Chemistry in Australia, October 2000

Wise travellers carry an emergency kit for those times when they find themselves in unknown and potentially dangerous situations. No situation is more dangerous for scientists than to be in the hands of the media. It happens to many of us at some stage in our careers. Some of us even seek it. The key to a successful outcome is to be prepared. This article lists an emergency kit of items of useful knowledge to carry in preparation for your next media encounter.

The knowledge comes from experience – mine and other people’s. My own experience comes from having voluntarily placed myself in a series of potentially difficult media situations in the interests of bringing science to the attention of a wider public. Other scientists with more media experience than myself have been very generous with their advice on these occasions. This advice, plus learning from my many mistakes, is what I would now like to pass on.

My first advice is to avoid the media altogether. It is my personal, and admittedly minority, view that we should not promote science as media “news” as if it just happened yesterday (I make an exception of projects that are specifically designed to interest the public in science). My personal view doesn’t count for much, though. We can’t keep our science out of the news, however much we try. The media keep their eye on such journals as “Nature” and “New Scientist“, and most journals put out press releases on articles of potential media interest, while the institutions in which we work are also keen for publicity. However the media call arises, the same question must still be faced: “How do we answer when it comes?”

The call comes to me fairly often these days. The trouble is, what journalists want me to talk about has little to do with what I want to say. Usually they want me to “explain”, in lay language, the latest great or quirky advances in science. I would prefer to talk about science in public as I would with my colleagues at a conference or in the coffee room, sharing the fascination of the detail and the thrill of the chase. I can’t do it, and neither can you. If you talk to a journalist in this way, you are lost.

The only successful way to interact with a journalist is to accept their rules and to play the journalist’s game. That game is concerned with one thing only – news. If your science can be presented as news, the journalist may be able to sell the story to his or her editor. Otherwise, it’s no go.

The journalist will already have decided that your story is news – otherwise you would not have been approached. The only actions that you can now take are to refuse to talk to the journalist, or to provide information appropriate to the news story that the journalist wants to write. What you mustn’t do is to provide a detailed (and doubtless fascinating) account of the underlying science and leave it to the journalist to condense this material into a story.

It sounds like a difficult proposition – and it is. But, since you were probably the one who wrote or participated in the press release that attracted the attention, there is time to plan your answers and to write down some appropriate phrases. The key is to know what is wanted, and to have appropriate answers at your fingertips.

If you don’t, it can all go terribly pear-shaped, as it did for a group of British colleagues who had published a perfectly serious, commercially sponsored, piece of work on the softening of breakfast cereals in contact with milk. Unluckily, the American committee that awards the infamous IgNobel Prize got to hear of it, and found the notion of Government scientists undertaking a serious study of the sogginess of cornflakes sufficiently hilarious to award them a prize. Their attempts to explain that there was a serious underlying scientific question fell on deaf ears, and they were crucified by the media, who were delighted to have a story about ivory tower scientists wasting their time on ridiculous sounding projects at Government expense.

It was an obvious line for the journalists to take, but might have been defused if my colleagues hadn’t attempted to explain the science, and had instead simply emphasised that this was an industrially funded project, with hard-headed commercial sponsors who were unlikely to be wasting their money on moonshine. This approach might even have got the media defending British science from unwarranted American criticisms and attempts to be funny at British expense.

I was luckier when my own turn for an IgNobel award came several years later, following the publicity accorded to my experiments on the science of biscuit dunking, which were deliberately designed to attract public attention. The phrases that I had prepared had nothing to do with the science – I knew that the media wouldn’t be interested. Instead, I promoted the work as “public access science”, with the citation being for “bringing public attention to science”, while the award ceremony itself was “a public occasion for otherwise serious scientists to let their hair down and pull each other’s legs”. The subsequent media stories focussed on the “public access to science” question, bypassing the opportunity to present me as a hair-brained scientist doing ridiculous things.

The only difference between my colleagues and myself was that I had learned that journalists are seldom interested in science for its own sake. This is not to criticise the journalists. It is simply a fact of life that the professional job of a journalist is to get a story, and that interest in or knowledge of the field from which the story originates is seldom relevant.

That’s not to say that journalists don’t care about actual scientific facts – they do, and usually take great care to get them right. The facts of use to journalists, though, must be relevant to the story that the journalists are trying to write.

The way to get that control over that story is to be aware of what the journalist is looking for. It’s up to us to provide phrases within these parameters that the journalist can use and link together. The rules are simple:

  • Focus on what the journalist wants.
  • Do the summarising yourself – don’t expect the journalist to do it for you.
  • Don’t make “off-the-record” remarks.
  • Don’t elaborate.
  • Don’t answer leading questions if they are not relevant to what you want to say.

Above all, think up your metaphors in advance.Remember that the public won’t understand even simple scientific words and ideas, so avoid using them. Analogies are the best way to circumvent the twin problems of unfamiliar words and unfamiliar concepts. Even the most familiar of scientific words (to us) is likely to be unfamiliar to a general audience, and will need explanation by metaphor. If you are talking about stress concentration at the tip of a crack, for example, refer instead to the pain when a narrow high heel contacts an unwary foot. The more that your analogy relates to common human experience, the more easily it will be taken in.

It takes time and effort to come up with good analogies, and it’s almost impossible to do on the spot. Don’t begrudge the time, and check them out with non-scientific friends. Fellow scientists are seldom in a position to make a critical assessment.

It’s especially important to have your metaphors ready when it comes to radio and television interviews. Many scientists fear these greatly, but in fact they are much easier to handle than newspaper interviews if you are prepared. Always ask how long the interviewer wants the piece to be. Often it’s only thirty seconds or so. Practise with a colleague saying what you want to say during that time, but be prepared to drop all this if the question is different from that anticipated. Interviewers get very suspicious if you avoid the question, and may give you a harder time as a result.

If the interview is being recorded, take your time before answering. The gap is easily edited. If you feel that you have said something compromising, use the old politician’s trick of immediately throwing in a swear word, then apologise and start again. If you feel that it is going well, move your head around slightly while talking. This makes it harder for them to cut and paste. For goodness sake don’t do this on television – keep your head still while talking.

Another interesting difference between radio and television concerns the actor’s art of projecting. On radio, it helps to project like crazy. That way, you will come over as normal. If you talk normally, you will come over as rather dull.

The opposite applies to TV. On TV, the trick is to hold back, play it cool. The big screen, with its tight head shots, will do the projecting for you. If you try to project, the most likely result is that you will look stupid. I should know; I’ve done it.

Overall, in dealing with the media, play their game. You can’t beat them, so join them. Recognize what they want, and give it to them. Just make sure that it is on your terms. In this way, journalists can be enrolled as supporters in the cause of publicising science. They are usually only too willing, provided that we help them by doing our part.

© This article is copyright Len Fisher. Please email Len Fisher to seek permission to reproduce part or all of the above article.

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