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I'm not famous enough of a scientist to be frequently solicited by the media* (plus my field has little political/social controversy around it), but I had a few encounters with local newspapers and one with a public national television. The results were not entirely bad, but the general sentiment given was significantly different than what I would have wanted it to be.

It seems like I'm not alone, I just got back from a conference in my field where more senior scientists discussed their relationship with the general media. It came out that more often than they would like, the relationship was bad.

Problems stated, among others†:

  1. Misquotation, or words taken out of their context significantly changing their meaning (this is the most frequent).
  2. A general difficulty for the media to understand, and convey, uncertainty ('we think, it might be so..' or 'we are rather confident that ...' becomes 'it is so')
  3. Difficulty to apprehend results, applications, consequences that may or may not appear 10-20 years down the line.
  4. Exaggeration of the conclusions

etc.

These are not without consequences, at the personal level, as it can give the impression that you don't know what you are talking about.

My first thought was to ignore the media attention and advocate that scientists should do the communication themselves to bypass the regular media (having a blog, entertaining a profile on social media, etc.), but it is extremely time consuming and would distract from the actual research work. I think there must be something to do, on our side, to help with that.

I understand that it is due to how media works, and I don't believe it will change by a lot. But the question is then: are there any strategies that would help reducing this effect, at least to protect oneself against the consequences?

*newspapers, television, magazines, etc. i.e. not scientific journals.

†anyone who has items to add to this list is welcome to do so.

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I'm not savvy enough to give a full answer, but the advice I've heard most often is to prepare your own sound bites (i.e., minimal media-style statements), and be rigorous in only authorizing their use if they are not changed (and demand the last word!) If you don't boil it down, they will, and they are certain to get it wrong. For appearance on radio or television, rehearse (a lot), and if it happens often enough, get professional coaching (universities usually offer such things, since it's in their interest that you look good). –  Christian Clason May 8 at 16:36
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One important point to keep in mind is that the reporter talking to you likely knows nothing about your field. You need to explain it like they're five. –  Nit May 8 at 19:00
    
@Nit well, sometimes the issue seems to be that they know just enough to be annoying, and sometimes harmful. –  Jigg May 8 at 19:13
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Some universities offer training and advice to staff who might need to talk to the media. –  David Richerby May 9 at 0:12
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Have the guys from phdcomics.com illustrate your 2min description and give that to the media. –  Raphael May 9 at 9:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I've had one paper I wrote garner significant media attention, so while I'm not a practiced hand at it, some things I learned along the way:

  • Be able to convey the idea behind your paper simply. A brief, non-technically "What happened", and why this matters. Don't oversell, but if you provide good information, you have some more control over how it gets conveyed, instead of forcing a non-expert journalist to translate your work into words.
  • Keep it short. It's harder to misquote or provide out-of-context soundbites if you keep things short and to the point. Don't pontificate.
  • Make the caveats of your work clear, but don't over-hedge.
  • If it's clear they're trying to get you to say something in particular, decide if you're okay with saying it. If you are, just do it. If you aren't don't go anywhere near it. Don't dance around, or try to add qualifiers - just don't approach.
  • Be prepared for rage-inducing discussion of your work online after it hits the air. Learn to have a thick skin, or purposefully ignore it.
  • Remember that, in the grand scheme of things, even a fair amount of media attention is a flash in the pan, and the odd story that makes you wince is just that - a single story.

While I think you can help mitigate some of the problems around media coverage of your work with an active social media presence and a blog, it's only by engaging the audience. It's not going to let you "stand aside" from the media - no website or news paper is going to go "Oh, Dr. X has a blog. On second thought, lets not bother with the story..." If anything, an active social media presence will probably raise your profile among science communication types, and increase the odds of getting a bit of media attention.

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I'm more concerned about a hiring committee member saying "Dr. X, wait isn't it the one who said pigeons will cure cancer on the evening news? Do we really want our institution being associated with that?' –  Jigg May 8 at 18:18
    
@Jigg See the 1st, 2nd and 4th points. –  Fomite May 8 at 18:26
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I should have mentioned that I found your answer helpful and up-voted it already. My comment was only about the blog part, I was thinking of it as a bypass to reach the public directly, than a way to fend off questions altogether. –  Jigg May 8 at 18:30
    
Hiring committees are smarter than that. (Or if they're not, you don't want to be part of that department.) –  JeffE May 12 at 12:24
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@JeffE Hiring comities are human beings, and if they got a wrong impression, they will be affected by it, regardless of how smart they might be. –  Jigg May 12 at 13:29

(At the request of the OP, I'm expanding my brief comment into an answer.)

The advice I've heard most often is

  1. Prepare your own sound bites (i.e., minimal media-style statements). If you don't boil it down, they will, and they are certain to get it wrong. If they already made cuts you don't agree with, don't hesitate to send them a counter-proposal: something similarly short but more correct. (Reputable journalists usually are more concerned with meeting word-count restrictions than with increasing sensationalism.)

  2. Be rigorous in demanding the last word on any change and in exercising that right. If they don't grant you that, do not agree to speak to them (it's a sign they are not up to professional standards). This especially applies to the uncertainties or caveats you mention; make it clear that they get either a quote with qualifications or no quote at all. Getting wrong exposure is worse than getting no exposure.

  3. Repeating Fomite's excellent point: If you are worried they will distort something, do not mention it at all -- especially if they seem to insist on it.

  4. For appearance on radio or television, rehearse (a lot). (Even for interviews in connection with a written piece, it pays off to spend some time beforehand to formulate and polish the key statements you want to make.)

  5. If live appearances happen often enough, get professional coaching (universities usually offer such things, since it's in their own interest that you look good). They are probably also happy to look at any written communication you want to send to the media and to point out possible pitfalls or help boiling it down to make it media-ready.

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Excellent, I think it's useful to document these tips for the community. It should be added that sometimes reporter grants you the 'last word' right although they don't have the authority to give it to you, the article gets edited further down the line and there's nothing you can do about it, so watch out! –  Jigg May 12 at 14:22

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