the article, what would that be?”
  6. Finally, I ask, “Has anything bugged you or rubbed you the wrong way about the media coverage so far?”

This recipe is forward. It’s honest. It’s cooperative. Some might even call it collusive but I need the best quotation that I can get on specific points and the scientist needs to give the best answers to be quoted in a short printed account of their work. This is the way that I’ve been approaching the last few interviews that I’ve done. I’ve been trying to make it my job to create the best possible scientist-journalist interaction during interviews for the express purpose of producing publishable quotations. And as is often the case with scientists, there’s no place for subtlety.