If a scientist's work in progress is promising or interesting, but without a hard news angle, a journalist or information officer may suggest an interview.
More often, however, the interview is initiated by a writer who wants to talk to a scientist or to an authority on a specific subject. The interview implies exclusivity and any story obtained by the writer must not be sent out in a release to others. However, the PIO may prepare a release to be sent out after the writer's story appears. Proper etiquette demands that the PIO tell the writer of his or her intentions beforehand and scrupulously observe the writer's publication date.
In any case, a good rule for interviews is to have as much salient information as possible provided to the reporter in a written form — as a release, report, scientific paper or backgrounder — so that key points and important facts are not left to the vagaries of a reporter's notes or memory.
Some institutions and companies require a PIO to be present at all media interviews. However almost all journalists find this practice distasteful. Some, however, do not mind and may even appreciate the services a PIO can offer. When in doubt, ask the journalist if he or she minds a PIO's presence.
If such presence is absolutely required, the information officer should keep out of the interview as much as possible. Beforehand, he or she may suggest to the reporter what kinds of questions probably won't be answered and what queries may offer the most promise.
Before a news conference or an interview, the PIO should brief the participating scientist(s) or physician(s) on media requirements. Interviewees should understand that they have the right to understand clearly the interview topic in advance and to limit responses to that topic. Also, they may contribute significant information, including facts and background information that was not asked for.
The scientist who wishes to review a reporter's story for scientific accuracy should understand that the journalist is under no obligation to show the scientist copy. Even though almost all science writers have done so at one time or another, publication policy, deadlines and the logistics of checking stories with multiple sources may prevent such checking.
The requirement that such review is a condition of the interview should be made clear in negotiating before the interview and not after it has begun. If science reporters are willing to check copy for accuracy, they may choose to read the copy over the telephone or fax or e-mail it. Scientists should limit their corrections to scientific fact and to the accuracy of direct quotes.
For TV or radio interviews, reporters usually are able to include in the finished segment only the barest essentials of a scientist's work or statement. They look for succinct answers to one or two questions. The scientist should be made acutely aware that regardless of how brilliant an answer, it will be edited to perhaps about nine seconds, unless the interview is for a documentary or long-format public radio or television report.
It helps to rehearse scientists on questions and answers, with particular attention to brevity and avoidance of jargon and technical terms. During the interview, a scientist should feel free to try his or her answers more than once, should he or she stumble. The scientists can simply ask the interviewer for another chance to answer more clearly.
For a television interview away from a studio, be sure the room is big enough and insulated from distracting noises, that proper power outlets are handy, and that the background for filming is uncluttered. As mentioned earlier with regard to news conferences, encourage the scientist to have props or a display, such as charts or diagrams, as well as animations and graphics, that make the subject clear.
A radio reporter wants the story in the scientist's own words and thus carries a tape recorder. He or she will usually discuss the questions to be asked so that the interviewee will have time to mull over possible answers. As with television interviews, the scientist should steer clear of time-consuming details, rambling explanations, and complicated answers.
If the interview takes place over the telephone, avoid the use of speaker phones that degrade the quality of the sound and make it difficult for a reporter to understand answers or to tape the interview.
Return to the Communicating Science News contents page.