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As a former reporter (who often interviewed researchers) and a current graduate student in sociology, this whole episode depresses me. The editor is correct that a reporter isn't required to tip his or her hand (at least not completely) to sources about the nature of the story, much as a survey researcher doesn't necessarily disclose every intent of the study. Still, the way this was done is, in my opinion, a little unseemly.
If, without straying off the topic of the list *too* much, I may, I'd like to offer the following advice for interacting with reporters, based on my experience on the other side of the interview.
Be very aware of the press releases sent out concerning your work. Some university and journal press offices are very good at what they do, many aren't. Your conclusions may be oversold to attract attention. If your contribution to the field is mainly methodological, realize that that might not be what gets the attention in the press release. Try to see (and, ideally get control/veto power over) what is to be sent to the press representing your work.
Know whom you are dealing with--the reporter and publication. A quick look at the publication's Web site and a search of a news archive such as Lexis-Nexis will give you a sense of the person's work. There isn't, of course, always time to do this.
Ask a few questions of your own, including how the reporter found you and/or what interested him or her in your work. Ask (gently) about the nature of the story (e.g., "Could you tell me what this story is about?" ).This is not just to sniff out possible Sybils; it will help you frame your comments. If you aren't familiar with the publication, ask about its audience, too. Professional journalists will be happy to answer these questions. (You might not get a dissertation-length answer on the nature of the story--and keep in mind that the focus might change as the reporting takes place--but you should go into the interview with a sense of what's going on.)
Be prepared to talk to a reporter about your work by recognizing that all the caveats you put in your articles and books won't make it into the 400-word article the reporter has to finish by 5 p.m. Stress the caveats that are most important. Make a point of the distinction between correlation and cause-and-effect, especially if you think that is a source of confusion. Be able to competently and plainly answer in a sentence or two the questions "What does this mean?" and "To whom does this apply?" which can be questions about generalization.
Practice explaining your findings and their contribution to the field in a way that a reasonably intelligent person who has no background in your area of expertise would understand. It helps to actually envision such a person--a relative or neighbor, perhaps--someone outside the research world. Test your spiel on such a person and get him or her to paraphrase what you said--did that person "get" it? I often ran into academics who refused to do this kind of summarizing, seemingly because they thought it was beneath them and the quality of their work or because they thought it meant dumbing it down. But here's the thing: either you're going to help determine how the work is described in simple, jargon-free terms, or the reporter is going to do the best he or she can unassisted.
If the conversation with the reporter is going decently enough, but you can't be sure he or she "gets" it, politely ask him or her to tell you, in his or her own words, what you've been talking about. Put it on you--say you need to learn whether you're explaining this stuff clearly. That's the truth, and it might help you catch an embarrassing misinterpretation before it's too late.
Generally speaking, you can expect good reporters to be somewhat familiar with your work--they found you, after all. However, keep in mind that reporters don't always have the time/advanced notice or access to academic journals to read all your best work before calling you, especially if they anticipate rounds of phone tag. Don't be shy about suggesting things that you or others have written that will help reporters--as jacks and jills of all trades, they appreciate the guidance from specialists, as long as it's not given in a way that suggests they're idiots for not knowing all your literature. Post what you can of your work on your Web site and be willing to e-mail links and articles to journalists who seem willing to make a genuine effort. Keep in mind that even if your best stuff doesn't make it into this story, there's always the next one.
Finally, respect deadlines. When someone asks you to call back by 3, do it if you possibly can, even just to say you don't want to be interviewed. Deadlines are a brutal and unforgiving reality in journalism, and it really does drive reporters crazy when someone calls back DAYS later, ready to be interviewed for a story that already ran. Keep in mind that the earlier you call, the more time the reporter has to enhance his or her knowledge (e.g. by reading the stuff you sent) of the topic before writing the story.
University of Illinois at Chicago
Department of Sociology
Bill Richards <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
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I wrote to the editor of Nature News about the story "Sybil" did on
Duncan Watts' work and received this response.
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Correspondence to Nature
Date: Fri, 20 Jan 2006 11:29:15 -0000
From: Jones, Nicola
To: Jones, Nicola
Thank you for your correspondence about our column 'To be blunt'. This is a
note to let you know that we have received your comments and are taking them
I continue to think, as many of our readers have agreed, that the attempt to
explain why scientific publications whose press releases or abstracts stress
very obvious results were published, and why the research they report on was
done, is worthwhile. I also believe that this is worth doing light
I apologise if you felt the inaugural column held Duncan Watts up to
ridicule, which was not our intention. While we certainly meant to draw
light-hearted attention to one of the conclusions of the research, we also
pointed out how the work moved beyond the banalities of the press-release
headlines to reveal useful and interesting information.
I would also like address Dr Watts' comments about the reporter's approach
to the story. We believe that it is not in general incumbent on a reporter
to spell out the nature of the article they are working on when talking to a
source. However, we have decided that when reporting future columns in this
series, we will include a specific description of the column's intent in our
initial approach to the subject.
[log in to unmask] is not aimed at the same readers as Nature itself, and it is
likely to be more experimental in its tone and its range. This does not mean
that we do not hold it to high standards; we do. But its purpose is not to
be part of a scientific journal of record. One area where the two
publications are indistinguishable, though, is in their respect for all
areas of science, including the social sciences.
Editor, [log in to unmask]
Nicola Jones BSc, MJ
Online news editor [log in to unmask]
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