My first experience with media coverage of my research was mortifying. I was using pheromones for mating disruption of a moth pest, and the first sentence of the news article about my dissertation work was:
“Gwen Pearson stands alone in a vineyard as thousands of sexually aroused males converge on her location.”
In theory all PR is good PR, but when your first appearance in print describes you as some sort of grape-growing nymphomaniac, it’s hard to remember that.
Two decades later, in the usual ironic twist favored by the universe, I changed careers to become a science writer myself. I’ve written for Science, WIRED, The Washington Post, and other outlets. As a reporter interviewing scientists about their research, I gained a better understanding of just why the reporter went for the risqué opening sentence. Although, to paraphrase one of my editors, “Don’t fall back on making the scientist the butt of your joke. But do fall back on butts.” I certainly can’t deny that genitals and farts make up a not-insignificant part of my writing portfolio.
Our digital world is bursting with content. Cute mammals, professional athletes, movie explosions, and cleavage all compete for public attention. How can we make sure science news gets the attention it deserves in this competitive media landscape? I was asked to give tips about talking to reporters in a Program Symposium for Early Career Professionals for the 2017 ESA meeting, and here’s the advice I gave them.
Photograph and Video Your Research
When working full-time as a science writer, I often spent more time trying to find images to accompany a story than writing the actual story itself. Authors that provide a host of images or video to accompany a press release go to the top of my pile as a writer.
Include people in your photos; this makes photos more compelling. Bugs are cool, but people make stories more compelling. A great image invites the reader to learn more and makes the process of science visible. Instead of random facts from an unknown source, photos help build a story about how you came to the research conclusions you had.
These photos also help you. Are you writing your methods and discovering your lab notebook is incomplete? Photos help you reconstruct the process. Presenting at the ESA or for a seminar? Now you have images to use. Photographing your work is good practice as part of continually documenting your work. You can’t travel back in time and do it later.
Tell the Audience Why They Should Care
People are busy; you’re competing for time and attention in a crowded media marketplace. Distill your findings into a sound bite of one single thing someone should know about your work. By repeating this, and connecting your comments during an interview to this theme, your sound bite should shine through any editing.
The second piece to consider in advance of an interview is why someone who is not a scientist should care about your work. How is your one central message relevant to people who are not entomologists? In an age of information overload, it can be tough to get more than one or two points across. If you spend time in advance organizing your thoughts, you can create a compelling, short message.
Remember to translate your work into the language of your audience. Tritrophic is not a real word, y’all. Look for stories you can tell—stories have more impact than a list of facts. Telling a story about how you became curious about your research question and worked to find an answer makes your science more human and relatable. That also increases reader comprehension and interest.
Who You Know Can Be as Important as What You Know
This is true for everything in your career, but especially so when working with the media. Having an active online presence helps makes connections before you need them. It’s not required that you be on social media if that isn’t your thing, but you do need to have clear contact information on a website somewhere.
If you haven’t googled yourself lately, make sure that what shows up is professional and current. A vita is helpful to reporters to see who your collaborators and funders are and to determine potential conflicts of interest. Having an online presence also helps journalists find you in the first place; they are looking for new and interesting voices. Don’t be afraid to reach out to journalists via social media or to use your contacts for networking.
Ask your mentors how they work with the media. Your university probably has a PIO (Public Information Officer) or communications office staff that writes press releases. (The Entomological Society of America does, too.) Talk to them! They can provide valuable advice and resources. Make sure they know who you are before your paper publishes—once your research is in print, it’s not new news. Your PIO can also help interpret the embargo policy of journals you’re publishing in. They can help get a press release written and sent to the media and can serve as a point of contact for the journal.
If you can get a press release written, your research will reach a broader audience. Many websites publish the press release in its entirety, unedited. Phys.org and Sciencedaily.com are two examples; their coverage does count toward the Altmetrics of your paper, too!
When You are Contacted By a Journalist
It’s happened! You received an email or a call from a reporter interested in your research. What’s next?
Respond in a timely fashion; often journalists are on a tight deadline. Press releases are typically given to reporters two to three days before formal publication. Don’t let that rush you, though. If you get a phone call, it’s OK to say you need to schedule an interview at a later time. Never just “wing it” without any preparation. When scheduling your interview, ask how much time they need, so you can clear your schedule.
Before the interview, look up the reporter and read their previous pieces. That will give you a sense of their style, and the types of audience they write for. This is especially important for video or television interviews. You can ask if you can see questions in advance, but understand that will probably not happen. Many news organizations specifically prohibit sharing either questions or article drafts in advance of publication.
Write down your main message and why someone should care about it. That way, if your mind goes suddenly blank during the interview, you have a reminder right in front of you. Seeing the message may help you remember to hook other comments back into the main theme you want to convey, too.
Here are some of the most common questions I like to ask during an interview:
- Did anything funny/scary/unexpected happen during the research or in the results?
- What do people often get wrong or misunderstand about your topic?
- What are some limitations of your research findings?
- Why did you choose this research topic? What made it interesting to you?
- Who in your field could provide external comments on your work?
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is just be yourself. Show your excitement for your work.
After the Interview
The story is published; congrats!
But what if you think something is wrong? Remember that journalism is to inform and entertain. That means that sometimes details get cut, because they aren’t truly needed for understanding by a non-technical audience. It just might not matter that the genus and species name of your organism isn’t in the article, for example.
Mistakes do happen occasionally. Usually this is because many, many individuals are involved in publishing a news story. The people choosing images are separate from those writing the headline, and editors for the content are separate from the reporter you actually talked to. If something seems incorrect, the best thing to do is contact the writer directly, explaining what you think the problem is.
Reporters want to get things right, and usually a correction can be made if needed. The vast majority of the time, though, you’ll end up with great coverage of your work and news articles to share with your family.
- Message Box Workbook
- Desk Guide to Working with the Media (PDF)
- Sense About Science Media Guides to Interviews
- Anatomy of a Press Release
- AAAS Communicating Science Resources
- Developing Effective Messaging
- How the words you choose affect audience receipt of your message. (Caveat: This is a marketing document; I include it to let you see how organizations carefully choose the language of their messaging through audience research.)
- 5 Tips to Improve your Science Writing (with a downloadable checklist!)
- Use the highest resolution photo you can; 300 dpi will allow news organizations to use your photo as the header image of an online story or in print.
- Video with your cellphone is just fine! But make sure to use landscape mode.
- Program Symposium: Igniting the Spark: Science Communication by the Next Generation of Entomologists
- Presentation: How to talk to a reporter about your research
Entomology 2017: Ignite. Inspire. Innovate.
Gwen Pearson, Ph.D., is a science writer and insect evangelist as well as Education and Outreach Coordinator at Purdue University’s Department of Entomology. She occasionally writes as a freelance science writer for WIRED Science, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. Twitter: @bug_gwen.