Top tips from science writers — before you speak to the media
10 science and health journalists give scientists their best advice
By David Levine Posted on 18 March 2016
“If you had one piece of advice to give scientists before they spoke to the media, what would it be?”
I asked that question to science writers from around the world last month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC.
Here’s what they said:
1. Know who your audience will be.
"Make sure you are talking to a reporter who knows and is interested in your work. And you should know who you are speaking with and who their readers (or) viewers are."
2. Don’t answer right away …
"When contacted by a journalist, don't answer right away. Tell them you'd like to think about the question and will get back to them in half an hour. You don't want to talk off the top of your head."
— Estrella Burgos Ruiz, science writer and Editor-in-Chief of ¿Cómo ves?, Mexico City
3. Answer our questions – even the “stupid” ones.
"Cut the science lingo and be happy to answer the most stupid questions. Make sure the reporter understands your answers, and help them as much as possible to tell your story."
4. Make sure they really understand you.
"Give a reporter time. Make sure they really understand what you are telling them. Remember that communication is a conversation. Speak openly and clearly."
5. Speak as you would to a parent or sibling.
"Speak to a journalist the same way you'd speak to a parent or sibling; in plain language so they understand your work. Remember that people are very interested in science and eager to learn."
6. Don’t worry about what your colleagues might think …
"Remember you are speaking to a journalist and not a colleague. Don't worry about what your colleagues might think of your descriptions. This is not for them, it’s for the general public.”
7. Have a sense of humor … and avoid nuances.
“Be honest. Don't be afraid. Give simple examples. Have a sense of humor and try and avoid nuances."
— Senne Starckx, freelance journalist, Belgium
8. Tell me something new – and show me who you are.
"I always ask a scientist, ‘What do you know that you haven't told other journalists or colleagues?’ Tell a reporter something new or controversial, and talk about yourself and your experiences. Give the reporter a sense of your personality."
9. Smile – even on the phone!
"Smile during in-person and phone interviews. It makes you feel better!"
— Kaoru Natori (@kaoru_natori), Manager, Media Section Leader, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan
10. Develop relationships with reporters you trust.
"Develop relationships with reporters you trust. Give them a heads up a few weeks before your study is published so they have time to prepare and ask thoughtful questions. When speaking with a journalist, use clear and concise language."
— Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato (@mbloudoff), freelance science/health/environment journalist in Washington, DC, who has reported for NPR, Reuters Health, Nature, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine and Science Magazine, and former Senior Editor at Everyday Health.
All photos by David Levine
Elsevier Connect Contributor
David Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). He served as director of media relations at the American Cancer Society and as senior director of communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, More magazine, and Good Housekeeping , and was a contributing editor at Physician's Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.