Wednesday, May 06, 2009

overstepping in an interview: how to fix it

You don't often see this on a blog: A scientist taking another scientist to task for stretching the truth in a media interview. Here, the author's noting the tendency of some interviewees to make statements that are too sweeping, expressing hunches or guesses or even pure opinion without having solid research to back it up--and failing to note the difference in the interview. That's bad for any interviewee, but especially for scientists when they are sought out as expert sources.

Why would that happen? Scientists, just like any interviewee, often feel the need to answer the question, or to lengthen their answer, and those efforts to fill the seeming void are where any interviewee can get off track. If you don't know, or research doesn't exist, or you're not sure, just say so. Not only is that more accurate, it's actually appealing to those of us curious about the as-yet unanswered questions of science.

When I'm leading sessions of the AAAS "Communicating Science" workshops, I don't have to work too hard to stop the participants from making overly sweeping statements, because their colleagues do it, most of the time. But if you're in an interview, there's an easy way to catch yourself from communicating a too-sweeping statement: Ask questions of the reporter before you start the interview, and make sure you understand what the reporter is taking away from the interview, before it ends. Those are among the 11 "what to ask reporters" questions you should use in your next media interview.

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