Talking to journalists

Ed Yong has some excellent guidelines for scientists on giving comments to journalists, but I wanted to add a single piece of advice, one which will help whether you are talking to Ed or to less scrupulous journalists:

“Don’t be afraid to tell the journalist what the story is”

By this I mean you are allowed to not answer the question. This feels weird, since it violates conversational and academic rules, but the thing the journalist should be interested in is the real story. The questions just exist to get to that (which is why Ed says he often asks pretty vague questions). If you think the journalist is asking the wrong question, don’t answer it – tell them what the right question is.

If you restrict yourself to answering the wrong questions, the risk for everyone is that the (mistaken) framing stays in place, just with a few qualifications from you. For example, if the journalist is researching a study which says “fabulous brain training method boosts IQ” your comments that the study has flaws, or is a provisional result only, will lead to the headline “fabulous brain training method boosts IQ”. Or, if you are lucky, “fabulous brain training method might boost IQ”. And down in paragraph 4 will be some quote from you warning people not to get carried away.

Far better would be to give the journalist an alternative story, rather than some doubts. Tell them “no brain training method you can pay for works any better than free methods which are available to everyone”. Or “the brain is a machine which runs on blood, the best thing for your brain is physical exercise, not brain training”. This is news people can use. If you really disagree with a study, offering an alternative narrative is your best chance of that study being put in the correct context. “You don’t beat owt with nowt”, as they say.

This is what – I think – Ed is getting at when he says he wants the context from scientists, the “something interesting that I couldn’t have predicted”.

Further reading: George Lakoff “Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” (an actual book, so no hyperlink!)

Link: Ed Yong: “A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists

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