July/August 2003

Walkin' the Line: Seeking That Delicate Balance between Scaring People to Death and Boring 'em to Death

Speaking with the media is something almost no scientist looks forward to. Everyone has a story--a time someone was misquoted, or remarks were blown out of proportion, or they saw their names under headlines that were far from reasonable or even true. Or someone spent time carefully explaining an important and complex subject to a TV reporter and ended up with a 5-second "sound bite" on the news.

These kinds of experiences can elicit an automatic cringe reaction when the next media opportunity occurs, or a desire to tell that next reporter what he or she really deserves to hear when the phone rings, particularly in the middle of a busy day or a crisis. In these times of harsh economic realities, few scientists have the luxury to have incoming calls screened by a secretary, to refer calls to a qualified public affairs staff, or to divide calls up among knowledgeable and media-savvy colleagues.

So why submit to the next round of dumb questions, misunderstandings, and lazy reporting?

Because your work matters. Because your work puts you at the heart of homeland security in a very fundamental sense. And because the public has a right to know, in most cases, what is of real value in the work that you do. While your favorite scientific publication may be the most prestigious choice for sharing your research with your peers, it is very unlikely to be the first place the media, the public, or Congress turns to for information or even sees. Those who print some of these publications know they must cast your research in common terms and "tease" the media in advance about upcoming science of note. For all these reasons, scientists who study earthquakes must often find themselves walking a fine line to avoid a personal trap that is also one of the two favorite story formats for many reporters: the Conflict Story and the Let's Scare Everybody Story. The Conflict Story puts you in a position of arguing one side of an issue and someone else (the more famous the better) roundly trashing it, all right there in print or on TV. You could end up as the trasher or the advocate; they're not too particular. You may not even feel the way you're being portrayed, and they're not too particular about that either, especially if you said something they could use. The Let's Scare Everybody to Death Story projects a scenario out to its most cataclysmic possible outcome and then has you as the expert who's confirming this "news."

So how do you avoid playing a starring role in stories you or your organization would just as soon not read, hear, or see? Here are a few tips:

Be Prepared

When research is accepted for publication, imagine some of the possible "teasers" and how you would answer them. Imagine what you would want quoted or heard on the radio or TV about your subject matter and how you would say it. Write your quote down, if it helps, on a scrap of paper and keep it handy for the interview.

If a reporter with a question is on the other end of the telephone, unless you are very sure of your answer, ask what the story is about, ask about his deadline, and tell him you'll get back to him. Then take a deep breath, think about your response, and take time to seek advice or call others, if you need to, before calling the reporter back or doing an interview. If the deadline is "right now" (and they'll often say that), tell him you're tied up with something at that moment, or you have someone in your office and you'll get right back to him when you're free. Then repeat step one on an expedited basis.

Use Common Language and Speak Plainly

Scientists are most comfortable using accurate scientific terminology, particularly in speaking with their peers. The problem is that hardly anyone is lucky enough to have your scientific capabilities or the years of education and training it took to develop those capabilities. It doesn't mean that they are stupid or uninterested, and it NEVER should be grounds for making them feel that way. Avoid overly technical or scientific terms unless they are clearly explained in plain language. Avoid jargon and stay away from acronyms. If it's important to get recognition for your organization, don't use the word "we", name the organization. Think fast, but speak more slowly than might seem natural at first. Repeat the sentence or phrase you most want quoted.

Look for Hidden Agendas

These are not always clear at the time you agree to an interview. Hidden agendas become most clear in the type of question and the way that it is asked. Hidden agendas are best combated by having a good idea of what you plan to say and making sure that you say it. Never let a reporter put words in your mouth, and don't acknowledge a "loaded question" in your answer. You are not required to answer every question, even if this is on camera. Take a tip from the Sunday morning interview shows. If you find yourself being led in a direction that makes you uncomfortable, resort to "Great question, Jim." Then answer as simply as possible with exactly what you want to say. Remember, the question will almost never show up, but your answer will.

Park Your Inner Stand-up Comic

You may be known as the office wit or for your sly sense of humor, quick comebacks, one-liners, hilarious imitations, or rapierlike sarcasm. None of that is appropriate for your average interview. So unless the program or interview is a long and flattering personal profile, the phrase you think is funny can easily be taken out of context to make you sound ridiculous or insulting. It is important to make a genuine effort to act and sound like a human being, to be warm and engaging, to be empathetic, and to "make eye contact" with the intended audience, even it is on the other end of a radio microphone. Save the jokes, inflated statements, political commentary, and expletives for later and for those nonreporters who know you best.

Never Mislead or Fabricate

It is often possible to say less than all that you know. But never, under any circumstances, depart from the facts and their honest interpretation.

Remember That Reporters Are People Too

Acknowledging this fact and the fact that they too are under pressure from deadlines and editors and their competition goes a long way toward turning an interview situation from tense to acceptable. If you know something about their personal lives, even a name, use it or ask them.

A relationship you build now may allow you to reach out to the media more effectively on the next occasion when you're the one actually seeking to notify the public, or be recognized as an expert source, or bring attention to new products or research.

With a little practice, a little less skepticism, and more goodwill, the popular media will become your best tool to leverage the impact of your science toward a broader audience and to reinforce the valuable role seismology plays in public safety.

Stephanie Hanna
USGS, Western Region
Office of Communications Chief
909 First Avenue Suite 704
Seattle, WA 98110
Office: +1-206-220-4573
Cell: +1-206-331-0335
Fax: +1-206-220-4570
E-mail: shanna@usgs.gov

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Posted: 20 June 2005