"That's all well and good," said one. "But I've talked to him and he is, without a doubt, the stupidest reporter ever," said one researcher, complete with eyeroll.
"That lets me let you in on a secret," I said. "That reporter is among the many who ask questions that sound stupid to you, in order to get you to explain complex concepts simply--in ways their audiences can understand."
I've worked with lots of scientists who get caught up in reacting to media interview questions like these, rather than responding to them, and it's a surefire way to wind up on the cutting room floor--and miss your mark. When you're reacting to the question, or to the interviewer, you're failing to hear the question and failing to think about the audience that the reporter ultimately wants to reach. Let me let Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Science Friday, explain it for you from the reporter's vantage point:
You have to be able to continually ask the same question over and over again, and not be afraid to sound stupid. I had one scientist who almost threw me out of his office during a television interview. I was challenging him on one of his theories and asking him to go deeper into his research. He said, “You’re not smart enough to be asking me these questions and I’m going to throw you out of the office.” But we did finish it. My advice? Don’t insult the interviewer.McClatchy's Robert Boyd puts it this way: "I use a mental yardstick: the scientist is at one end, the reader at the other end, and I want to be nearer to the reader than to the scientist." They're among several interviews with reporters I did for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Communicating Science website, a resource for scientists and engineers who want to learn more about communicating effectively with public audiences...and with reporters. I'd much rather see you react as evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson does in this interview with On Being's Krista Tippett (you'll find it as they conclude the unedited version of their interview). He tells her they've amassed a large chunk of marble during their conversation, and that he looks forward to seeing what she sculpts from it. Aim for that, next time...
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