Media relations: It takes a special scientist to work with journalists

A while back I attended a conference aimed at converging scientists and media to discuss how to work together more effectively to improve the quality and quantity of coverage of scientific advances and understanding of important environmental issues. A hidden gem of the conference was for attending public relations professionals (I think I was one of few) who got to hear and participate in both sides of a conversation on bridging the gap between the media and science communities, an increasingly important role for PR and media relations professionals. Here’s a snippet of one of the many conversations that took place.

It takes a special scientist to work with journalists

Says Jim Bruggers, environmental reporter with the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper: “It takes a special scientist to work with journalists. You have to be a bit of a risk taker—it can be kind of scary jumping into the public debate arena that journalists work in. Not to say science isn’t a difficult contact sport, either.”

He continued: “I think it’s about building up levels of trust, as you would with any source. In order to do that, get to know them and the world they live in. Don’t just talk to them when you need to get a quote—check in with them every now and then. A cold call doesn’t always work; they’re very, very busy.

“I ask scientists to be patient with me,” Bruggers advised. “A story isn’t going to involve just one quick interview. I almost always will get back to someone with follow-up questions—if there’s the slightest question, I’ll ask again.”

Cynthia Berger, director of news and public affairs at the NPR affiliate in College Station, Penn., said in her experience as a radio journalist that “almost universally, scientists are eager to talk about their work, are forthcoming with details and accessible.”

For Berger, the challenge isn’t a matter of obtaining the information, but rather of fashioning it in a way her listeners can best understand.

“Challenges for radio in particular are that there are no images to illustrate concepts, and scientists tend to use a lot of jargon,” she said. “I’ve developed a lot of strategies for how to get scientists to explain things in ordinary terms, to figure out a way to get them to tell you something in a way listeners can picture it.”

Scientists are extremely concerned about whether a reporter is going to get the story right, so with four minutes and 800 words on the radio in which to tell a complete story, it can be challenging to include all the nuances and explain concepts in ways ordinary people can understand, Berger said. And then she hit a topic that can sometimes be like hitting a nerve for journalists.

“Scientists often ask if they can see or hear a story before it goes on the air,” she said. “Journalists don’t often do that, and scientists should know it’s a question of journalistic independence.” To meet a scientist in the middle, Berger said, she’ll “often let scientists check quotes if I have time. That seems to be a good compromise. We want to get it right, and we don’t want to misrepresent.”

In addition, Berger said there are three types of science stories she wishes her station had more time and resources to cover: “pure science,” using experts from local universities, in particular; stories that reveal interaction between the environment and the economy; and positive “good news stories,” such as local green infrastructure and initiatives.

An important consideration for PR professionals who are working on behalf of scientists: in order to help your local story get attention from media, think about its national and international ties. Is there something about your pitch that’s also part of a global-scale event or trend? Berger admits this is harder to do—for journalists and PR professionals—but that the challenge can come with a big payoff.

Maybe scientists aren’t always that open

Robert Wyss, author of “Covering the Environment: How Journalists Work the Green Beat,” had a slightly more jaded view of the ease of working with scientists.

“I was a little surprised that Cynthia (Berger) said scientists were open,” Wyss said. “I was a little surprised because that’s not always true. That also can be the perspective we hear about us from scientists, especially on a deadline.”

Wyss said that talking to scientists can be difficult for several reasons. First, they’re busy. Second, they might be inclined not to trust you.

“You can be the best reporter in the world, but sometimes people have come before you and things didn’t go very well,” he said. “So they can be very wary of you. We may get it wrong sometimes; some say we don’t care and errors occur and we don’t think another thing about it. While it’s true that the whole concept of publishing corrections has developed in just the past 20 years, what isn’t true is that all we want to do is sell papers, or magazines, or get online hits or ratings. We know that there’s no way we can sell newspapers if we aren’t credible and truthful.”

Wyss said that the relationship between a reporter and a scientist can get a little lopsided.

“We as journalists do need to talk to the scientific community. Without their knowledge, we’ll have no sources for our stories. But scientists don’t have to talk to journalists—they have other sources from which to get their news and to contribute their news.”

Wyss says that when it comes down to it, journalists don’t have to report science—and unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common, he added. He also cited several reasons why scientists might get discouraged from engaging with popular media outlets:

  • No rewards, many risks: There are really no rewards for scientists talking to the media. Take science professors, for example: the tenure process for scientists doesn’t include press conferences or clippings.
  • It’s time-consuming to talk to reporters.
  • Specialization: Some scientists will have more newsworthy information than others, and specialization can narrow a scientist’s viewpoint as to what they can say.
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