Annual Meeting Reports

How to Communicate with the Media… and Stay Out of Trouble

Today’s mass-media landscape is notably different from that of even 10 short years ago. The proliferation of news outlets and the 24/7 news cycle offer more opportunities for distribution of news and other information. And even when people don’t entirely understand it, they like to hear about science and medical news. Yet the increase in opportunities means that the level of “background noise”, which was always deafening, is now extremely high, and it can be difficult for your news to break through to the top. Furthermore, researchers may be ambivalent about having their work covered, fearing that their views will be distorted. Thus, having a strategy for disseminating scientific information from your journal, institution, or press office is important.

Communication scenarios have three basic formats: breaking researching news, expert commentary, and crisis communication. We should always answer reporters’ calls, but asking about the available time frame can help to determine who should be the spokesperson and how soon the interview should occur. In a crisis, there are five rules: tell it all, tell it first, tell the truth, tell it calmly, and tell it fast, particularly if a public-health emergency is involved.

Keep in mind that scientists and reporters communicate differently. Scientists begin with background, proceed to supporting evidence, and then arrive at results and conclusions. Often, they are unaccustomed to speaking with the news media about their work, and they need guidance and training (which need not be expensive or time consuming).

Reporters first want the punch line, followed by the “so what?” and then the supporting details. They’re looking for clear, compelling, and concise information, including images and multimedia resources. In fact, the more images available, the better, in that different images may be used for print, television, and the Web. Reporters aim to maximize the audience, explain the science without overselling, and move on. The journal, institution, or press office can help by coordinating interviews, establishing trust, knowing reporters’ fields of interest, and being a source of background material for additional viewpoints. Providing easy access to the researcher is essential.

Once the spokesperson (often the primary author) is identified, he or she should write down and rehearse three key messages to be conveyed and memorize relevant facts, examples, and anecdotes. When challenged by inaccurate statements, bridge back to the three key messages (for example, “I’d like to talk about . . .”). Avoiding the repetition of inaccurate statements can help focus attention on accurate information.

Training scientists to communicate effectively with the public is particularly urgent in Africa, where a malaria vaccine is beginning phase III trials. The researchers involved have been taught how to talk appropriately with various audiences (such as government officials, policy makers, and the public) about why the vaccine is so important. As always in science communication, the message is data driven. In the process, the scientists are showing the world that African researchers can conduct first-rate science, which will be important for future efforts in related fields.

When the mass media present a story inaccurately, certainly we’re disappointed, but we must put the problem into the context of the overall coverage. Thinking ahead to possible misinterpretations of the material can be helpful; and by learning from a mistake, perhaps we can avoid the same problem in the future. To prevent such problems, know your sources, be transparent, and be consistent in your treatment of all mass-media organizations. Arguing with a reporter and writing a letter to the editor only draw more attention to the error and are not recommended.

When everything works perfectly, the researchers and the news media discuss the story at appropriate length, the reporters have the time to write an accurate description, and the public is informed. As Stephen Jay Gould noted, “Part of the art of any kind of total scholarship is to say it well.”