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Tips for Scientists Communicating with the Press

Bethany Halford offers advice to scientists working with journalists. | Credit: Bethany Halford

After earning my Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 2002, I spent the summer working as a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as part of the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. The experience cemented my decision to pursue a career in science journalism and gave me the tools I needed to take the next steps on that path.

As part of the fellowship, we were asked to submit a report about our experience. Recalling some frustrations I’d had interacting with scientists, I included in my report a list of tips I would give to scientists for communicating with the press.

A few months later AAAS posted them on the web. As they were written with only 10 weeks of journalism experience, I was both embarrassed and delighted. Now, after 14 years as a science journalist, I can report that many of the tips have held up over time. What follows is an updated list.

Tips for Scientists Communicating with the Press

  • If you must travel the week your paper comes out, make it easy for reporters to reach you. No one can speak about your work more accurately or effectively than you can, and reporters will want to talk to you. Modern communications—mobile phones, email, video calls—make it easy in this day and age.
  • Chances are good that any reporter you’ll be speaking with isn’t familiar with your body of research or even your specific field. So, don't give a PowerPoint presentation intended for your scientific peers. Instead, think about how you might explain your research or your latest finding to your dentist or to a stranger sitting next to you on an airplane.
  • When explaining your work, make it simple. Try this exercise: Say what you’ve done and why it’s important in two or three sentences. Also, an analogy or image can really help on this front. I’ve described interacting molecules as dancers and new drug candidates as debutants.
  • Do you have a personal connection to the work? Is there an interesting, strange, or funny story that put you on the path to discovery? Reporters love these details. They really make a story interesting to write and to read.
  • People like cool things to look at, so think about artwork and video. A good picture will draw eyes to your work in the pages of a newspaper or magazine. A good video will garner views on social media sites. Even if you’re working with things that are too small to see, try to think of an interesting photo you might take of someone in your lab at work, for example.
  • If you’ve got some exciting work coming out, use your institution’s press office to help you tell your story and come up with ideas for illustrating it.
  • Reporters don't generally work on the same kinds of deadlines that you do. Respond as soon as you can. It would not be unusual for a reporter to have to turn something into a story within a few hours.
  • Reporters are also limited in terms of time and space. They may only have a few hundred words to describe what’s in your five-page paper. Don’t be too upset if they gloss over a lot of the work.
  • A good reporter will write a balanced story. So don't be afraid if they also talk to your competitor or other colleagues in the field.
  • Be kind if a reporter makes a mistake. Often the error occurred sometime after the story left their hands. The editorial process is labyrinthine. A good reporter wants to be accurate, and if they've messed up, they'll make a correction. Scientists who don’t work well with the press can get a reputation for being difficult—just like reporters who don’t get a story right.

Bethany Halford is a senior editor at Chemical and Engineering news and former AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter: @beth_halford