How to prepare yourself for talking to the media
Whether you're consulted by the media as a "faculty expert" or your work is being covered by the media, here’s how you can make sure you have a successful interview.
Identify your main objective
What is the single most important message you want those who read or hear your interview to come away with? AAAS recommends that you “prepare a single communication objective and two or three secondary points you want to make." Keeping a single message in mind can keep you from veering off-topic or getting lost in the details of a study when talking with a journalist.
Flesh out your talking points
You’ll need to also have talking points ready, so you don’t repeat yourself when attempting to communicate your take-home message. The FigureOne blogexplains:
It’s important to have a set of talking points prepared ahead of time so you can clearly spell out the important details of your work without too much fumbling. The fastest way to get misquoted is to be unclear when you describe what you did and why it matters.
The American Geophysical Union has a helpful worksheet (PDF) that you can use to formulate your talking points; complete it and keep it handy when conducting your interview.
Practice, practice, practice
The more you practice, the better you’ll get at artfully explaining your talking points. Have a friend or colleague help you rehearse, if necessary. And keep Ed Yong’s advice about giving comments to journalists in mind when rehearsing.
Say yes to the press!
Once you’re well practiced, it’s time to start talking to journalists about your work.
Be sure to respond quickly to press inquiries. Journalists are often on deadlines that require you to respond within hours, not days or weeks. Rearrange your schedule if necessary so you can check your email and phone messages more often than normal, and make time to respond to inquiries you receive.
The Scripps Research Institute points out that you don’t have to respond immediately to all inquiries, however:
When you receive a media request, feel free to ask the reporter for background: What is the focus of the piece? Who else are you speaking with? What is the format (e.g. live or taped)? If an interview request catches you by surprise, arrange to call the reporter back so you have time to gather your thoughts and do a Google search on the reporter, outlet and other background.
Trust your gut when deciding to respond to journalists based on their reputation and the publication for which they’re interviewing you. If ever in doubt, touch base with Duquesne's Media Relations team. They have many media contacts and may be able to advise you.
Now get out there and start talking! Give your interviews, monitor the media for the final results, and give yourself a pat on the back for doing the complicated and sometimes intimidating work of speaking with the press!
After you’ve finished interviewing, you can offer to fact-check articles and be generally available for follow-up questions. But don’t expect the right to review the articles before they go to press; that’s just not how science journalism works.
The very real fear of misrepresentation
“The quality of an article does … not only depend on the skills of the journalist but also on the source,” Scherzler continues. “One should, therefore, do everything in one’s power to ensure that the journalist understands what one is trying to communicate and that he has received all the information required for a good article.”
You won’t be able to prevent all errors, but by being a well-prepared and rehearsed interview subject, you can nip some of these issues in the bud.
Also, keep in mind that there’s a difference between lack of precision and outright misrepresentation. Often scientists need to get comfortable with the former when speaking to a broader audience–the public tends not to be specialists, and the important thing is that they get the main story, not the nitty-gritty details.
Oversimplification of your research can be frustrating, too. Scientists “can’t overstate the uncertainties on the one hand, nor neglect to mention dangerous or unpleasant possibilities on the other,” points out biologist Steve Schneider. “Our job is to provide the context,” he says, and often having prepared, correct metaphors and examples that help illustrate a concept for the journalist and the public can do that.