"The phone rings, you answer. It’s a reporter from the New York Times. She quickly explains that she’s writing a story under deadline and another scientist she spoke to gave her your name. What should you do?
1. Hang up in fear.
2. Ask what the story is about and the deadline, and then arrange with the reporter a better time to talk, keeping in mind his or her deadline.
3. Say “sure,” answer her first question, and then discuss in great detail your most recent published discovery for the next 30 minutes, interrupting the rest of the reporter’s questions."
This is an excerpt from the Communicating Science: Tools for Scientists and Engineers Web site, unveiled earlier this month by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation at the AAAS meeting in Boston. The Web site is full of practical tips on how to interact with the media. If you've ever been approached by a journalist or would like to communicate with the public, it's a great resource.
According to Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post -- a member of a panel on this topic that took place at the AAAS meeting in Boston on Friday 15 February, the public funds that scientists receive give them some obligation to talk to the press. There is "a public accountability that scientists should be up to," Eilperin said. As a journalist, she seeks to develop long-term relationships with scientists, and she encouraged them to get involved. "Figure out the reporters who you feel will cover your area well and keep in touch," she said. "Don't expect an immediate pay-off, but ultimately you can end up producing really meaningful stories that really explain to the public what's happening in science and what are the implications for people."
But interacting with the media isn't easy or automatic. It requires preparation and "a fair amount of work to do this well," said Scott Doney, researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "One of the most important things, if you want to get involved as a scientist in talking with the press, is to understand what are the motivations of journalists and how they work." In particular, scientists should remember that the media's role is to inform people on what's new, and that their deadlines are much shorter than what scientists are used to. So it's a good idea to get to know the different types of media outlets, what they are looking for, and how their deadlines fit with your schedule, Doney recommended.
Asked by the audience how he made time to talk to the media, Doney replied that the key was to make the decision to do so and prioritize tasks. "We tend to delegate this to the last thing we do at the end of a Friday," Doney said. But "it has to be in the 4-5 … most important things that you are going to do in your career."
Interacting with the media isn't free of pitfalls however. Doney warned that scientists may attract criticism from their peers, as interacting with the media is not something the scientific culture encourages. "It's going to take away some of the things that are the metrics of success in science," he added. "People can get burnt if they go into this a little bit naïve."
On the other hand, you may gain a lot out of it. "I shifted the [direction of my] research by getting more interested in how to communicate with the public," Doney said. "What the public is interested in is what science means in their lives. They want to know, 'so what?'" Doney, who researchers human-driven climate change, believes this helped him make his science better.
Talking to the media is not the only way to reach out to the public. You may choose to participate in museum activities, and there are "a whole bunch of opportunities for the scientific community to practice and to hone on skills to do that," said the third panellist Larry Bell, of the Boston Museum of Science and Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, which often organizes workshops, internships, and forums with the public.
Whatever the medium, your message needs to be clear and stick to facts rather than convey opinions. Practice explaining your science to your family, drop the jargon, and make a clear distinction between scientific facts and opinions, Doney said. If it helps you relax, ask journalists to go off the record while you provide some background you feel they should know. You may also ask to review your quotes at the end of the interview, but different journalists have different practices on this, and "you have to respect that," said Eilperin.