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April 22, 2010 Volume 31, No. 28

Understanding the media can help researchers reduce science “horror” stories

Media mishaps

Media panel describe the intricacies of translating science

When scientists get an interview request from a reporter, it’s always a good idea to ask in what publication the article will appear, Jack Schultz told the audience at a recent panel discussion on science writing.

Schultz, director of MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center, learned that lesson the hard way. He was a young postdoc the first time a journalist requested an interview, and he and his colleagues had just published a journal article about their study on communication between plants. He still remembers how excited he was when a reporter called, and he blithely described his research.

He wasn’t nearly as excited when he found out the article was published in the National Enquirer amid reports of alien Elvis sightings and celebrity split-ups.

That anecdote was just one of the media mishaps that were rehashed April 15 when Schultz moderated a panel discussion as part of Life Sciences Week. It was billed as “Tales from Scientists and Journalists: How to Avoid a Horror Story.”

Panel members, all seasoned science writers, were: Bill Allen, director of MU’s agricultural journalism program and former St. Louis Post-Dispatch environment reporter; Christian Basi, associate director of the MU News Bureau; Emma Marris, freelance writer for the journal Nature; and Glen Nowak, director of media relations for the Centers for Disease Control.

“One reason we’re doing this is because we’re always trying to explain to people what we’re doing here (at the Life Sciences Center) and why we’re doing it,” Schultz said. “Scientists are not trained to do that.” 

Journalists “have the job of translating for us, and that interface is not always comfortable for either side,” he said. Over the years, Schultz said he has heard many researchers’ stories about encounters with reporters, often laced “with much mirth and sometimes grinding of teeth.”

He has his share of those stories. Take the time, for example, when People magazine did a story about him and sent a reporter to his apartment looking for a human-interest angle. Schultz expected to talk about the science behind his research, but the reporter wanted a photo of him playing the guitar. He looked in Shultz’s refrigerator — which, embarrassingly, contained a number of insect specimens — and even looked under his bed.

Schultz was perplexed, but made a point of getting across the information he thought was important. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll do what you ask as long as you treat the science seriously.’ ”

The panel of science writers had some horror stories of their own. Basi recalled one incident when an MU faculty member asked the News Bureau to do a press release. After a television station called Basi to set up an interview, he contacted the researcher who flatly told him, “I don’t do broadcast.”

“It’s embarrassing to send out a press release and then have your source refuse to talk to the media,” Basi said. Fortunately, incidents like those are infrequent, he said, and he praised the patience of most faculty in helping the News Bureau publicize Mizzou’s research accomplishments.

More and more often, he said, his office is using video and audio feeds to tell MU’s story and is posting those on the university’s website. “There are so many more ways to get your message out than just the media, and we can help you do that,’ Basi said.

Other panel members recalled lengthy interviews with scientists, at the end of which the researchers said their comments were off the record or they insisted on approving quotes before they were published. That’s not the way things work, Marris explained. If you want to put restrictions on an interview, “Do that beforehand.”       

Basi said he sometimes gets calls from faculty members who ask why he has excised precise scientific wording from a news release — words like peptides or amino acids. Researchers have to remember that releases are intended for a lay audience, he said, not for their academic colleagues. “Trust your media relations professional,” Basi said, “especially when it comes to scientific jargon.” 

But Marris stressed that it’s important to understand the difference between a media relations professional and a journalist. “The journalist does not work for you,” she said.

One part of her job in reporting on journal articles for Nature is to contact other academics in the discipline and ask for their comments, some of which may be critical. Including that criticism in the story is not a betrayal of trust, she said, “because the journalist did not sign up to be your cheerleader,” and added, tongue-in-cheek, “Not that we don’t love you.” 

Criticism goes with the territory, Nowak said, but he finds it ironic that scientists take criticism and debate for granted when they attend conferences or scientific meetings, but “when people see it in print it seems harsher than it would otherwise.”

Nowak reminded the audience that a reporter’s job is to “tell an interesting, engaging story that grabs your attention and probably has more than one side.

 “There’s a misperception that the press release is the story,” Nowak said. It is not, he said; a press release is only meant to tweak the interest of reporters, who will follow up with their own research.

“You’ve got to be ready to respond to that attention,” Nowak said. “When you knock on the door of the media and say, ‘Pay attention to me,’ they might respond in ways you didn’t anticipate.”

Allen suggested that scientists prepare for interviews by putting together a one-page summary of their work that puts it in perspective and explains who they are, what they do in the lab, even how to spell their name correctly.

Those one-pagers are especially important here at MU, where the journalism school sends out battalions of would-be reporters every semester, Allen said. “That way, when a scared — they start out scared — journalist calls and asks for an interview” the researcher can e-mail them basic background information that saves time for both sides and helps ensure accuracy.

Scientists and journalists share some of the same challenges, Allen added. “They both face massive scientific illiteracy, especially in the United States, and massive science phobia.”

Allen said it’s important for researchers to understand that different portions of the media pantheon — what he called “the news ecosystem and its species” — approach science journalism in widely different ways: as breaking news, feature stories or analysis; by print, TV, radio or digital delivery; by for-profit or public service media; even for large- and small-market audiences.Years of interacting with science reporters have taught him an important lesson, Schultz said: “You don’t have to be a scientist to write about science. Writing skills can trump the PhD.”