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Scientists and Reporters: Tips for scientists who talk with the media


On the Shelf

Scientists and Reporters: Tips for scientists who talk with the media
Yarrow Axford

Geoscientists are comfortable in some scary situations: scrambling up mountains, handling hazardous chemicals, confronting classrooms filled with students, working in the face of landslides and volcanoes. But the prospect of talking with journalists leaves many of us shaking in our shoes.

We may be afraid of being misquoted by the media, misunderstood by the public, and misrepresented to our colleagues. But we’re increasingly expected to communicate our results to the public, and often the media will act as an intermediary. Fortunately, media coverage has many potential rewards. And it may take only a little extra effort to help a journalist describe your work both accurately and evocatively.

“Publish in a scientific journal, and a few people will see it. Publish in a newspaper or magazine, and you’ll have readers everywhere,” points out Ann Cairns, Director of Communications for the Geological Society of America.

Most scientists know that the popular press is a potential route to communicate with the public and potentially with policymakers. But publishing in popular forums is also an opportunity to reach fellow scientists, especially those working in other disciplines. Working with journalists is “a way to get your work in front of people who aren’t reading the journals in your specialized discipline,” Cairns says.

Of course, press coverage also promotes public understanding of the geosciences. It encourages scientifically sound policymaking. And seeing your work described in a local newspaper or your favorite magazine also offers the more personal reward of affirmation. “When the story gets published, scientists recognize that their work is of interest to people. It’s just great,” Cairns adds.

Geoscientists commonly meet members of the press when they present their work at meetings, after publishing books or papers, and when popular news stories require scientific explanation. In all of these situations, following a few words of advice can help you — and your profession — to reap the rewards of media coverage.

Just as with teaching, the first step is to know your audience. Journalists have a wide variety of backgrounds, goals and deadline pressures.

Ask how soon a journalist will need a response from you. A reporter from a daily newspaper, for example, might need to hear from you the day a story breaks. Ask how much background information you should provide. Some journalists specializing in science will know the basics; others may need a lot of help understanding your work. If possible, provide background information, including relevant publications, before an interview.

Regardless of the journalist’s background, you will need to explain things differently than when you’re talking with fellow scientists.

“Think as if you were at a dinner party, and someone asked about your work,” says Tom Yulsman, professor of journalism at the University of Colorado and former editor of Earth magazine. “Journalists are jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none. It’s difficult to know all the background, especially under a deadline. Some scientists don’t understand this dilemma, because their work is usually so focused.”

If you’re worried about being misunderstood, the best insurance is to present a clear, straightforward story. “If you’re afraid something will be lost in translation, make the translation yourself and you’ll have less to worry about,” Cairns says.

“Be really clear. Try to anticipate how something could be misunderstood. Think about what you’re going to say ahead of time,” Yulsman suggests. Try to incorporate helpful analogies and vivid imagery. Be clear and concise. Use short, quotable sentences.

And remember that journalists are looking, above all else, for a good story. “What is newsworthy? Why is this important? They need that information,” Yulsman says. You can help by pointing out what is most important or novel about your work.

Knowing some journalistic etiquette will also help: Respond quickly to inquiries, or your opinion may go unheard. Provide the names of your colleagues and funding sources. Emphasize the uncertainties in your results, and suggest other sources of information. Recognize that a good journalist will talk to other sources, and what you say may be only a small part of the reporter’s story. Although it’s helpful to be available for follow-up questions, don’t expect to read the story before it gets published; trust the writer to do a professional job.

Your employer might have a public relations department that can provide further advice about working with the media. Other resources include training workshops and discussions at professional meetings, and books such as Geomedia: A Guide for Geoscientists who Meet the Press, written by Lisa Rossbacher and Rex Buchanan and published by the American Geological Institute.

If, after trying hard to get your ideas across, you’re still unhappy with how a journalist covers your work, consider the implications. Was the story detrimental to the public, to your profession or just to your ego? Give it another try.

“Please don’t let one bad experience with a journalist turn you off,” Yulsman says. “Scientists don’t reach conclusions from a single observation. Think in the longer term. You’ll help journalists do a better job if you work at it.”

Axford is earning her Ph.D. in geosciences at the University of Colorado. E-mail

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U.S. Geological Survey

I-2543. ALASKA. Geologic and isostatic map of the Nenana basin area, central Alaska by G.M. Frost, D.F. Barnes and R.G. Stanley. 2002. Scale 1:250,000. One color sheet accompanied by 16 pages of text. $7.

I-2764. UTAH and COLORADO. Stratigraphy of the Upper Cretaceous Mancos Shale (upper part) and Mesaverde Group in the southern part of the Uinta and Piceance Basins, Utah and Colorado by R.D. Hettinger and M.A. Kirschbaum. 2002. Two color sheets accompanied by 21 pages of text. $14.

MF-2341. COLORADO. Geologic map of the Rifle Falls quadrangle, Garfield County, Colorado by R.B. Scott, R.R. Shroba and A.E. Egger. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet accompanied by 19 pages of text. Available free at:, or for $20 as print-on-demand.

MF-2394. ARIZONA. Geologic map of Clayhole Wash and vicinity, Mohave County, northwestern Arizona by G.H. Billingsley, S.S. Priest and S.L. Dudash. 2002. Scale 1:31,680. One color sheet accompanied by 21 pages of text. Available free at:

To order USGS maps, contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, CO, 80225. Phone: 888/ASK-USGS (888/275-8747). Maps identified as print-on-demand may be downloaded from the Internet, or USGS can run a copy for a charge as noted.

Peter Lyttle compiles the maps section and is the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program Coordinator. E-mail
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On the Shelf:

Photographic Guide to Minerals of the World
by Ole Johnsen, Oxford University Press (2002), ISBN 0-19-851568-5. £17.99

Spectacular images fill this hardcover guide targeted at students and amateur geologists. Approximately 500 minerals are included. Although the guide includes a primer on crystallography, the emphasis throughout is on hand-sample identification rather than more sophisticated optical or x-ray methods.

Distant Wanderers
by Bruce Dorminey, Copernicus Books (2002), ISBN 0-387-95074-5. Hardcover, $29.95.

Subtitled “The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System,” this book focuses on the current race among astronomers to identify planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. The narrative, written by a science journalist, is based on an extensive series of interviews with leading astronomers. It conveys the excitement of rapid scientific discovery as technology opens up new opportunities. The book also delves into the impact of these “distant wanderers” on theories of planet formation and possible fingerprints of another living planet.

Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Giant
by Richard Stone, Perseus Publishing (2002), ISBN 0-7382-0775-6. Paperback, $15.

Award-winning science journalist Richard Stone (Geotimes, June 2001) explores what it will take for a mammoth to walk across Siberia’s frozen tundra again, and the efforts of the scientists involved in making such an event happen. He puts in perspective the ancient history and interaction humans had with mammoths and the different explanations for why mammoths went extinct. “The mammoth survived much longer than many people realize,” Stone says. “The last of their kind died out on an Arctic island only 3,700 years ago, long after the Great Pyramids at Giza were built.”

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