Top tips from science writers — before you speak to the media

10 science and health journalists give scientists their best advice

“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.

Nina Weber"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."

Nina Weber (@Weber_Nina), Senior Editor, SPIEGEL Online, Hamburg, Germany

2. Don’t answer right away …

Estrella Burgos"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.

Jonas Mattsson"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."

Jonas Mattsson, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Modern Psykologi (Modern Psychology), published in Sweden

4. Make sure they really understand you.

Leonor Sierra"Give a reporter time. Make sure they really understand what you are telling them. Remember that communication is a conversation. Speak openly and clearly."

Leonor Sierra Isierra (@leonor_sierra), Senior Science Writer and Press Officer, University of Rochester

5. Speak as you would to a parent or sibling.

Ron Winslow"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."

Ron Winslow (@ronwinslow), Deputy Bureau Chief, Health and Science, The Wall Street Journal

6. Don’t worry about what your colleagues might think …

Mark Schrope"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.”

Mark Schrope (@mschrope), freelance journalist and outreach consultant in Florida with articles in Nature, The New York Times, New Scientist and The Washington Post.

7. Have a sense of humor … and avoid nuances.

Senne Starckx“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.

Mark Harris"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."

Mark Harris (@meharris), Kavli Award-winning science, technology and business journalist who writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times, The Independent, Wired UK and The Guardian, among others.

9. Smile – even on the phone!

Kaoru Natori"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.

Mollie Bloudoff Indelicato"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 LevineDavid 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.

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