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Nervous of reporters? Esther Nakkazi explains the what, why and when of scientists interacting with journalists.

You know that, as a researcher, you should be engaging with the media. But perhaps you've had a bad experience with a journalist — maybe you spent an hour on the phone and then never saw your name in print. Perhaps you were misquoted or your comments used out of context.

Or maybe you've never had contact with the media, but heard scare stories from those who have? So when an email requests an interview or a journalist phones you up, you refuse to engage, unsure of what will happen.

Good experiences between journalists and scientists rely on good relationships with clear roles. Journalists just want to do their job — they need quick information from scientists to produce the most accurate, interesting and timely piece possible.

We want to get it right, but we can't do it without you — the people with the information and expertise.

So if scientists are so important, why must you drop what you're doing and phone me straight back? And how did that 30-minute conversation turn into just one quoted sentence? In this guide, I'll explain from the journalist's point of view.

Deadlines rule

In my newsroom, we have a big sign above the editor's desk saying 'deadlines or you are dead'. If I don't deliver a story on time, it will be dropped — it simply isn't news anymore. So most of your contact with journalists will be when we are rushing to deliver a story to a tight deadline.

When a press release comes in about a research paper, I want to talk to you, and fast. That may seem strange when it's taken six months to publish the research, but there is no news value in publishing my story two days after everyone else.

If I'm writing a news story, I'll want a telephone interview where I ask you some basic questions — for example how you did your research, why it's important and where it leads. Then I'll use the understanding I've gained to write up my own description.

If you are being interviewed for television or radio, the journalist will want you to be brief and fluent — it's difficult to paraphrase in broadcast. Asking for hints on the questions before the interview is acceptable. There are lots of guides to interview techniques for scientists.

You might have already contributed quotes to a press release and wonder why I need to talk to you at all. But I want you to explain more details in your own words. And if I work for a local outlet I might want to ask extra questions relevant to that audience. Or I might want to approach the research from a different angle.

You might wonder why I'm going to lengths to telephone rather than email you, such as the time I called a scientist in Canada from Uganda about research they'd actually carried out Tanzania, but it's worth it. Email interviews are less flexible — I can't pursue interesting points, or follow unexpected lines of enquiry.

I wouldn't be doing my job properly if I simply copied the press release, and my editor wouldn't be happy. This 'churnalism' — and sometimes even plagiarism — is eating away at science journalism in Africa. By taking time to speak to me, you are helping improve journalism.

Sometimes I'll need a long conversation to understand the nuances of your research even though I might only quote you briefly, or perhaps not at all. But you will have improved my understanding and the story.
If you really want your thoughts to make it directly into a story, think about making 'quotable' comments. You'll find more tips in the SciDev.Net practical guide How do I become media savvy?

Avoiding misunderstandings

It's worth thinking about the language you use with journalists, as complex or unfamiliar terms can lead to misunderstandings.

In 2010, an interviewee told me that there was 'recombination' of the HIV virus occurring in a fishing community. He was explaining 'superinfection', where an already-infected person is infected again and two different viruses in the body combine. But I got confused and we used the headline 'New strains of HIV spreading in fishing communities', which scared people. They thought a new, hard-to-treat strain had emerged.

The scientist received many inquiries from local and international media. He was unhappy, but later understood the mishap. So if you get the impression that a journalist has misunderstood you, ask them if anything's unclear, invite them to ask for clarification or — if you're really worried — try to engage them in a conversation that might uncover the misunderstandings. You'll find more tips on how to communicate complex topics in SciDev.Net's guide to explaining controversial issues to the media and public.

Featuring your research

Sometimes when I contact scientists it's for a more in-depth feature. I might want to cover more angles than for a news story, and there will be more time to talk about human-interest elements, for example about you and what drives you in your work. There's more scope for detail and for anecdotes.

Again, this can be done over the phone, but I might also want to come and see you at work, because features have fewer time constraints.

If a journalist's visit is for a feature story, show them your lab and your office, and anything that might be interesting. You'll help open up the world of science to the general public through the journalist's words. Often visiting journalists will want to take photographs, so make sure you've thought about any issues — including untidiness!

Spending time with a journalist like this offers lots of opportunities to get important points across, and it should be enjoyable too. One scientist told me that when he came up with a way to cool milk so rural farmers could keep it fresh longer, a journalist spent a day with him at his university campus and wrote a "wonderful" feature piece.

Background check

Sometimes what I need from you is just background information, not quotes. Journalists can't be expected to know about every area of science and we often need to talk through a contentious topic or event with a trusted source, so that we can put it in context for our readers.

If you are contacted by a journalist for a 'backgrounder', they might just want to quickly check a few facts, or they might want a much more in-depth conversation.

You might wonder what is in it for you, but helping get your area of research reported accurately is in your best interests. It's also a good way to build partnerships with journalists.

Comments please

One of the most important roles that scientists can play for journalists is as a trusted expert commentator. We might have spoken to the lead researcher for a news story, but we want to know what other people think too.

We know that science is based on researchers critiquing each others' work. And opening up scientific debates to the public is an important part of journalism. I may want to ask, for example, whether the researchers' methods were sound, whether they can really draw the conclusions they did, and what direction you think the research should now take.

Often I'll request this kind of information via email (though if you have time we can chat). I really appreciate answers that are concise and insightful. I know you're busy, but taking the time to read a paper — or at least its most relevant parts — and giving me your thoughts is really useful. I'm not asking you to be overly critical, or to be overly glowing — just to give your opinion as you might in a scientific forum. But remember to use language I can understand.

If you really don't think my request falls within your area of expertise, please suggest someone else who might be able to help.

'Off the record'

It helps journalists if you're relaxed when you're talking to us. We want you to be honest and unguarded, but remember that we will also use all the information you give us — the more interesting the better.

Only tell me things you expect me to publish. You can say that something is off the record, but that doesn't mean I won't use it indirectly, for example to find someone who will talk about it on the record. So if you really don't want something published, simply don't say it. Or if you're happy for the information to get out but don't want it associated with you, make sure you say you want to comment anonymously.

And it's rare that I'll send you an article to check before publishing. Talking to a journalist doesn't mean that your views will come out word for word, and you shouldn't expect them to.

Having you 'check' stories can cause delays and also compromise my independence. But you can ask me to read direct quotes back to you, or check my facts or understanding.

I'd like to think that most journalists are likeable people; we're not out to trip you up.

So now that you've heard a little of what we want from researchers, maybe your next encounter with a journalist will be a more positive experience for you both.

Esther Nakkazi is a freelance science reporter and trainer based in Kampala, Uganda. She writes for publications including The East African and SciDev.Net; was a mentor for the World Federation of Science Journalists; and the founder of the Health Journalists Network in Uganda. Follow her on Twitter @Nakkazi and her blog