Five things a researcher should never say to a reporter

Robert Bazell

Are the 15 minutes of fame really worth it? With so much prestige, power, and funding at stake in today's competitive research climate, some scientists and scholars welcome a moment in the spotlight of the popular press. Others demur, recalling the claims that tabletop "cold fusion" could help solve the world's energy problems (claims that were at first energetically promoted through the media, then scrutinized by peers and resoundingly debunked). Or the witch hunts against Rockefeller's David Baltimore and Pittsburgh's Bernard Fisher. Or the apparently ineradicable tendency of some media organs, particularly tabloids, to promote dubious miracle cures at the expense of scientifically tested medical knowledge.

Researchers often complain (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) about how the media have represented their work to the public. It's natural to want the press to serve as a transparent channel for one's own point of view, a value-neutral megaphone that expands one's ability to reach a wide audience without changing the message. But it doesn't work that way. The media have missions and functions that differ from what researchers might expect. With a little clearer knowledge of what most reporters are after and why, members of the research community can dodge some common bullets and do a better job of clarifying science to the lay audience.

  • "I don't usually talk to the press, but..."
  • One problem with research-media communications is that the number of researchers who have regular interaction with reporters is minuscule. The scientists who are articulate or willing enough to talk to the press are often viewed with contempt or jealousy (or both) by their peers. Not that many researchers wouldn't want to see the New York Times or NBC trumpet a finding after it's appeared in an appropriate journal (or even before; the entire concept of peer-review publication is under such criticism that it's not clear that everything needs to undergo review before being considered newsworthy). The news, rather than journals or conferences, may even be their first source for a discovery in their field. But almost no serious scientist wants a reputation as a press hound.

    Considering the public's need for scientific knowledge, this is regrettable. Certainly one can be an excellent scientist without ever talking to the press, but I believe good scientists recognize an obligation to explain what they are doing to the public. There are superb scientists who do this well; a professional atmosphere that discourages such communication has ill effects for both the public and researchers. If more researchers developed a habit of regular communication with reporters, it couldn't help but improve the ratio of useful information to misinformation in the mass media.

  • "These preliminary results will change the world as we know it."
  • No one really says this, of course. Judging from a few notorious cases, however, it's safe to conclude that the more ambitious the statement, the greater the chance it will backfire once it's been subjected to professional scrutiny. Grandiose claims about reproducibility or applications can be just as counterproductive as excessive secrecy.

    Responsible reporting, checking information with knowledgeable people, can be a kind of peer review. One of the most important functions in scientists' interactions with reporters is to comment, on or off the record, about new claims, especially those made outside the usual confines of the peer-review process. In the case of cold fusion, some members of the press were more than happy to go along with claims about something nearly magical happening in a test tube full of water, but more skeptical reporters -- and physicists -- weren't as forgiving. An awareness of the full arc from exuberant press conference to embarrassed retraction (or stonewalling defense) can help prevent that kind of outcome.

    From a reporter's perspective, one of the things that makes science easier to cover than, say, politics is that there is often an ultimate truth: An assertion will eventually be proved or disproved. (Politicians can do or say or promise anything without being held accountable later on, because nobody has to repeat their experiment.) This is part of the beauty of science; it can also be a hazard to a researcher who sounds a premature clarion.

  • "Of course, the general public would never appreciate this work."
  • The purpose of journalism is twofold: to inform and to entertain. There's always a balance between the two, and research reports attract journalistic attention by satisfying one of these needs. An occasional story appears to do both, even if it's prima facie absurd; if someone with a Ph.D. says that aliens have landed, there will be reports (perhaps even straightfaced ones) that aliens have landed. Because a university appointment confers a degree of seriousness on practically anything, academics should recognize the different reasons the public might listen to their statements and might hold an academic uniquely accountable for them.

    The crucial question to ask about a research story is "Why would readers, listeners, and viewers pay attention?" When they do, it's because the topic is likely to affect their lives (e.g., a reported breakthrough against cancer) or because they find it intrinsically fascinating (e.g., a discovery about stars, black holes, or the dating habits of carnivorous cats in Africa). If your work falls into either of those categories, it may find an audience, whether or not it has a vaudeville aspect. Conversely, if you can't explain what you're doing to a non-scientist at a dinner party, why would a journalist (or a reader) find it interesting?

  • "We have no comment on these allegations."
  • The proliferation of media, now including myriad cable channels and websites, has created a vast hunger for information to fill them, and it's inevitable that certain hotly pursued stories will turn out to be insubstantial or worse. False or exaggerated charges of misconduct, nonetheless, can travel far before the complete truth appears, and public exoneration of the parties involved may or may not ensue. Reporters don't always confirm information they find through services such as Nexis; if an erroneous claim has appeared once, anywhere, chances are it'll be recycled -- no matter how thoroughly you've refuted it.

    Never underestimate the difficulties that misinformation or disinformation can cause, particularly when a more scientifically accurate explanation doesn't fit easily into a sound bite. Researchers and institutions protect themselves best by denying misleading allegations as rapidly as possible -- ideally, with a well-timed press release within the same news cycle as the initial charge, taking a tip from the 1992 Clinton campaign's effective damage-control efforts.

  • "Science establishes X with absolute certainty."
  • The lay public, by and large, resists concepts like uncertainty, risk, and statistical association. Readers and viewers want science to be authoritative, to prove that something is true or false. They may also resist the imperative to distinguish between researchers taking different sides of a question; for many laypeople, a Ph.D. is equivalent to every other Ph.D., and once one of these credentialed oracles has made a point, the point stays made, regardless of colleagues' critiques. It's horrible science, as responsible scientists realize, to assert a causal connection on the basis of anecdotes; it's also done all the time (especially in the presence of journalists), and it can implant mental associations that tend to harden into beliefs, or even into public policy.

    Precisely because journalism creates pressures in the direction of certainty, the wise researcher avoids yielding to this pressure and giving the public all the definitive answers it craves. Even when reporters are knowledgeable enough to avoid oversimplifying a science story, however, editors and producers may step in later and make a story "clearer" by stripping away its nuances. If a reporter, publication, station, or network has a preordained agenda and is determined to be unreasonable in its treatment of a topic, there's little a researcher can do but minimize contact and be prepared to make energetic, principled rebuttals. Know -- or make it your business to find out -- to whom you are talking. Reporters are not all the same, any more than scientists are all the same; an experienced university press office can often help determine who's worth cooperating with and whom you're better off avoiding. Gaining familiarity with the track records of reporters is an excellent way to optimize your chances of getting intelligent, fair coverage.

    Finally, when you find certain reporters offering such helpful coverage, don't be a stranger! A lot of valuable stories never get out because scientists haven't reached out to the press. When you have an idea that deserves public attention, it never hurts to approach the media with a call or a letter; reporters see large stacks of press releases, and a personal communication carries far more weight. In the open forum of ideas, the best cure for bad information is to deliver better information.

    Related links...

  • Project for Excellence in Journalism, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism/Pew Charitable Trusts

  • Internet News Bureau press release service

  • Timothy Noah ("Chatterbox"), "Why Are People Dumb About Talking to Reporters?" Slate, June 28, 1999

  • Media Outreach Guide, National School-to-Work Learning Center (general press-relations strategies, independent of content)

  • "Pursuing the Press" (tips on effective letters, op-eds, and radio contact), 20/20 Vision grassroots organization

  • ROBERT BAZELL, chief science correspondent for NBC Nightly News, participated in the Fred Friendly Seminar "Socrates Meets the Medical-Media Complex" at the "Breakthrough?" Conference. The award-winning science reporter has advanced training in biology at the University of Sussex, England, and immunology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author most recently of HER-2: The Making of Herceptin a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer (NY: Random House, 1998, with Mary-Claire King).