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A Few Minutes of Your Time: Tips on Communicating Scientific Information to the Media

There is an inherent tension that comes with communicating scientific findings through popular media outlets. You have to make the details (well, at least the outline) of your science understandable to those without prior knowledge of the field, but in ways that do not distort the basic facts. The tension of course, is that as you lose detail, you also lose precision.

This compromise is one of the reasons why, until recently, I universally declined to comment or to be interviewed when contacted by reporters or editors. When journalists asked for my “expert opinion” on sex differences, stress, differences in the two sides of the brain (all topics I have dabbled in scientifically), my first instinct was to give them the names of a few research scientists in the field and excuse myself from further participation.

Recently, I’ve thought about my role in academia more broadly. As an associate professor teaching both psychology and neuroscience courses at Pomona College, my first affiliation is as an educator. The best educators are not only involved in the education of the students in their classrooms but also, increasingly, in the education of the general public.

With regard to this education, it is important to have new and diverse voices willing to participate in the dissemination of ideas and information to the public. As we all know, our science is not objective. The questions that are asked, the methods used to address these questions, and the interpretation of the results are all, in part, dependent on the perspective, assumptions and motivations of the scientist asking the questions. The more voices, the greater and more varied will be that perspective, and hopefully the public’s appreciation of the complexity of the field.

Below are some tips from this new convert:

  1. Inquire into the full scope of the story, including what precipitated it. One of the first things journalism students are told is that even if their source is their mother, they should check it out. That advice (if only slightly tongue-in-cheek) gets at the heart of a journalist’s need for expert sources (generally more than one). When I was first interviewed about the recent debacle involving comments by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, the person who contacted me said they were interested in a story addressing why the scientific study of sex differences seemed to be so taboo. Well, I have strong opinions about that, but they are not the same opinions as those that I have about Summers’ comments. I was preparing to answer one question when I was faced with the other. It was only in a conversation with a friend the night before the interview that the issue of Summers’ comments came up. I had yet to hear them, and was lucky that my friend had. This knowledge gave me a different perspective on why I was being asked the question in the first place. It is exciting to have a reporter interested in your research and even more so to be called as an expert source, but just as a reporter checks the facts for a story, it’s OK to ask your own questions and know the full scope of what you’re being interviewed about.
  2. Find out if you can get a copy of the questions ahead of time. This is not 60 Minutes (well, maybe it is, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is not). Presumably they are not trying to catch you in a lie or to get you to admit to something that others are whispering about you or your work. Why shouldn’t they pass the questions by you first? Now, I should also admit that I have had mixed luck with this approach. Many times the questions are not available ahead of time. That is, the interviewer will be spending the same hours you will spend – reviewing the most recent findings and paradoxes in the field – trying to figure out what to ask. Consequently, if it is a reputable outlet, you may have to trust in the process.
  3. Ask whether you will be able to see or hear the interview before it runs.
  4. The details. The problem is always in the details. So, here is one for which I do not have a particularly good piece of advice. Consequently, this represents more of a warning than a tip. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I say “What I am describing is not my work in particular, but the work of many who research this field.” Or “While there is some evidence to suggest X, just as you have reported, there is also emerging evidence to suggest that the reality is far more complicated.” These — the qualifiers — seem to be the statements that most frequently get edited out. And yet, they are the exact comments that make your contribution unique, scientific, and careful. The only tactic (other than discussing these omissions with the editor, producer or journalist) that I have found to work in these cases is repetition. Don’t hesitate to repeat a point, especially if it is relevant to maintaining the accuracy of findings you are describing.

There is an important role for psychologists to play in educating the public about our science. However, in dealing with the press, you have to think in sound bites, analogies, and summary statements. And this is going to lead to some loss of accuracy. The potential gains that come from increasing the number and skills of those in our field willing to speak with reporters and science writers are manifold. It helps inject diverse viewpoints into the discussion, advances the understanding of the general public about complex concepts and findings, and raises the general awareness of the varied roles that psychologists have in our society. Not bad for a few minutes of your time.

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