Unsolicited Advice, Part Six: Talking to the Media

By Sean Carroll | March 21, 2008 2:26 pm

It’s about the time of year when prospective graduate students are making one of the most important decisions of their lives: where to go to grad school. So we really should give some advice about that, but happily we already have! And it still seems pretty relevant. Meanwhile, today I’m at the KITP in Santa Barbara, speaking on a panel on The Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking to the Press. (One in a series organized by the KITP’s Journalist in Residence.) So I have to give a short talk about that, and thought I could take advantage of the opportunity by turning it into a blog post.

Sadly, I eventually realized that I do not have a Grand Unified Theory of interactions between scientists and journalists. It is a complicated relationship, in which there is much overlap in objectives on both sides, but also undeniably some tensions here and there. Consider the following two anecdotes:

  • My first direct interaction with the science press was as a grad student, when I was working with Edward Farhi and Alan Guth on whether it was possible to build a time machine out of cosmic strings (as proposed by Richard Gott). Our work was written up in Science News, and they did an extremely careful job — Ron Cowen interviewed us in depth, asked good questions, and the magazine even sent us a draft copy of the article to check for accuracy before it was printed. (That almost never happens, don’t expect it.) But when we saw it in print, an editor had helpfully inserted just one new sentence to make things more clear — explaining that open universes were ones that would expand forever. Except that we were working in the slightly unusual context of 3 spacetime dimensions, not the usual 4, and in that case open universes don’t really “expand” at all. Good intentions gone awry.
  • I was once in the audience for a panel featuring David Kestenbaum, a science reporter for NPR. He played us a tape of a radio journalist talking to a scientist about the fear of avian flu spreading from the Bronx Zoo. The scientist babbled on at length about open systems and complex environment and disease vectors in a rapid-fire stream of utter incomprehensibility. The journalist stopped him for a second, and basically said “Look, cutting to the chase, does the zoo pose a danger?” The scientist said “No, absolutely not.” “Okay, could you say that directly?” “Sure, no problem.” And then the journalist asks the question again, to which the scientist — well, you can guess. A rapid-fire stream of dense jargon, in which the word “No” never appeared. Completely useless for the radio.

As far as the Very Big Picture is concerned, scientists and journalists are on the same side. We all want to tell interesting and true stories to a wide audience. But when it comes to specifics, aims and competencies often diverge. Understanding what each others’ goals and constraints are can definitely help to make for a better final product.

So here are some things that I, as a scientist, have figured out about what journalists want. At least I think I have figured them out; actual journalists are welcome to jump in and explain what they really want in their own words.

  • Journalists want stories that are interesting. This goes without saying, but for better or for worse the judgment about what is “interesting” may be different from person to person, and from scientist to journalist. I was once interviewed about a paper I had written, in which I mentioned that we had calculated a number that was possibly the smallest positive number ever to appear in a physics paper. To me it was just a joke, but the journalist seized on it and wanted to make it the centerpiece of the story. I thought that our speculations about the origin of the universe were really more important than that, and I didn’t even know for sure whether any other smaller numbers had appeared, but to no avail.
  • Journalists want stories that are understandable. Again, pretty obvious, but again a danger lurks, and here is a case where a conscientious scientist can do some good. It is often possible, as we all know, to string together a series of words that conveys the illusion of understanding, without actually conveying any real information. To a journalist who is not an expert in the field, it can be hard to tell the difference. Scientists should be careful to ensure that the explanations they give are actually increasing the amount of understanding in the recipient’s brain, not simply providing a warm feeling of being smart.
  • Journalists want statements to be tangible. Abstract thought is a necessary component of being a physicist, but we are used to taking leaps in ways that non-experts are not. (Back when you were learning various bits of abstract math and physics for the first time, was it all clear to you immediately, or did it take some practice?) So journalists feel extremely grateful when a lofty-sounding idea can be brought down to earth with a useful analogy or illustration. No professional cosmologist should ever be surprised when they are asked “What is the universe expanding into?“, and they should have an answer ready.
  • Journalists are not in the business of science education, generally speaking. This seems puzzling to scientists, who like to see a greater understanding of all of science, both the brand-new parts and the more established parts. But more than one journalist has tried to explain to me that they’re job is reporting news, not providing a general education — the same would hold for reporting on economics or politics. Of course, as scientists, if we can figure out a way to educate people about a general principle by relating it to a specific news story, all the better for everyone.
  • Journalists are not in the business of allocating credit. Another sticking point for scientists, who (as academics more generally) live and die by an allocation of credit. Journalists don’t want give credit to the wrong people, of course, but doling it out to every possible person in precisely appropriate measure is not their primary concern. Scientists will generally want to see all of the collaborators on a paper being mentioned in a story, and funding agencies certainly want to carefully distinguish who made what telescope and so on. And that’s not even counting what happens when more than one group is responsible for something, and a story only mentions one. It makes sense to try to strike some sort of middle ground here, giving credit as fairly as possible, but scientists need to understand that a detailed list of all the people involved in some piece of work is generally not what a journalist is looking for. (Maybe in a magazine article, unlikely for a newspaper, and essentially never for broadcast media.)

But there is one goal that is worth separating out from the others, and should be shared by scientists and journalists in equal measure.

  • Everyone is interested in saying only things that are true, not things that are false. Well, sure. But it’s worth emphasizing, as there are so many other pressures — on both sides! — that the truth occasionally gets compromised, and in my view that should never be acceptable. The WMAP headlines we wrote about some time back are a great example. Both scientists and journalists worked hard to turn a scientific result that was undoubtedly interesting and important into a story that was punchy and palatable, and a lot of truth got sacrificed in the process. When that happens, we can only blame ourselves when the public gets confused about what is going on.

So, absent a detailed underlying theory, I can suggest just a few helpful hints to keep in mind when you get called on by a journalist. Again, only idiosyncratic impressions by someone who hasn’t really done this all that often — feel free to chime in with your own.

  • Think of what to say ahead of time. This is probably the single most important thing I have learned, and is especially important when you are being interviewed on the air. You might think “It’s an interview, I will just be asked questions and answer them.” Even if that were true, you can very often anticipate many questions, and your answers will make much more sense if you’ve thought about them ahead of time. But a lot of the time the interviewer won’t know the best questions to ask — you are more likely than they are to understand what are the interesting bits, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t gently guide them in that direction.
  • More generally, take an active role. Talk to the journalist about what they have already learned and plan to say. You might be able to make useful suggestions about other people to talk to, or directions to take the story; or you might be able to correct some lurking misimpression.
  • Think of analogies and metaphors. Bring it down to earth, and they will love you for it. Tell them that visible matter is “the olive in the martini of dark matter,” and they will want to have your children.
  • Use language carefully. One of the hardest things for professionals in any field to remember is how to disentangle their terms of art from ordinary language. When we use words like “energy” or “dimension” or “vacuum,” we have specific things in mind, but so does everyone else — they’re just not the same things. Try to anticipate the connotations your words will have in people’s minds. Even when we use our own technical jargon, we don’t always do so consistently, and it’s worth the effort to sort out the precise meanings of each word we use. (Does “Big Bang” mean a framework in which the universe expands from a hot, dense early state, or a specific moment in time of infinite density and curvature?)
  • Put things in context. What is important, less important, known, still speculative? I’m a big believer that it’s good to let the wider world in on the messy process that science really is, showing them our work in progress rather than waiting until we have rock-solid findings to reveal to the unwashed masses. But if you do that, make sure you draw very specific distinctions between what we know (“the universe is expanding”), what we feel has a good chance of being true (“there was a period of early inflation”), and what is a simple speculation, as well-motivated as it may be (“the quantum state of the universe is described by the Hartle-Hawking wave function”).
  • Boil it down to the essence. You’re not giving a lecture or teaching a course; you can’t rely on the audience’s attention over the long term. What is the point you would like them to remember a year later? (And if there isn’t one, why are you bothering?) Take that point and express it in a sentence of no more than twelve words. You’l genuinely be doing some good.
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Advice, Science and the Media
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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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