Science journalism

Interviewing as the science journalist

This was an area of great interest and concern when I curated the @realscientists Twitter account a couple of months ago. People had their horror stories and others wanted to know how it should be done.

We tried to get a live interview up and running so people could actually watch me in action but time zones and technology conspired against us. Maybe one day we will manage it. If you are a scientist who would be up for a mock interview via a G+ hangout to be archived on Youtube let me know.

Preparation:

  1. Research the person and the story and the science involved.
  2. Set up your notebook and fill in what you already know.
  3. Start writing out a list of questions – don’t leave out the basic ones. If you ask the basic ones, you can get good quotes to use even if you already know the answers.
  4. Check your batteries and memory for your camera and your recording device, be it your recorder or your smartphone or your laptop. Ditto for all parts of any filming gear you plan to use if you are filming or recording audio.
  5. Make sure you have talent release forms so that the subject has agreed in writing to be photographed or filmed. Apparently there is an app for this somewhere so if anyone knows of it let me know though I am not sure you could use it in any and every possible context.
  6. Have your business card on you AND the names of the subject and the media/PR people who are enabling the interview to happen. If you have a press or media pass, that should never leave your side.

During the interview:

  1. Say hi. Introduce yourself, ask them how they are, ascertain/doublecheck how long they are available for and give them a quick explanation of how things work. Here’s an example of what I would say:

    So, I will ask some basic questions but that’s just for quotes so if you think of a cool way to say something, let me know. [BIG SMILE] It will be X words long, I don’t know when it will go up but I will email you when it does and policy dictates that I can show you your quotes and quickly factcheck things but I can’t let you see the piece (NOTE: Put your publication’s policy on it in here – it may vary). It’s a media ethics thing since it leaves us open to accusations of collusion and bias and I have to guarantee that it is my independently created work as a piece of news – PR is a totally different kettle of fish. [LAUGH] I report so I am independent, they promote you so you can see and approve their final piece.  [BIG SMILE] You can ask my editor about it but they have the final say on it so I can’t give you any guarantee on it. And I will record the interview and take notes so you’re covered, don’t worry. And if you want to say something off the record, tell me and I’ll stop the recording/writing. And if you are not comfortable with any of it at any time, you can tell me and we can stop – if you are not comfortable being interviewed now, that’s ok as well, we can stop now before we start. [BIG SMILE]

  2. IF they agree, then you can go ahead and ask them if they would prefer to be photographed first or interviewed first. You can offer them a copy of your interview recording IF this DOESN’T go against your publication’s policy on such things so make sure you check first. Turn the recorder on and state date, time and subject’s name.
  3. I always ask this question first:

    How did you become interested in [insert scientific field here]?

    The rationale behind it is that it puts them at ease as it is often a personal question but not an invasive one and it sets the tone and establishes a rapport between you and the interviewee. You also usually get a great anecdote that can be the main part of a feature article or be snuck into a news piece. And sometimes you get to swap anecdotes as well. Once they have answered that question, they relax and aren’t as anxious or nervous and don’t have a problem answering questions that are about their professional life. It also helps those who often get a mental block when the first question of an interview hits them, whatever it may be about and even if they are keen to answer it so it gives them the time and space needed to adapt to being interviewed and get into that mode if you will.

  4. Take notes but let the recorder do the work. You need to be involved in the interview – even if you don’t particularly like the scientific field/subject that much. Ask dumb questions if you don’t understand something – an astronomer told me what “redshift” was and suddenly I could connect two pieces of the story together which was a relief since I had understood everything else but what that term meant. Try to treat each interview as an opportunity to learn about the science so you can get them to explain things to you and you can try to understand it. This helps them as teaching mode is usually something they are a bit more familiar with and they become more comfortable and it helps you as the better you understand the subject, the more awesome your story ends up being.
    The redshift refers to when light from stars looks red because they are moving away and the wavelength of the light we receive is changing as they do. Once this was explained to me, everything else about that astronomy story made far more sense. (c) Faraday Schools.
    The redshift refers to when light from stars looks red because they are moving away and the wavelength of the light we receive is changing as they do. Once this was explained to me, everything else about that astronomy story made far more sense. (c) Faraday Schools.
  5. I choose to be informal but polite. I also choose to be funny (ask if they know any jokes relating to the field) and I choose to smile and nod and encourage them to continue and try verbally explain my attempts to make sense of what they are trying to tell me. I choose to do this because I think in order to communicate between me and the scientist effectively, then a) I have to lower any barriers and b) I have to doublecheck and make sure I am not misunderstanding something. If there is good communication between the scientist and me, then I understand their work and I can turn around and work on the next stage: communicating it to the audience.

    But I need to get stage one of communication between the scientist and me working properly first. And it doesn’t matter at all what the scientist is like – that whole job of communicating the story is my job and my responsibility and while it helps when the scientists are happy to talk to you, it is still my job and my responsibility and there is a sense of duty to the scientist and the audience and my publication that comes with that and ethics as well.

    For the communication theorists, here’s the modified SMR model I apply to this (I did this for my Masters thesis, FYI):
    Stage 1:
    Scientist sends/says something (the message) to me and I take it in/receive it and provide feedback and this continues till the message/topic is fully understood/received by me.

    Stage 2: I send/write the article (the message) to the publication’s audience (which may include said scientist too) and they read/receive it. They may provide feedback (a comment/letter/correction/clarification after print) and I can choose to respond (correct an error, comment or reply back, print a full correction, clarify something or direct them to a resource or just thank them if need be) until I am sure the message/article has got through completely and effectively or accurately.

    As the person connecting the two stages together and therefore the overall sender (the scientist) with the overall recipient (the audience), it’s my job to ensure the message/science gets through with little to no noise/interference/inaccuracy/misunderstanding/errors. If you don’t take it seriously, it shows up in your work.

    A diagram of the Sender Message Receiver model of communication. It's a model from the 1940s that has been modified. I think it's simple enough to use to explain how I think we should think about the role of journalists/PR/media in science communication. (c) Dantotsupm at Dantotsupm.com
    A diagram of the Sender Message Receiver model of communication. It’s a model from the 1940s that has been modified. I think it’s simple enough to use to explain how I think we should think about the role of journalists/PR/media in science communication. (c) Dantotsupm at Dantotsupm.com

     

  6. Always ask about money or funding but always also preface it with “If you are allowed to tell me, how much…” Give them the opportunity to say it’s off the record. Do the same with issues surrounding research that may have industrial and commercial partners coming on board and commercialisation deals being made. Sometimes the scientists and researchers are either briefed inadequately or are unaware that parts of these deals cannot be discussed until the ink has dried – they may have been told that an agreement has been reached but not realise that a formal one has not been signed in which case printing that an agreement was made may either undermine the deal or lay open the journalist to charges of inaccuracy if something happens to change that fact before signing. So ask, but be aware that it should be something verified and doublechecked several times and possibly not put in the story at all if it isn’t that relevant. To be absolutely sure, delay the story till after the ink has dried and no one can back out.
  7. Also always ask for numbers (and make bloody sure you understand what the numbers are saying so you know HOW to use them) and figures and stats and for NAMES. Ask who else worked on the research and who funded and supported it. Thinking ahead in this way, people like, usually, seeing their names in print – if their name is in it, people will circulate it to their friends “I’m in the paper!” and then that’s part of your promotion work done for you right there which in turn benefits the scientist because they get their research to more pairs of eyeballs.
    The inside of your eye as photographed by an optician. (c) Wikimedia Commons. I had the images of my eyes on a flash drive but have misplaced it so you will have to wait till I find it.
    The inside of your eye as photographed by an optician. (c) Wikimedia Commons. I had the images of my eyes on a flash drive but have misplaced it so you will have to wait till I find it.
  8. Once the interview and photos are done, thank them for their time, give them your business card if they need to discuss anything with you, get their details so you can let them know when the story gets published and thank their PR/media people.

Afterwards:

  1. Scribble everything you haven’t written down because you were nodding/smiling down onto your notebook ASAP. Go over the subject in your head till you feel you have a reasonable grasp of what the science was. See if you can find your lead/lede (for the scientists/non-journalists: the first sentence of a news story).
  2. Archive and backup your recording (put it where it belongs and make sure you have a safe copy). If necessary, and required, then transcribe your interview (or get someone to do it – current AUD rates seem to be $100 to $130 per hour of recorded audio).
  3. Send thank you emails reiterating any promises you made to catch up again or contact details to doublecheck anything or for follow up interviews or promises to email out links to stories on publication etc. Send these to the media/PR people as well as to the scientist. Sometimes they ask for copies of the photos you take especially if they look nice in them. Again, your notes, photos, film and recording may technically be the property of your publication. I would err on the side of caution. Your notes should never been seen by sources. Film is kept with you. Ditto your recordings generally. Photos possibly, if you can ensure people are credited accurately though usually people ask because they want to use it for a personal reason. It’s a question of confidentiality being extended to all sources – you can’t bend the rules for one source and not for another and you cannot compromise yourself or anyone else.
  4. Go talk to your other sources – you may have politicians you want to quote in which case you have to contact their media officers, send in a list of questions, and wait a few days for a response. You may need to talk to an organisation or a company in a related industry or perhaps if it is a medical piece, a medical practitioner or someone from the related industry’s union or professional society. You need to figure out who you need to talk to and presumably you would have done this as soon as you got assigned the story and your scientist was just one of many or the primary source. However, at this point, you need to be talking to more people.
  5. Write your story/rinse and repeat for the next source/story.

Special note:

I will be writing a post on what I would love scientists to keep in mind about science journalists (specifically me) soon – I think it would help as I find that once I explain how my job works to a scientist they immediately understand why I write and do things the way I do.

Questions for you:

Do you have any tips or tricks you use to get the best out of your interview? Or to make your subject more comfortable? Tell me – I want to know (there is a comment box for a reason, folks).

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Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

6 Comments

  • xerxeskaes Aga

    Interviewing a scientist for an article you are writing necessarily means that you have at least basic information about the branch of science the interviewee is involved in. This may be anything from astrophysics, particle physics, mathematics, biology, medical research, etc, etc. Obviously, since you cannot be knowledgeable about every branch of science, how do you manage? Prior research is, of course, necessary. but still it must involve the assimilation of a lot of new information. Again. How do you manage? As an avid physics buff I could probably carry out an interview with, let’s say,Stephen Hawking. But that’sit. I will be very grateful if you can reply to this query..

    • Marisa

      Hi,

      Thank you for commenting. It is entirely possible to have a basic understanding of most branches of science. It depends I think on how nerdy you are. I do also speed read and I do research before I talk to people and I always try to read the academic research papers for each particular scientist before I interview them and I take my time puzzling out what they are saying. A lot of science operates in much the same way process wise so a lot of the time you are looking for errors in logic and errors in process and errors in numbers. If you follow the pattern of logic when reading science then you generally find it easy to understand any scientific field I think at a basic level. No one is expecting you to memorise numbers and equations and laws but if you have a good idea of how most general concepts and theories within the fields work then you are pretty good to go.

      I hope that helps? I read a lot of non fiction and watch a lot of documentaries but I also did both sciences and arts for years in high school and then at university level.

  • Chessie Pique

    Marisa, thank you for posting this fantastic article. This is a thorough, step-by-step outline for an interview from “hello” to publication.

    I don’t do scientific reporting, though I would love to, and I enjoy reading about science, which made this especially interesting.

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