Scientists talking with reporters

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Celeste Condit, distinguished research professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, has an article in the latest Nature Reviews Genetics that is well worth reading: How geneticists can help reporters to get their story right. Although the article is focused on helping geneticists talk with reporters, she makes important points that apply to any scientist (and probably any academic) who hopes to improve the coverage of science. Access to the full article requires a subscription, but here are a few key points from the article.

  • “Scientists have a social responsibility to talk knowledgeably with reporters, and to do so is in the interest of science in an era when public funding and control over science is significant. However, some scientists avoid this task because it is onerous. At a minimum, it requires the same level of preparation that one would give to a platform presentation at a scientific conference.”
  • “Science journalists, for the most part, are people who find science interesting and at least potentially valuable. However, many news pieces about scientific topics are not written by reporters who specialize in science news, and journalists are paid primarily to attract demographically valuable audiences so that advertisers will pay high rates.”
  • “Science news therefore usually has a slant, or frame,1 that plays up the wonders (or occasionally the potential threats) of a scientific breakthrough, but also includes a more-or-less detailed nod at ‘the other side’.”
  • “To provide an accurate picture of the implications of a scientific discovery and to avoid a sense of betrayal by the public, when speaking with journalists about their work, geneticists might consider curbing their own hopefulness. Instead, they might enumerate the scientific roadblocks, and perhaps the social ones, that stand in the way of the desired applications. In most cases, it also would be appropriate to remind the reporter of the ever-present potential for results to be overturned by further research.’
  • “Translating technical vocabularies into lay parlance is not an easy task, nor will it ever be perfectly achieved. Given the difficulties, writing out exactly the message one wants to convey to a journalist in four or five sentences might be the most effective preparation.”
  • “Journalists prefer phone interviews because they are fluid and interactive, and give the journalist substantial control over the record of what is said. Wherever possible, insisting on written questions and responses helps the interviewee to focus the interview on what they want to communicate. Occasionally, as a condition of being interviewed, one can also gain an agreement to see the copy before it is submitted, so that one has a chance to correct any faulty interpretations. Finally, even after publication, if a reporter makes an error or uses an inappropriate frame, the reporter should be told that. In some cases, the reporter's editor might also benefit from being informed of serious or systematic errors, especially when more than one interviewee agrees that there are problems in the reporting.”

1Those of you who've been following the debate about framing in science will realize that Condit chose her words carefully.

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