There's a fascinating discussion over at Tara's place regarding scientists and their frequent reluctance to answer interview requests from the media. I commented on this already on Aetiology, but the issue is multi-faceted enough that I think it warrants some reworking and expansion into a separate post. After all, getting scientists and journalists to talk about their respective differences, and the frustrations that sometimes arise because of them, is an important first step in perhaps fostering a better working relationship between the two groups. Because frankly, we need each other, whether we care to admit that or not.
Tara's main points about why scientists frequently don't respond promptly to requests for interviews are very well taken. I'm well aware of how busy researchers are, how frequently they travel, and how crazed their schedules can get while on the road, especially when one figures in erratic email access. That's why I'm so damn grateful when they take the time to sit down with me, like East Carolina University physicist George Bissinger did recently at the ASA meeting in Salt Lake City. (He chatted for almost a full hour, in the midst of an action-packed day, and gave me the crux of my story in the process. Thanks, George! I shall strive to be worthy of your generosity.) Scientists get a LOT of emails -- perhaps even more than journalists. I've seen it firsthand with Future Spouse, who feels a genuine sense of accomplishment when he winnows his unanswered emails down to a mere 60 or so, even though it takes valuable time away from his research to do so. I'm sure some of the people still waiting for a reply occasionally feel like they're trying to interact with dark matter or something. (Trust me, the dark matter NEVER returns phone calls or emails. We only have indirect evidence that it even exists.)
Still, Tara says she prefers to be contacted by email, and I suspect most scientists would concur. That's certainly my first avenue of attack, so to speak, when seeking interviews, and it's also my preference when it comes to other people contacting me. But then, I mainly write books and magazine articles, which have substantially longer lead times than, say, a daily newspaper or TV news. Some journalists simply don't have the luxury of sending an exploratory email and waiting patiently for a couple of weeks until a scientist has time to respond, then figuring out a mutually good time to schedule a telephone interview. Under the gun of a tight deadline, cold-calling might be the only realistic approach. It's certainly not the ideal one.
Things get a bit sticky later on in Tara's post, particularly when it comes to scientists' fear of being disastrously misquoted or misrepresented in an article. Now, this is a very real concern. It happens all the friggin' time, and not just with scientists. Every one of us who has engaged in any kind of media exposure has a horror story or two to tell.
For instance, Future Spouse and I were among those featured in a Valentine's Day article in the New York Times, about couples who met during business conferences (in our case, the 2006 APS April meeting in Dallas). The reporter -- a highly respected professional, and published author -- did his due diligence, and contacted me prior to publication for some minor fact-checking. I clarified a few factual errors. In writing. But the reporter was traveling at the time, and the editor(s) in charge were, apparently, less diligent. Almost none of the corrections were made -- or were made incorrectly, even though they had the correct information right in front of them. In writing! There's absolutely no excuse for that, other than "Oops! Our bad!"
In another article for a different publication, the assigned reporter produced a "profile" of me so far removed from my actual personality that even my closest friends admitted that, had they not known it was about me, they never would have recognized me. My quotes were totally mangled, usually harmlessly, although in one case, it was misconstrued to convey almost the exact opposite of what I'd actually said. So I speak from the heart when I assure all you scientists: I've been there, and I feel your pain. The difference is, I consider this kind of experience the equivalent of war stories, to be ruefully shared over cocktails or coffee with colleagues in solidarity, whereas according to Tara, scientists have a very real fear that their professional image will be irrevocably tarnished by such an experience:
"We spend a lot of time crafting our own articles describing our work, adding the requisite disclaimers, alternative explanations, etc., but all that can be undone by a misleading article (or even a misleading headline, which may be no fault of the reporter).... [E]ach new interview is a gamble, so while it has the potential to bring our work to a larger audience, it also has the potential to mischaracterize our work, or piss off a colleague who disagrees with our interpretation of the data."
This, I think, gets to the crux of the matter when it comes to the longstanding tension between scientists and journalists. It's a multi-faceted issue, and feelings tend to run high, so it's not surprising that this is the aspect of Tara's post that generated the most heated debate. Honestly, I don't quite get it. It strikes me as a contradiction: on the one hand, scientists loathe mainstream journalism because reporters never get anything right, and yet they're afraid a random article will carry sufficient credibility to damage their careers? It makes no logical sense. Newspapers are not peer-reviewed journals; they should not -- and in my opinion do not -- carry as much weight as a scientific paper published in a refereed journal, which should be the only kind of publication that matters when one's research is being critiqued by one's peers. Unless one's peers are looking for ammo to make cheap shots for political or personal reasons -- in which case, they'll find it regardless of whatever article appears. That's bad scientific manners, not a direct result of bad journalism.
The scientists' comments at Aetiology are quite telling: frustration, and often anger and outrage, at the media's stubborn refusal to behave like a peer-reviewed journal and allow scientists more control over the information being disseminated. Many helpful suggestions were made to minimize the chances of being misquoted: only responding to emailed questions, so one's responses are in writing, for example, or insisting on being allowed to review one's quotes before publication. (One guy apparently tapes his end of the conversation and compares the final quotes with his own taped record. Now that's obsessive.) Dave Mosher had the best suggestion:
"As a science journalist, I can tell you the best thing to do, as an academic getting interviewed and wanted to guide the interview somewhat, is to have analogies cocked, locked and loaded.... [R]eporters go nuts for pre-thought-out analogies/explanations because it's quotable material, and could in fact be the center of the article.... So cranking them out before you speak with someone is a great way to maintain some control of what reporters quote you on."
But the harsh truth is, no strategy is 100% effective, and misquoting and misrepresentation will still occasionally occur. (And no, it wasn't better in "the good ol' days." Take a gander at archives from daily newspapers from the 1920s, or 19th century England, if you don't believe me.) Science communication will always be a double-edged sword in that respect: you trade increased exposure for your research, and fostering a link with the general public through the media, for absolute control over the information that's disseminated. Period. So, um, get over it already.
One particularly angry commenter was Drugmonkey, who wrote:
"So the answer to a journalist is "stop lying." Stop thinking that constructing an article to make whatever point you want based on totally misrepresenting quotes is ok. Start trying to communicate the *truth* of what people say to you, you know, report what happened rather than what you wish happened because it "made a better story." Then maybe scientists will return your call."
Clearly, Drugmonkey has been hurt, badly hurt I tell you, by someone in the mean, nasty media. Let's get a bit more perspective, shall we? It's the rare (and very bad) reporter who deliberately sets out to "lie" in an article. However, it is that reporter's job to shape an article into a strong narrative; that's just good science communication, good story-telling, good writing. It should be based on actual fact, but "truth"? That's a bit more elusive. What Drugmonkey considers the "truth" might be different from what another scientist, or what the journalist, feels is the "truth." Even the most objective scientific data is open to different interpretations, and a big part of any journalistic endeavor is to present more than one side to the story -- the "balance" scientists seem to hate so much. Yeah, yeah, I know this really backfires in extreme cases like Intelligent Design and global warming, but most of the time the model works pretty well. At least the journalist has the benefit of having interviewed several people to obtain a broader view of the matter.
He or she might not always succeed in nailing a story to the satisfaction of all the scientists quoted therein, but a good journalist will always try to go that extra mile to ensure a reasonable degree of accuracy. That said, every reporter occasionally cleans up, or massages, quotes. People don't always speak as clearly as they write, and even with written replies, the journalistic format rarely allows for as much context or details as the average scientist desires. Those column inches are precious real estate and every word has to count. Plus, at any moment before hitting the presses, an article can be hacked even further to make room for the all-important advertising revenue. One commenter rather huffily insisted, "Scientists do know what it is like to write something for publication," but said commenter fails to appreciate the substantial difference between a scientific paper or journal article, and the average newspaper story. It's apples and oranges (although they are both fruit).
Policies vary from publication to publication on letting scientists review articles or individual quotes prior to publication. The Industrial Physicist, for which I wrote for 10 years before it shuttered, always extended this courtesy -- as a courtesy, mind you, not as a right -- but Discover, Salon, and just about any other mainstream media outlet specifically forbid a reporter from doing so. It really is about journalistic integrity. Believe me, politicians would LOVE to be able to review articles or quotes before they appear in print, the better to spin their carefully cultivated public images. Why should scientists get special treatment? Because they can be trusted to be "objective"? I think not. Scientists are human beings, and they have the same vanities, petty jealousies, and less-than-admirable motives as the rest of the human race, which interferes with their best intentions about as often as occurs in the population at large. It's part of our system of checks and balances that the free press remains just that: free.
In short, the scientific community in general needs to be a bit more sophisticated about its attitude towards journalism -- starting with gaining a clearer idea of how journalism actually works, and what its primarily objectives are (hint: they are not the same objectives as science). It is not, and never shall be, just like publishing in scientific journals. And there's nothing wrong with that. It is what it is.
As for Tara's frank assessment that there's no "reward" for scientists -- especially young scientists -- to participate in interviews for the press, well, I understand her reluctance, to some extent. There's definitely a negative perception of scientists who participate in public outreach and are quoted frequently in the media -- and more than a little snide commentary behind their backs. (Sniffs Jen-Luc Piquant, "Jealous much?") I can only appeal to your altruism. So I'll just say this: Scientists decry the sad state of science literacy in this country, they complain that much of the "real" science being done is never reported, and they bewail the fact that newspapers are killing off science sections right and left. (I join them in the wailing and gnashing of teeth on that score, and raise them the odd rending of the garment.) But they don't want to return reporters' phone calls because it might tarnish their academic image? Again, it makes no logical sense.
If you don't want to consent to interviews, that's your prerogative. I, for one, am sympathetic to all the reasons Tara and her commenters discussed on her recent blog post. But on the flip side, you then forfeit your right to complain about poor science coverage -- because (as I've said before in a prior post) you are a big part of the problem.