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Notes from EGI's Media Training Day (2 December) with journalists Martin Ince & Wendy Barnaby.
Journalists basically have two questions:
- What have you found?
- What does it mean for me?
A story is newsworthy if it has news value, i.e., if it ticks one or more of the following boxes:
- What’s in it for me?
- Is it controversial?
- Does it address big questions, such as right and wrong, good and evil?
- Has it been in the news recently? (once it’s news, it stays news)
- Does it plug well with current political or economic affairs?
- Does it score high in people / human interest?
- Does it cover a "fashionable" topic? (something currently in the public consciousness)
Journalists usually don't care about…
- The details of how the research was done
- Who funded the work ("Funding agency funds" is never a story)
- Policy / bureaucractic decisions (unless it’s a bad news story about fraud, corruption etc.)
- Journalists are also unlikely to appreciate the difference between EGI, EGI.eu and EGI-InSPIRE.
To get your story covered…
- Work in the human interest angle if you can.
- Piggyback on current affairs already going on in the news ie big international conferences, political issues; find an example to plug what you do with a current affair (e.g. LHC may find awesome dark matter, but they need the grid to look at the data). Add controversy if you feel you are on strong ground with your position.
Why engage with journalists in the first place?
- Funders, eg the EC, are increasingly expecting media engagement
- Funding for an area of science and individual scientists has been shown to increase if they are covered in the media.
- "Experts" are now somewhat less trusted by the public in the wake of the MMR vaccination debate, WMDs and so on.
- However, recent polls have shown that the public do trust scientists – 80% said that they thought science had improved the quality of life. In fact, the lower the scientific knowledge is in a population, the more science is trusted.
Technical language, jargon
- In some areas, eg art, literature, music, jargon is actually well tolerated and used by journalists.
- There is a bit of a double standard for science, because science reporters DON’T use jargon.
- For example, a scientist when talking about climate change used the word "insolation" repeatedly. It sounds very clever but the journalist was not impressed for three reasons...
- Isolation is not a word in common English usage
- It sounds a bit like insulation so could lead to confusion, and
- There is a perfectly good synonym: insolation = sunshine!
- Use simple, non-jargon words when speaking to journalists
Competition among journalists
- Science journalists are not just in competition against their science colleagues at other papers, but are in competition with the other journalists at their own paper to get space. So your story needs to be strong against the news coming from the economic, political and arts sections of the paper.
- If you want journalists to help you, you should help them by making their life easier: have a clear message, prepare good quotes, provide images, answer requests/emails promptly.
- Einstein said “Things should be as simple as possible… but no simpler!”
- Help the journalist to ‘sell’ the story by making it as strong as possible… but no stronger. Don’t overclaim for your results.
- Journalists are busy… so are you. But a scientist is generally working in depth on one thing, journalists have many different stories in progress at the same time, all very different, and they are always writing for deadlines.
- So, respond to emails/queries quickly if you can and be honest – if you don’t have time or you can’t help, say so immediately and reporters will respect you for that.
- Once they know you, journalists may contact you about stories outside your area of expertise for comment. Only do so if you are confident you can quote accurately.
Looking the part
- Many scientists worry about how to dress when on camera. Look professional, but you don’t have to wear a suit if it’s not your normal way to dress at work. Be aware that your clothes will make a statement about you. Make sure that the statement is the one you want to make.
Fears when dealing with journalists
- Studies have shown (Brad Schaeffer, University of Texas) that there is not much difference in accuracy between reporting in specialist journals and the popular press. The difference is in the sort of language used, it is much more likely to be the vernacular, which you may not be used to.
- Hostile questioning
- Politicians are the ones that attract hostile questioning – scientists generally do not.
- In general science gets a pretty good press, and is mostly seen as a ‘good thing’ by journalists.
- You will probably only get aggressive questions if you are being very boring, to liven up an interview.
Example of a good quote
- It’s not too far from the truth to say that people’s gardens are now the last chance saloon for the bumble bee.
- This uses a metaphor – last chance saloon – that everyone can understand. It also accepts that it isn’t the truth, but the scientist is prepared to say that it’s not far from it.
- Good quotes are more about conveying a good message than absolute pinpoint accuracy.
- Good quotes illustrate a concept, they do not summarise it.
Dealing with a crisis situation
Points to remember include:
- Tell the truth - don’t get found out in a lie later on
- Keep control of the information you release
- Bring in the human element – be an organisation /spokesperson the audience will empathise with
- Establish good relations with the press as a matter of course – then they are more likely to be on your side in a crisis
- Thank people who should be thanked, e.g. emergency services
- Don’t introduce problems/situations that weren’t already public - if no one asks about an eventual secutity leak, don't talk about it
- Don’t stonewall – be as honest as you can be in the situation
Main points to remember:
- Prepare your message / what you want to say in advance. An interview is an opportunity to get your message across, make the most of it.
- Target your message to the audience. What is interesting to an audience varies from a specialist magazine to a generalist outlet.
Radio / TV interviews
- Be lively – varied tone and expression. You've heard enough boring people talking to know whjat doesn't work...
- Be specific – use concrete examples.
- Be prepared – go into an interview with an idea of what you want out of it. Don’t be afraid to direct your answers to what you want to say, don't let the journalist lead the way.
- Be aware of what the public wants to know. What does it mean for them, what are the wider societal implications of your work
- Be unafraid! Journalists are not trying to frame you! (unsless you're in politics...)
Depending on the length of the interview, come up with 2 or 3 key points you want to get across. If you are given open ended questions by the journalist, use them as an opportunity to take the conversation where you want it to go in order to make your points.
- Proof-checking.' Don’t expect to see a proof of the copy before it is published if you are dealing with a news journalist, they won’t have time. If it is for a feature, or a monthly journal, this might be possible. For a phone interview, you can ask the journalist to read back the quotes to you to make sure they are accurate, or send them in an email afterwards. Don’t confuse checking the facts of what you’ve said with rewriting the journalist’s story for them. They don’t appreciate this.
- Questions to ask a journalist before you engage with them…
- Who are you?
- Who is this interview for?
- Will the interview be live or recorded?
8Will you interview other people as well and put together snippets from everyone? 8Where and when will it appear?
- Background information. This can be useful to a journalist, ie the ‘notes for editors’ section at the end of a press release. Don’t point them to a general website, only send brief information that is really informative. Don’t point journalists on to other sources if they are not around to speak to them.
- Photos / images. These are very important, and sometimes a story will be published just because it makes a good image. Get pre-approved images to accompany your story if you can.