Reporters, PIOs tell how to ask and answer the tough questions

By Michael E. Newman

Like the insurance company commercials that note "If you’re a parrot, you repeat things" and "If you’re a mom, you call at the worst time," it is obvious that "If you’re a science writer, you ask questions" and "If you’re a science PIO, you answer questions." But what if the questions are about research misconduct, questionable studies, plagiarism or other negative or controversial aspects of the science and technology communicated by NASW members?

Sharing their wisdom, insight and best practices on the subject were moderator Shannon Palus, freelance journalist and former staff writer at Retraction Watch; Brooke Borel, freelance science journalist and author; Earle Holland, retired assistant vice president for research communication at Ohio State University; Amy Maxmen, freelance journalist; and Matt Shipman, research communications lead at North Carolina State University.

The discussion started with each of the panelists describing a personal experience with a difficult situation in their science communication careers.

Borel recalled a time when she was "torn between being compassionate and still firmly asking the tough questions" of a source who "broke down crying" during the interview.

Covering the shoddy treatment of healthcare workers treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, Maxmen told how she had to organize her interview findings in detailed logs and spreadsheets to better confront government officials who refuted the workers’ claims.

Shipman talked about his personal conflict in deciding what to do when one of his more reliable sources inadvertently faxed him a document revealing sensitive information.

Holland, who along with Shipman serves on the editorial staff of Health News Review, explained how hard it was to get timely and transparent responses to questions about research ethics and conflicts of interest from University of Maryland officials during this past January’s "chocolate milk hastens concussion recovery" scandal.

Finally, Palus went back to her days as a fact checker to tell how a researcher, in response to a pointed question, clammed up with "I was told this would be a positive story."

The panelists next took up the issue of "off the record."

Shipman said that he makes it clear to researchers during media training that they "can’t retroactively make something off the record" and that it’s far more advisable to simply "not say anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print, on air or online."

Maxmen stressed that it is critical "to make the ground rules extremely clear at the start of an interview" and that nothing is off the record unless "identifying a source could endanger that person’s job or life."

Palus agreed, adding that she rarely makes off the record an option because a source "might decide everything falls under that umbrella."

PIOs shouldn’t let their scientists and engineers even consider off the record when responding to inquiries, Holland said. "Institutions have the responsibility to inform the public through the media and PIOs have to be the bridge facilitating direct communication between researchers and journalists," he explained.

To do that effectively, Shipman said, researchers must understand that they are unlikely to get questions in advance or be given an opportunity to review a story before it appears publicly. The journalists on the panel all concurred, saying that it was rare, if ever, that they allowed either to occur.

When asked about structuring interviews that include tough questions, Borel said that she puts them toward the end of an interview so that the source has time to feel comfortable with the discussion before they come up. Holland charged the journalists in the audience to be sensitive and fair to a person under review for research misconduct or scientific irregularities by "finding out and understanding the policies under which their institution conducts the review to be able to ask direct, yet respectful questions about it." In such cases, Palus recommended contacting the PIO as early as possible to get that information, show interest in covering the story and establish trust for the interviews to come.

To help his researchers handle tough interviews, Shipman said that training and practice can keep a difficult situation from becoming a public disaster. "We do mock interviews to prepare them to respond calmly and openly with an organized and clear telling of the facts," he said.

Holland agreed, but added that it is always better if PIOs can help their charges avoid a controversy in the first place. "Encourage them to inform you up front of any sensitivities or potential ‘land mines’ in their research and work with them on how to explain why they exist or why they are necessary," he said. "Saying ‘It’s for the good of humanity’ doesn’t do the job." Holland went on to say that solid preparation can "keep a controversy to a one-day story but not being forthcoming and honest can turn it into a multiple-day headliner." Shipman emphasized the point by saying "If you lie, you will get caught, you will look awful and it will drag on forever."

Finally, the journalists on the panel were asked how they convince a source to answer tough questions. Maxmen said that she often sends them some examples of articles in which she handled a difficult subject to establish her credibility and build their trust. "It’s also helpful to explain at the start why you are interested in telling the story, how you intend to approach it and how the interview will be done," she said. Borel agreed, saying that whatever can be done to make sources less stressed before and during the interview makes it more likely they’ll be forthcoming. "For example, if they are hesitant to answer your questions, ask them to explain why and it might get them to open up," she said.