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Ask a Reporter Anything: A briefing for scientists about how the news works

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Why wasn’t I quoted? Who wrote that headline? Is your deadline really in one hour? On June 16, 2021, SciLine, a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), hosted a virtual “Ask a Reporter Anything” event, inviting scientists from all disciplines to hear from and ask questions of reporters and editors representing a range of media outlet types, including local, national, print, radio, and specialty science publications. Reversing the usual press briefing model, journalists were in the hot seat, fielding questions from scientists and sharing their perspectives. In a conversation moderated by SciLine, attendees learned how day-to-day journalism really works, what a day in the life of a reporter looks like, and the professional expectations and challenges reporters face when covering science-related issues.

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SciLine introduction: The media landscape

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thanks, Josh. Hello, and let me extend my welcome as well to SciLine’s Ask a Reporter Anything briefing. This is an opportunity for scientists to hear directly from reporters about how day-to-day journalism really works, what a typical day is like and the professional expectations and challenges that reporters face when covering science-related issues. Importantly, they’ll also be taking your questions. As Josh said, my name is Meredith Drosback, and I’m going to be moderating today. First, I want to start with a few words about SciLine. We’re a program based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and our whole purpose is to help get more science into news stories. We work both with scientists and with reporters to accomplish that goal through a variety of different services, all of which are free to all participants. We set scientists such as yourselves up with reporters for one-on-one interviews, both through our expert matching service, which is for reporters looking for a source on deadline, and through our experts on camera service in which you essentially set aside time for office hours with reporters and we schedule a series of interviews for you. We also host media briefings analogous to this one in which we feature three scientific experts as panelists who answer reporters’ questions and help them get up to speed on a specific science topic in the news. And we have opportunities for you to provide written quotes on breaking news that we distribute to reporters in our network, enabling you to reach a lot of reporters very quickly without having to do a lot of individual interviews. You can learn all about these activities and more on our website at sciline.org.

As Josh said, I serve as the senior associate director for science at SciLine. And in that role, I work with a team of other scientists who liaise with the scientific community every day. I’m a former scientist myself. I did my Ph.D. in astrophysics, and I spent a number of years in research before coming to Washington, D.C., where I worked in science policy. I’ve been with SciLine since we launched in 2017, and I have to tell you, I didn’t know much at all about the news business when I started. I read a lot of news, but I didn’t give it a ton of thought to try to iron out in my mind how it was created. (Inaudible) day. Before we turn to our panelists, I want to set the stage for our conversation by giving you some brief background on the changing news landscape, including science news. I’m basing much of these remarks on data from a variety of surveys and analyses done by Pew Research Center. The last decade has brought significant changes to the media landscape. In 2008, roughly 114,000 people worked in the United States newsrooms. By 2019, that number had dropped to 88,000 – a loss of nearly one quarter. This includes staff from newspapers, radio and television stations, cable news and digital platforms. And this is according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, assessed here by Pew Research Center. There are a number of complicating reasons for this trend. Though, a big one is the revenue loss from this shift from printed to digital platforms. And if we dig a little bit deeper, we see that newspapers were among the hardest hit of all newsrooms, losing more than 50% of their staff across those same years.

This figure shows the years 2008 to 2019 on the horizontal axis and the number of newsroom employees on the vertical axis. Newspaper publishers are in dark red, and all of the other newsrooms combined are in yellow. So you can see the dramatic decline of newspaper employees relative to other sectors. This is from that same analysis by Pew Research Center. But even though staffs are shrinking, that doesn’t mean that there’s less news to report nor that news is happening more slowly. I think we can all agree that over time, the news cycle has even sped up. Many places have fewer reporters trying to cover just as much news, only faster. Some reporters even face the responsibility for reporting and publishing multiple stories per day every day. And this is especially true at local news outlets. Local news means places like the Victoria Advocate in Texas or the Greensboro News and Record in North Carolina and KNKX Public Radio in Tacoma, Wash. These are the newspaper, radio and television stations that focus on reporting about local people, local places and local issues within a defined geographic area. And while lots of people turn to national outlets like The New York Times or NBC or Fox News for stories about politics, the economy, international affairs and even updates on the pandemic, it’s the local news that’s also covering what’s going on where you live. When we have scientists think about science news, we actually often think about specialty news outlets, like National Geographic or Scientific American, or the big national media, like Washington Post and NPR, all of whom report on new research results and stories of how unique scientific discoveries happen. But science can be particularly relevant at the local level, too.

Maybe not every new discovery will show up on your nightly news, but science can be incredibly informative to the news that’s happening in your community from how local industry affects your air quality to questions about when and how to reopen schools safely as the COVID pandemic’s immediate danger wanes in many communities. Yet many local outlets no longer have dedicated science sections or reporters that specialize in health, environment or general science. These types of specialized reporters were among the layoffs in this decreasing – this trend of decreasing newsroom employment. Even among national media outlets, many, though not all, of those reporting teams are not as robust as they used to be. So the stories in which science could or should play an important role are largely being reported when they’re being reported by what are called general assignment reporters. These are often great journalists with an enviable capacity to report on anything they’re given, from human interest to crime to politics to breaking news. But that means that when science is included in the day’s news, the reporters doing that work may not have a background in science. And that’s why it’s so important for them to have great scientist sources who can explain complex and technical issues in ways that the reporter can convey to their audience.

Luckily, scientists are also very trusted professionals from the point of view of the public. Roughly annually, Pew asks the public questions about Americans’ trust in institutions and professions, and scientists are among the people they ask about. What’s shown in this bar chart are the results from 2016 through 2019 from a question about whether people think members of particular professions act in the public interest. The color-coding on each bar distinguishes between respondents indicating a great deal of confidence, which is shown in the dark shade at the bottom, and a fair amount of confidence, which is shown in the lighter color at the top of the bar. Other, more negative responses aren’t shown in this particular chart. And here you can see that scientists are consistently viewed at least somewhat positively by the public, with 76% of respondents reporting at least a positive view in 2016 and increasing to 86% in 2019. That 2019 survey, by the way, was pre-COVID. In some years, Pew also asks about medical scientists separately from scientists as a whole, so you’ll see them reported in some years and not others. And on the bottom row you see the news media. The public’s trust in them is a lot lower. Just a few months ago, Pew released some new survey data on what Americans look for to decide whether a news story is trustworthy, and respondents said that it was somewhat or very important to consider qualities like the news organization that publishes it, the sources cited in that story, their gut instinct about the story, the person, if anyone, who shared it with them and the specific journalists who reported it. That same survey showed variation by political affiliation, which I’m not going to get into. But overall, about 20% of those surveyed said they pay very close attention to sources and another 45% said they paid somewhat close attention to sources.

And so if a journalist reporting on stories either about science or for which science can play a role, such as a chemical spill that might pollute a local waterway or even the potential auditory damage that neighborhood leaf blowers can do, it’s not just the ability of scientists to explain complex and nuanced issues that’s an asset to the reporter. As a source in that story, you also bring your credibility as a scientist with the public overall. So how can you be part of this news ecosystem? What do you need to know about the process to decide whether to serve as a source for a reporter, and how can you be great at it? That’s what we’re here to learn. Our three panelists today are reporters who come from different types of news outlets and bring unique experiences. Their detailed biographies are on our website, so I’m not going to go over them here. But we have with us Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief at Scientific American and former health and science reporter at The Washington Post. She’ll be able to speak both from national and specialty outlet perspectives, as well as in her role as an editor.

Naseem Miller is the senior health editor at Harvard Kennedy School’s Journalist’s Resource. She’s also a former health reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, the local newspaper serving Orlando, Fla., so she’ll be able to discuss her experience in local news. And Brian Grimmett as a radio reporter currently serving as the energy environment reporter at KMUW radio in Wichita, Kan. Previously, he was a state legislature reporter at KUER radio in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brian will be able to share insights about not only local news, but about what’s unique about working in radio. I’d like to give each of our panelists a few short minutes to introduce themselves before we dive into questions. So, Laura, I’m going to turn the floor over to you to start.

Panelist introductions

Laura Helmuth, Scientific American

[0:10:28]

LAURA HELMUTH: Great. Thank you so much. And thank you to everybody at SciLine for all the work you do – for organizing this session, but for all the work you’ve been doing to improve the science content in every kind of story all around the country, getting into the world as well. It’s really important work, and you’re helping journalists do their jobs better, which is beneficial to all of us. And thanks to everybody who’s here today. Thank you for caring about this issue. Thank you for wanting to talk to the press and for wanting to do it right and effectively and to kind of help spread your knowledge out into the world through the media. It’s really important. It’s not something you get paid for. It’s not part of your regular job description. But I’m hoping we can kind of explain, you know, that it’s a good thing to do, why it’s a good thing to do and, you know, some pro tips on how to do it. I think one thing to kind of understand about journalists is that they’re motivated by the same sort of desire that scientists are, which is to, you know, figure out how does the world work and then share that knowledge with other people. So I think, you know, the goals of good reporting and good science are very compatible. The methodologies are similar in a lot of ways.

We’re all kind of analyzing data and doing reporting or research and then sharing what we learn. But, of course, that – you know, there are enough cultural differences that there are often misunderstandings that I think we want to try and address some of those explicitly today. So, yeah, as Meredith said, I’m now currently the editor-in-chief at Scientific American. We run articles by scientists and about all kinds of science and science policy. I’ve also worked at The Washington Post. So, yeah, I’m happy to talk about, you know, breaking national news issues. And then I’ve worked at Slate magazine, which is an opinion outlet – you know, largely opinion – a lot of opinion there – and Smithsonian and National Geographic, which are more feature-driven about the natural world and reach a different audience. I have also worked at Science in their news department – Science magazine. So I’d be happy to ask – answer questions about any of that and try to bring in perspectives from all of that background to kind of help give examples and explain some of the principles that we’re talking about today. Thanks a lot.

[0:12:45]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thanks, Laura. Naseem, you’re next.

Naseem Miller, The Journalist’s Resource

[0:12:48]

NASEEM MILLER: Thank you so much. And thanks for having me. I am a senior health editor at the Journalist’s Resource. We are at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School, and we’re about a decade old. And our mission is to inform the news by bridging the communication gap between academy and journalism, very much like SciLine. And our goal is to get more high-quality research into the media stream. So what we do is a lot of research roundups on a specific topic. We kind of look at what does the research say about a specific topic. And we write about single studies that are significant. And, also, we put together tip sheets for journalists about how to cover different issues and topics. And everything we publish is free and can be republished with credit. So if you see something on our website that you would like to republish, you’re more than welcome to do that. So before I came to Journalist’s Resource, I was at the Orlando Sentinel, which is a local paper. And before that, I was at a trade publication for physicians. So we wrote a lot of – it went to a lot of conferences and covered clinical trial studies that, as you all know, are the phase 3 trials, the results that are announced in these major medical meetings. And before that, I was at a smaller paper in Ocala here in Florida. And my first job was in Muncie, Ind. But I started off as a science major. I studied molecular microbiology. I wanted to do research in genetics, and I was very excited about it until I started doing research and summer internships and I realized I’m not built out for it (laughter) because, you know, it’s such a science – a long process, and you spend a lot of time doing something that might not pan out.

And I remember going to one of my professors, Dr. Henry Daniell, which I think at the time who was – he was studying developing vaccines in tobacco leaves. And he said, every morning, I wake up, and I can’t wait to put on my socks to come to the lab. If you don’t feel like that about science, don’t do it. And I’m like, I got it. So that was one of the greatest advice I got. But I was still very interested in science. And, you know, I was reading The New York Times – Sunday Times on Tuesday, and I realized, you know, I could write about science and learn about all the stuff that researchers are doing without having to do it, and I didn’t have to limit myself to any specific area because there was so much happening. So I started writing for the school newspaper, and then from there, I got my – an internship at The Washington Post and then my first job. Of course, as Meredith said, there are not many science sections left or science reporters, so a lot of what I’ve done over the years is mainly health reporting and covering health care and squeezing science stories whenever I get a chance to do it. So that’s my path. And again, as Laura mentioned, what we do as journalists and scientists is very similar. We’re trying to answer questions. And I’m very excited you guys are here and interested to learn about what’s happening on this side because, you know, we really appreciate working with you. And I think that’s one of the privileges of being a journalist – to talk to smart people like you every day. So thank you.

[0:16:09]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thanks, Naseem. Brian, you’re up.

Brian Grimmett, KMUW, Kansas News Service

[0:16:14]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: So I’m Brian Grimmett. I’ve been working in public radio for about eight years now. Right now, I’m at KMUW and the Kansas News Service. I’m based in Wichita, Kan. So part of my responsibilities is I cover energy and environment issues for the Kansas News Service, and that’s this kind of collaborative between several public radio stations in the state. And so all of my stories kind of – all of my stories have this kind of focus on how it impacts people in Kansas. So it is a regional approach. And energy and environment is kind of broad. It can mean anything from what our utility companies are doing to agriculture to climate change issues and how those impact people here in my state. I don’t have a science background of any kind. I did broadcast journalism in university, and that was kind of my focus. But I’ve always been really curious. I’ve always enjoyed science and technology. And so as most reporters are, we’re curious. We like those kind of things. And I have a particular knack for being able to take really complex topics and explain them well, which is kind of how I found myself in this kind of a beat because that’s what it is a lot of the times is taking complex topics and making it understandable for a general public audience.

And that’s ultimately what I try to do. And what I try to do, even when I interview scientists for stories, is to be able to better understand what it is that they’ve been doing and they’ve been researching in a way that, you know, general audience might be able to understand it, and still do it as accurately, obviously, as possible. Before I was here in Kansas, I worked – as was said earlier, I worked at the NPR station in Salt Lake City and I covered the state Capitol there for about five years. So I didn’t always cover science topics. I’ve covered all sorts of things. And day-to-day, you know, I might not always be working on something science-related. You know, I kind of do what’s needed, and we’ve got to fill those daily news holes as well. So that’s kind of typical of what I do. But I’m looking forward to kind of explain some of those differences and especially some of the specific to broadcast journalists, to radio TV – to answer any of those kind of questions.

[0:18:38]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thanks, Brian. As a reminder to attendees, you’re welcome to submit questions using the Q&A box as we go. Please include your name and your organization. But before we dive into those questions, I’d actually like to get a sense of our attendees as well. So we have a couple of questions for you. First off, I wonder how many of you have ever been interviewed by a reporter, and was it recently? So I’m going to have us put our poll questions up. Have you been – ever been interviewed by a reporter, and have you been interviewed by a reporter in the last year? We’ll give you guys a few moments to answer that. Let’s take a few more seconds. And let’s see what those results look like. All right. It looks like almost two-thirds of the people in attendance have been interviewed by a reporter. And for a lot of them, that’s been in the last year – at least once in the last year. So we’ve got plenty of people who have some experience talking with a reporter. But a third of the people here have not ever talked with a reporter before, so that’s good to see. And now, for those of you who have interacted with a reporter, perhaps once or even many times, how would you characterize those interactions? Were they positive, negative, neutral overall?

Let’s take a few minutes – or pardon me, a few moments to see what people’s reactions are. Just a few more seconds – what do those responses look like? Good. It looks like most people have had either a somewhat or a very positive experience working with reporters, which is so great to see. A few somewhat negative responses – but I’m really pleased that nobody’s had a very negative experience working with reporters. Mostly, overall it’s been positive. So that’s really, really great to see, and I hope that what people learn here will improve that even more.

Q&A


How do journalists determine what topics to cover, and what do editors look for in story pitches?


[0:21:34]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: So I think let’s dive into some questions for our panelists. The first one I wanted to pose to all of you – how do journalists determine what topics they’re going to cover? And how do science reporters in particular come up with their stories? Laura, do you want to kick that one off?

[0:21:45]

LAURA HELMUTH: Sure. Yeah, it’s – there are a lot of different ways. And it depends a bit on the outlet. But typically, a reporter will have a beat – an area that they’re paying attention to. And so they’ll be looking for papers that are coming out, you know, research papers. They’ll attend conferences to look for what’s happening. News often, you know, will come in the form of a report, you know, from the National Academy of Sciences, say, or a paper in Science or Nature. And so there’s sort of an immediate evaluation of, you know, how important is this? How should we cover it? And that decision is usually made in consultation with an editor. So the reporter will sometimes pitch a story to an editor, and the editor then says yes or no, you know, carry on, pursue it or not. And that’s the same – a lot of science reporting and probably a lot of the people you may have spoken to are also freelance science reporters. And so they then have to pitch the story to editors at various outlets until they find the right place where they can publish the story.

[0:22:43]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: I’m curious, Laura. As – in your role as an editor, how – what do you look for in a pitch from that? When a reporter comes to you and says, I want to work on this story, what do you look for as an editor?

[0:22:56]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah. A lot of what we do as editors is judge, you know, is this worth covering, and is this the right – appropriate time to cover it? So even though often, like, the peg or the occasion for a story might be a new paper, we’re starting to get away from doing single-paper stories because of issues with failure to replicate or, you know, all kinds of other issues with, you know, really exciting stories often, you know, not being representative of the field. So we might use a paper as an occasion to write about, you know, what really has been developing in this field and using it to kind of bring people up to date and to show why it matters. And typically, you know, every publication is trying to figure out which story is right for my publication, for my audience. So we’re always looking for an angle that makes something, you know, fresh and distinctive for our publication that we think will serve our audience best.

[0:23:55]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thanks. Naseem, how do you choose what topics to cover?

[0:24:01]

NASEEM MILLER: So going back to being – as a local reporter – and the term that we use a lot, too, is localizing news. If there is a national study, whether it’s scientific or health related, you just want to find out, would our local readers care about it or how – what’s the impact on them, and how can I make this a local story that our audience cares about and when they pick up the paper, we want to read it? So that’s one of the considerations. Sometimes you don’t want to get too, quote-unquote, “wonky” for a local audience because, really, we’re not a trade publication. So that’s – and also, where’s the source of this study? Sometimes, if your local university or, you know, research center does a study that’s noteworthy, that usually is something we kind of look at that, oh, this researcher has published this study in a peer-reviewed journal. But then again, that goes to, how can we make this interesting to our readers?

If it’s, you know, a bit too scientific, say, about nanoparticles, you know, how can I make this interesting for my readers and they understand that it’s significant even though it might not affect their lives today but it’s happening locally? So, you know, as health and science reporters, we kind of see these studies every day, and we get excited about a lot of stuff. But editors like Laura always kind of tell us, OK, this is a yes, and this is a no. So there is a conversation, usually, between reporters and editors. You know, it matters how we pitch it to our editors, and go from there.

[0:25:40]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Brian, what’s your perspective on this?

[0:25:42]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah. I won’t be too repetitive, but I would say the same thing. I mean, for me, and I’m fortunate enough to have – my position kind of gives me some space that a lot of reporters don’t have to really find interesting and enterprising stories to tell. So for me, the first thing I look at is, is this a story I’m interested in? And a lot of that has to do with – and this is so subjective, but it’s like, do I find that cool or interesting? Is that something that makes me go hmm? And whether that’s a paper I’ve seen or, you know, even just, like, a press release from one of our local universities – we have some great universities in Kansas, and they’ll send press releases on some of the research they’re doing. Or maybe I’ll go to a conference, and there’ll be a panel on something, and I’m like, oh, that’s kind of interesting; I’d like to learn more about that. So it starts there with me going, that seems like a really cool story. And then I take it to my editor, and they’ll usually tell me that it’s not as cool as I think it is, or the big question that they want to have answered is – and has been mentioned, this does depend on your outlet and who your audience is. But for me, the big question is always, why does this matter? Like, how does this impact, you know, regular Kansans, so to speak? And that’s not always the best way to go about looking at a story, but most of the time it is. And when there’s a story that’s interesting that maybe doesn’t have, like, this clear-cut, oh, here’s how it impacts, those are the ones I usually have to fight on. And sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not. And sometimes that’s a good reason. Sometimes for our audience, if we can’t find that connection to why this matters, then maybe it isn’t right for us to do that story.


Why are deadlines so short?


[0:27:21]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Question that came in from several people ahead of the briefing, might be particularly relevant for our two local reporters. The question is this. Why are deadlines so short?

[0:27:35]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: That’s a good question. Sometimes deadlines aren’t short. If you’re lucky like me and you get to work on longer feature stories, you’ll maybe have a couple weeks to do a story. And some reporters will hear that and be like, that’s super generous. But other times, we do have a daily news cycle. A couple times a week, I’m required to turn a story for our afternoon newscast spots. And these are real short – in radio, they’re really short spots that are about 55 seconds long. And so we’re just trying to turn those for the day. And sometimes that does involve scientific stuff. If it’s too complicated, then I usually won’t try to turn it for a spot or I’ll give myself more time. But that’s why the deadlines are so short. We get an assignment. We want to be relevant. We want to – you know, it’s news. We want – that timeliness of it matters. And so we look for stuff that’s important today or tomorrow. And so it does make it difficult sometimes. But there really are days where I come up with an idea in the morning. I send out emails and make phone calls that morning ’cause I need to have an interview by, you know, noon, 1 p.m. that day to give me time to write it, edit it and get it up on our newscast. And so that’s – I mean, really, we’re just trying to make it timely.

[0:28:48]

NASEEM MILLER: There’s always this ongoing conversation in the newsroom every day, particularly on Mondays. What do you have for me today? Because, you know, you have to feed the paper. The paper has to be filled up, especially when you talk about newspapers. I’m sure it’s the same for radio and television. You have to have something up. So what do you have? And that’s – you know, before we know it, by noon Monday, there’s plenty of stuff happening. But Monday morning, there’s usually, like, this freak-out moment. And, you know, every day of the week, you have to have stories. There is always this conversation between reporters and editors. Our job is to produce stories, so we don’t – unless, you know, you’re a part of the large investigative team and working on a months-long project, most reporters are producing daily stories or, at most, they can take two or three days or beg for a week to work on a story. But usually deadlines are short. And, you know, when it comes to embargoed stuff, for instance from science publications, just think about it. The email goes out, say, on a Tuesday, and they say the embargo lifts on Thursday. And that whole phrasing of embargo lifts on Thursday means on Thursday at 11 a.m. when the embargo lifts, this news is going to hit national media. It’s going to hit – you know, it’s going to show up on Google. So if you miss that window, really, you know, it’s old news by the time you write it. So everybody’s scrambling to have that story ready by the time deadline hits. So if I get that email on Tuesday, see the email on Tuesday afternoon, email you a little later, I only really have a day to interview you and then have the story ready, have it edited and be able to click set live at 1 o’clock on Thursday. So it’s a very short period time when you think about it.

[0:30:28]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Naseem, can you…

[0:30:28]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: This is slightly – sorry, sorry. This is slightly tangential, but it does have to do with this. One of my pet peeves – and I know this isn’t the scientist’s fault, but maybe if you know about it, you can be aware of it when you communicate. But one of my pet peeves is when somebody will send out a press release – usually it’s a university about, like, oh, here’s this research that we just published. You know, it’s really interesting. So they’ll send out a press release, and then I’ll contact them, and the scientist is not available that day or, like, the next two, three days ’cause they’re maybe out of town or they’re just busy. That’s a really big pet peeve ’cause if you’re going to send out a press release, I’m going to want to talk to you, like, that day to turn a quick story. And I know that’s not the scientist’s fault most of the time, but I thought I’d at least mention that.

[0:31:13]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah. And another factor for deadlines is competition. So just like in science, you want to have priority. If your competitors are about to publish something and sell, you better, you know, get yours into PNAS first. Otherwise, they get all the credit. So when I worked at The Washington Post, the worst thing that could happen from an internal newsroom perspective is if you get scooped – if you get beat to a story by The New York Times. Sucks. It’s terrible. And you hear about it all up and down the management chain. So part of the pressure is newsrooms competing against each other as well.


What is an embargo and what do embargoes mean for journalists?


[0:31:46]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Naseem, I wanted to ask just one follow-up to what you said. You mentioned embargoes. Could you say a few words about what an embargo is and what that means for you as a journalist?

[0:31:56]

NASEEM MILLER: Sure. I mean, a lot of scientific – I mean, a lot of journals give us a little bit of advance in whatever that’s about to be published. And the whole agreement is that we give you in advance – this in advance, but you’re not going to publish it until this day and time. And you can talk to the authors, but we don’t want you to put it on social media or share it with other people who don’t receive this embargoed news releases. We usually sign a form, an agreement that we’re going to stick with that. And during that time, you know, we talk to the researchers. We do a little background reporting. We get sometimes permission to talk to other researchers who weren’t involved in the study to get comments. And we write the story. And once the embargo at 11 o’clock or 10 o’clock – wherever that is – we set the story live. So that’s usually how it works. But pretty much, embargo is, in a way, this is how much time you have before your story can be seen by the public, this study can be seen by the public. And we abide by it ’cause breaking the embargo usually kicks you off of that journal’s press release, or sometimes they ban you from their conferences. So it’s not a good thing.


How can scientists avoid having their quotes edited in ways that change meaning, and how can they fix errors, if they happen?


[0:33:04]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Yeah, it’s pretty serious to break that embargo. We have a question from one of the attendees, Bill Muller from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Bill says, I have had several experiences where what I said to a reporter was edited by the reporter or an editor. Presumably, this was done with all the best intentions to save space or to make the sentence shorter. However, with science, omitting a certain word or two can totally change the meaning of what I said in ways that may not be understood by the reporter or editor. And unfortunately, I only found out about some of these when the story was published. How can we avoid this in the future?

[0:33:45]

LAURA HELMUTH: One thing you can do if the story was published online but isn’t in print yet, contact the reporter immediately to say that this edit you made to the quote changed the meaning and you need to revise it back to the original quote because we do – we make corrections all the time. So it’s harder to do once – you know, if it’s in a print magazine, then the correction would show up a month later. But for something online – and this also goes for if the headline is misleading, if there’s some other problem with the story – you can get it changed because the reporters, and their editors especially, really want to get it right. So, you know, feel free to get back in touch and say, hey, there’s a big problem with this story; you need to fix that. And typically, they will. If it’s a matter of interpretation, you know, you can get into a back-and-forth. But if there seems to be an error, the reporter will correct it. And, you know, corrections – nobody wants to make them. But in a way, it’s like virtue signaling. It’s basically saying, you know, if we get something wrong, we’re going to be transparent about it. We’re going to correct it. And we’re going to show how important accuracy is to us by appending a correction to this article and fixing it.

[0:34:49]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Is there anything that a scientist or a source can do ahead of time to prevent that from happening?

[0:34:56]

NASEEM MILLER: I mean, I think during the interview process, you can definitely – and again, this varies by reporter and news outlet. But you can ask whether you can see your quotes before the story goes to publication. And as, you know, you guys may or may not know, reporters very, very seldom share the entire story with you. But sometimes if the story’s too complicated and you get a sense that maybe a reporter is still understanding what the science study is about, you can always ask, can I see what quotes you’re going to use? Or when you’re on the phone with them, you can ask them, you know, do you know what kind of stood out for you? Do you want to read it back to me so I can make sure I said things correctly or I can, you know – or how to paraphrase it? And that way you can work back and forth with the reporter while they’re on the phone in an interview with you to make sure everything is accurately captured. So you have some options. And again, there are different reporters. And newsrooms have different rules. But it never hurts to ask.

[0:35:58]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: That’s one of the biggest challenges I have sometimes in working with my editors is that, you know, I’m trying to put in all the detail. And my editors are trying to pare it down. And I’m not trying to blame the editors. But they’re trying to make it simple and understandable. So sometimes, they make changes to what I’ve written that makes something not correct. And most the time, you know, I’ll catch those and push back on it. But that is often the challenge. In radio, we kind of have some benefit is that I’m going to play back your quote. And I’m not going to do, really, many if any internal edits to that. That rarely happens. But it does happen more when I’m doing the web version, you know? Those internal edits might happen. And again, we try not to do them. And definitely, we’re – if anything that we change is – changes the way that – what the sentence means, we try to avoid that. Obviously, we make mistakes. And I would second what Laura said, that – reach out to us. If – even if it’s not just you think you’ve been misquoted. If there’s anything that we get wrong or think we explained incorrectly, reach out to us as quickly as possible. And we’ll try to make those corrections. If we don’t know about it and you just stew about it, you know, then we both kind of lose out on that. We want to know when we’ve got something wrong.


How do you find sources? And how often are reporters turned down when they reach out to sources?


[0:37:27]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: We have another question that came in ahead of the briefing – actually, several variations on this question. And, Naseem, maybe I’ll direct this to you first. In your experience as a local reporter, how did you find your sources? And related to that, how often are reporters turned down when they reach out to a potential source for an interview?

[0:37:50]

NASEEM MILLER: So how do we find our sources? It depends, I guess, on the story. If it’s a study, the first thing, of course, we’re going to do is reach out to study authors. But if we want to get a comment on a study for somebody who has not been involved in that research specifically, I usually go to PubMed and sort of type in that topic to see what kind of other studies pop up who are relevant, reach out to those researchers. Another thing I do, I reach out to our universities, two different universities. Do you have an expert who can comment on this topic? We also look at other news stories that have been done on the topic to see who’s quoted on there. And I usually reach out to the person and say, hey, I saw you quoted in this story. Are you able to comment on this study? So that’s one way we reach out. And I usually – and I think most reporters do this. We reach out to several people because about half of them go unanswered. I don’t know if researchers are busy or sort of they see your outlet and they’re not interested. So – you know, it’s hit and miss sometimes, you know? They don’t see your email. So we kind of cast a wide net. Hopefully, in our short deadline, we can at least get one or two responses back to build a complete story.


Do local reporters focus on sources from universities nearby, or reach out more broadly?


[0:39:05]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: When you reach out to universities, particularly in your scope as a local reporter, would you focus on the universities in your region? Or would you reach out more broadly?

[0:39:16]

NASEEM MILLER: Well, it depends. And it depends where you’re located at. Say if you are in Boston, you have different options as far as local universities go. So I usually start with Florida. For instance, I’m located in Florida. And then go out from there. But, like, during the pandemic, several researchers popped up, and not only in our state but other major universities, that are experts. So we’ll reach out to those universities, say, hey, is this specific person available to talk to me today or tomorrow? So it depends. But, you know, a lot of local reporters start local because we like local voices. But again, depending on the resources you have, sometimes those expertise don’t exist locally. So you kind of reach out and go to other states or other regions.

[0:40:03]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Brian, I’m curious whether you have a similar approach and experience as a radio reporter? Or is it a different process for you?

[0:40:16]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: It’s very similar to that. And I would just add, as simple as it sounds, I use Google a lot. I’ll Google it and see what experts are out there. And not to sound like a suck-up, but I use SciLine quite a bit. If I need to get an expert, I’ll reach out to SciLine. In fact, I’ve got a story that’s getting published either today or tomorrow with someone I found in SciLine who’s not local. Most the time, I do try to go local. But if there isn’t that expertise, then that’s – I have no problem kind of expanding it beyond that. And that can be tricky because I – even if I’m expanding my reach to experts outside, I’m still almost – I’m still usually trying to find some way to, like, relate it to my topic or something to do with Kansas. And that can be tricky. And I understand that. But from my perspective, I’m always trying to pull it back to that.

[0:41:11]

LAURA HELMUTH: Meredith, could I ask you a question related to that? Are you looking for people to sign up to be sources on SciLine? Is that something that people who are in this audience should do? I think Meredith might have frozen. I don’t know if Rick’s online.

[0:41:38]

RICK WEISS: I will pop up here for a minute while Meredith gets reconnected. But hi, everyone. I’m the director of SciLine. Meredith is back on. But I will just quickly say, yes, of course. SciLine maintains a directory of scientists in all kinds of disciplines who are interested in serving as sources. And, of course, we hope that many will go to SciLine.org and sign up so that we can reach out to you on occasion and see if you’ll be interested in connecting to a reporter. And back to you, Meredith. All right. I am going to kick in for a couple of minutes here.


Who writes headlines and why do headlines sometimes seem off base?


[0:42:29]

RICK WEISS: And let’s get some questions going. I’m so sorry that Meredith’s Wi-Fi is on the blink for a few minutes. So let me ask a question. I’ll start with you, Laura. But let’s talk about headlines for a minute. Who writes them? Why do they sometimes seem a little bit off base? Do headline writers read the stories, actually? Is there conflict between reporters and headline writers in this regard?

[0:42:56]

LAURA HELMUTH: Absolutely. Yes. It is a grand source of conflict. So the headline is the most important, you know, three to five to 20 words of any story. Those are the words that most people see. Whether it’s on social media, whether they’re just, you know, flipping through that physical newspaper, whether they’re looking at a home page, the headline is so important. And typically, the editor writes the headline, and the reporter, typically, does not. Although, editors often will ask reporters to do it. And if reporters do, it can be helpful. But if you see a problem with the headline, it’s absolutely something that can be changed. And the barrier to changing it is a little bit lower than it is to fixing, you know – correcting a problematic quote or something because we typically don’t indicate that a headline has been changed with a – by putting a correction or any other note in the story. And, in fact, a lot of times when we publish a story, we do what’s called A/B testing. So we’ll put those story online on our website. And we’ll give – we’ll program our website to show one of two headlines or three or four different headlines. And then we’ll see which headline gets more people to click on it. So we’re constantly improving and updating our headlines to try and capture the spirit of the story and get people to read it.

But the program that we use, like most people do when they do A/B testing like this, is called Chartbeat. And it suppresses clickbait headlines. So if somebody sees a fascinating, you know – “The Fountain Of Youth Has Been Found,” and they click on it and it’s – you know, that’s not what the story is about and they click away, that’s not considered a win. So what you want is somebody who sees a headline, clicks on it, reads well into the story and seems satisfied with what they’re seeing. And so that’s what – that’s the goal is to make the headline do that. But if the headline is too clickbait-y, if it’s not accurate, it’s absolutely something we can and should fix, and do.

[0:44:53]

RICK WEISS: We’re seeing that there’s a science to headline writing, or at least headline choosing. Meredith, I’m going to go back to you while you’re live and in action here.


How does someone with a science background but little-to-no journalism experience pursue a career in science journalism?


[0:45:02]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thank you. I had a question I wanted to direct to Laura. Although, I hope it hasn’t already been asked in my absence. We had a question from Kristifor Sunderic from the National Cancer Institute saying, how does someone with a science background but little to no journalism experience pursue a career in broadcast media or science journalism?

[0:45:25]

LAURA HELMUTH: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. And one of the nice things about science journalism is that we run a lot of pieces by people who aren’t necessarily professional writers. So for instance, at Scientific American, we have feature articles that are written by scientists about their own research and about their own fields. And we also, at Scientific American and at Slate and Washington Post, actually – most places do also have an opinion section. And opinion sections tend to be populated by people writing about things they know about – not always. A lot of times, you’ll get opinion pieces that have to do with science that are written by people who have no understanding of the science and are willfully misrepresented – for instance, George Will on climate change. So opinion sections really value pieces that are written by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

So if you’re considering – you know, considering writing for the public, that’s a really good way to do it, to write an expert opinion piece on a subject that’s in the news that you have some expertise about. And you can also suggest bringing out stories. And one of the things we see at Scientific American that I saw at The Washington Post and at Slate and everywhere else I’ve worked is that readers really enjoy reading stories that have a first-person element, you know, where people are writing about their own experiences. That often resonates. It’s particularly the case when – for doctors, you know, for anybody who does doctors, nurses, any kind of clinical experience. Like, people really like to read what that experience is like.


How do reporters verify information and facts in stories?


[0:46:57]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: That’s great. Thank you. I had a question for, I think, any of you to address. How do reporters verify information and facts in their stories, especially in light of all of the misinformation that circulates online? How do you verify that what you’re reporting is correct? Anybody want to jump in on that – Naseem?

[0:47:23]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah. I’ll say just a few things about it. And I don’t know if this is the most satisfactory answer, but the way we verify it a lot of times, one, depends on how quickly we’re trying to put the story together and how much time we have to work on it. But we reach out to experts. We reach out to people who know more than we do because we don’t know the answers just inherently to these kind of topics. And so the way we try to verify is through multiple sources. You know, rather than just talking to one person, we try to talk to, you know, several people to see, you know, is this plausible? Does this sound right? And honestly, we could probably do a much better job at verifying some of the facts that are in our stories, you know? It’s really easy for us to take something from a press release or whatever and kind of run with that and trust – you know, or even a scientific paper and trust, you know, what that expert has to say. And so it really is on us to do a better job of reaching out to more people who can help you better understand it and verify those facts.

[0:48:29]

NASEEM MILLER: Yeah. And I think another part of fact-checking really everyday news stories is, you know, we double-check and triple-check names, titles, institutions. And when there are numbers and statistics that we are not quite sure of or we have calculated ourselves, we run it by experts or researchers, their own studies. I usually run and say, is this a correct interpretation of the number you have used? So we do that. And also, there are organizations that do fact-checking for some of the bigger issues, national issues like factcheck.org. So that’s another great source to kind of go and see whether some of the information you come across is accurate and usable. So…

[0:49:12]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah. And a lot of publications employ either staff or freelance fact-checkers, especially for, you know, longer, ambitious stories, just to make – you know, check every fact, make sure everything there is correct. Otherwise, the editors do it. And sometimes the copy editors will also do that, you know, especially checking names and affiliations. But this is one reason why it’s super-helpful to journalists and especially to their audiences. If somebody calls to ask you about somebody else’s research, at first that might seem like, well, why would you waste your time helping a reporter understand so and so’s research, especially if they’re a competitor? But it’s really your chance to make sure that the reporter’s getting the story right and that they understand the larger context. And you can also use that as an opportunity to kind of, you know, do a little fact-checking while you’re talking to them, make sure that they’ve got the facts right and that it’s comprehensive. You know, tell them other things that they may not be aware of yet that are relevant to the story.


What advice do you have for scientists seeking to convey uncertainty in science?


[0:50:13]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: We have a question from Barbara Kaplan at Mississippi State University. Barbara asks, (reading) what advice do you have for scientists conveying uncertainty in science? My impression is that the public expects very clear yes or no answers, which can be difficult. And I will personally add I think this was a big issue for everybody in the world of COVID when we didn’t know what was happening. There weren’t necessarily clear answers. So what advice do any of you have for scientists to convey – to accurately convey uncertainty?

[0:50:49]

NASEEM MILLER: We recently actually – The Journalist’s Resource covered a study – a recent study about this specific issue that – really, reporters and scientists play a major role in explaining to readers the scientific process, that, you know, there is – there are failures. There are mistakes, and there are advancements. And we – that’s how you do science. And I think it’s really important for journalists – that’s one of the things we try to do at Journalist’s Resource – to raise awareness about how journalists can cover research in science and let readers know how this process works because one research isn’t going to answer everything for good, you know? Things change. New information comes up. So that’s one of the things – hopefully, as a silver lining of this pandemic is that more reporters are aware of how this process works. And we have all gone through so many iteration of mask, no mask, now wear mask. And now we’re going through all sorts of other information about vaccines and the virus itself. So it’s been eye-opening for a lot of reporters, and there’s more research coming out how important it is to explain this to our readers and be transparent about what we know and what we don’t know.

[0:52:06]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, that transparency is so important. And sometimes it can sort of disarm a conspiracy theory if you say, here’s what we know; here’s what we don’t know; here’s what we hope to find out by the end of the year – to just be very explicit about, yeah, these are some questions that just don’t have answers yet. And we’re not expecting answers until, you know, this X, Y and Z process plays out. And one of the, you know, headline conventions that you’ve probably seen a lot of this year, especially around COVID, are things, like, you know, is the coronavirus airborne, colon, what we know so far – here’s what we know so far about it. And that’s just sort of our promise in the headline, that we’re going to give you the most up-to-date information. And it’s sort of also a promise that – and as that information builds, we’ll come back and tell you what we know in a month, in a couple of months from now again.


How should scientists prepare for a radio interview (as opposed to print)?


[0:52:56]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Brian, I’ve got a question for you. Since you work in radio, which is necessarily going to be a different experience for a scientist than an interview with a print reporter, what do you think scientists should know about how to prepare for a radio interview? Do you have any advice that’s specific to this format?

[0:53:17]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah, a couple of different things. And there are a couple different ways that radio might be different. When I’m doing, like, a story, whether it’s a daily or a feature story, it’s going to be very similar to any reporter interview other than I’m going to record it. And so the things you need to know is that I might ask you to do a little more. I might not want to just do a phone call. You know, especially now after the pandemic, we’ve all learned to use Zoom. Zoom gives me better audio quality than just a phone over the call. One thing – the other thing that we sometimes ask people we interview to do that are – that we can’t meet in person is to record themselves on their cellphone using, like, the memo app or a voice recorder app because, again, that gives me better quality than an over-the-phone connection. So that’s, like, one more thing to think about, but it is something that I’m going to ask those that I interview. The other thing is, it can be nerve-wracking to think, oh, you’re recording me; you know, what if I stumble or mess up? And, you know, it’s – I don’t know if I have much to say to that other than it really isn’t that big of a deal. And in some ways, if you just think of it that, you know, I’m less likely to misquote you when I’m pulling directly from the audio than, you know, if I’m not doing that, so that might help you. But it really is easy. I try to make it easy and just have a conversation with you.

The other thing – kind of radio that you might do is a live interview, and that can be even more intimidating if you’re asked to go on, like, a live show and do, like, a – you know, whether that’s a five-minute appearance or if you’re going to be a guest for the whole hour. And I would just say, make sure the questions that you’re asking beforehand – know what they want to talk about. If you can be prepared with the topics that they’re specifically – and usually that’s their responsibility. But if they’re not telling you that, really reach out to them and have a good understanding of what they want to talk to you about in those live appearance-type situations. And then – and remember; it’s those kind of things – especially the longer appearance, those – that’s on the host of the show. You don’t need to be worried about, can I keep and sustain this conversation for an hour? Because that’s not your job; your job is just to be there, answer the questions, you know, that you give, and be clear and concise about it. But it’s not your job to keep that conversation going. That’s the host and the producer’s job. So if you remove that worry, I’ve felt – even in my own experiences, when I get asked to do these things, I get nervous still. But if I think about that, that level of nervousness kind of goes down a bit, that it’s not all on me. I’m just there to tell people what I know and what I’m passionate about.

[0:56:02]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: That’s great advice.

[0:56:03]

NASEEM MILLER: Another thing that I’ve noticed, too – sometimes, you know, with newspapers, now a lot of papers are now doing podcasts and – et cetera. I’ve talked to some researchers about some topics, and I think sometimes I guess academics, which I could worry that – how they might sound to their peers. But I think it’s important to remember when you’re doing an interview with a news outlet, you’re really talking to the listeners, to the readers, not to your peers. So please speak in a way that’s understandable to your average population who’s not an oncologist, who’s not a physicist, but, you know, average person who is trying to understand why this issue is important. So, you know, that’s a bit of advice ’cause a lot of times, if it’s too wonky, the interview, it turns out we just can’t use it, especially if it’s audio.


How do you determine if a scientist-source is credible?


[0:56:59]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Also great advice. We have a question from Alison Van Eenennaam from UC Davis. There are some activist groups out there that try to create doubt about scientists talking out on controversial topics. If you as a reporter are Googling a scientist and you see these type of hit pieces, how do you determine if it is a reputational smear piece or a legitimate criticism? And I’ll just add that, you know, perhaps more broadly, how do you determine if a scientist-source is credible?

[0:57:32]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, that’s a good question. And when it comes to, yeah, smear pieces, journalists get that, too. So there’s some anti-vaxxer group that has a page on me comparing me to a worm because there’s a worm called Helmuth, and my last name’s Helmuth, and saying that I want to destroy children’s brains. So most journalists you talk to are familiar with this, and they understand that people get smeared by groups with agendas. So, of course, you know, you want to try and deal with that as best you can. But usually reporters are very good at, you know, looking for, you know, the areas of expertise, looking at people’s publishing records. I think Naseem earlier mentioned we look at PubMed to see where somebody’s published. You can’t always trust some of these institutions because there’s a lot of, you know, people with tenure. Now, most people with tenure are lovely people and give great quotes, but of course, every institution has a few tenured professors who are kind of cranks, so we’re watching for that. So, you know, we’re looking for credentials. We’re looking for experience. We’re looking for colleagues. We’ll look at your Twitter feeds, probably, to see if you’re out there talking about things on Twitter and things like that. So there’s a lot of different ways that journalists try to figure out who are the best sources for a story and can you really trust them.


What do scientists do when interacting with journalists that cause journalists to roll their eyes?


[0:58:50]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: That’s great to hear. Another question that came in ahead of the briefing – what do scientists do when interacting with journalists that cause journalists to roll their eyes? There any special features of working with scientists that just get under your skin?

[0:59:13]

NASEEM MILLER: I think it’s interesting sometimes, and I know it comes with good intention, but they try to tell you, I think this is what your story should be about; I think this is the main point of your story, or this is how you should write the story. I don’t know. I don’t think that sits well with most journalists. And of course, we are transparent about it. Like, we’re writing about your study, and we’d love to learn about it. But I don’t think we are looking to hear how to do our job. So I think that’s one thing I can think of. And it doesn’t happen often. But, you know, over the phone, if somebody says that, I definitely do roll my eyes (laughter). So…

[0:59:52]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah. And hopefully the people on this call wouldn’t do this kind of thing, but particularly earlier in my career – you know, young women get a lot of condescension in every part of the world, but, you know, when you’re interviewing people, it’s so different. And, you know, I happen to have a Ph.D. And basically, the only time I ever mentioned it was when somebody was, like, super condescending and treated me like an idiot. I’d find some way to work it into the conversation. So most people don’t do that, but it does happen. It happens disproportionately to young women. And there – you know, journalism is a fairly feminized field. There are more women than men in it. And of course, you know, with all the layoffs, there tend to be more early career than later career. So, you know, odds are the person who will be interviewing you is a young woman, and you just want to check your biases.

[1:00:40]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah, and I already mentioned my biggest one, which is if you’re going to publicize that you’re available, be available.


What do “on the record” and “off the record” really mean?


[1:00:48]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Great advice across the board. A quick one – Brian, maybe you could take this one. Could you explain what on the record and off the record mean?

[1:01:00]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah, and this is a really interesting one. So when – this is going to be kind of challenging, too, because just saying off the record doesn’t make it off the record. Off the record is an agreement between whoever you’re speaking to and the reporter. And that needs to be, like, an agreement, not just mid-interview while off the record and then an aside. You know, people do that, and for the most part, I don’t worry about it too much, but that’s not, like, how simple it should be. You should know that if you’re talking to a reporter, it’s going to be on the record unless it’s been explicitly agreed upon beforehand whether it’s not. And when I say on the record, I mean that anything you say I can or will use in the story that I’m writing or use that information to go find out other information. And not every conversation I have with an expert is on the record. I would say the vast majority are, but there are times when I’m like, hey, I’d just like to speak to you on background, which just means – and, again, you want to – these words don’t necessarily have, I don’t think, like, fit definitions.

You want to be as clear as possible with whoever you’re speaking to, what they mean when they say on background because, for some people, that means that you won’t say a name, but you’ll still use the information. And other times when you talk about background, it just means, hey, I want to have a conversation; I’m not really intending on using this for a story yet, but I just kind of want to pick your brain. And I’ll do that, too. So I would say the best advice is clarify it, and make sure that you and the reporter both kind of have agreed to whatever the conditions are of what the interview is. And I always try to make sure – and I hope most reporters do this; I don’t know if all do. I always make sure I always explicitly say, OK, now I’m recording, and then we start the interview and tell me your name, title – that kind of thing. So I try to be as transparent as possible.

[1:03:08]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Naseem or Laura, anything to add to that?

[1:03:12]

NASEEM MILLER: No, I totally agree. If you are talking to a reporter, just assume you’re on the record unless you’ve agreed that you’re not. So yeah.


What are the best and the worst parts of your job as a reporter?


[1:03:24]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: One of our attendees asked ahead of the briefing, what is the best and the worst part of your job as a reporter? Laura, do you want to kick that one off?

[1:03:37]

LAURA HELMUTH: Sure. Yeah, I mean, the best part of this career is just learning new things about the world, that – I think that’s what motivates all of us – is, you know, discoveries, understanding insights, just learning cool new things. So that’s the best. The hardest is when you get something wrong. It’s agonizing when you publish something that you wish you hadn’t, and it’s a terrible feeling. So that, I think, careerwise is probably the hardest part.

[1:04:08]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: I would add to that, as a scientist, those are probably the two things I would have said as a scientist as well, are the things I love and the hardest part. But Naseem or Brian, either of you have things to add?

[1:04:22]

NASEEM MILLER: I mean, it’s like a privilege. We learn new things every day, especially in our beats when it has to do with health and science. There’s endless amount of information to learn. And I’m amazed by the number – by the types of people I get to talk to for the stories. They are smart people. I learn something from them. And just being a journalist gives me access to them, which is – I’m so grateful for. You know, the worst part or the hardest part of the job, I think, especially when you talk about local newsrooms, is how stressful it is these days because we are – because the local news is shrinking so much. Reporters are doing so much with little resources. There’s always a threat of layoffs. Salaries are in the crate. So there is a lot of mental health pressures on journalists, and I’m always thinking about that and worried about that for local reporters. And we all get into journalism because we believe in our democracy. We believe in public service. And every day, reporters put up with all these different pressures that has nothing to do with reporting the news but just institutional pressures. And I admire everything local reporters do and, you know, hope things get better over time. I don’t know what’s the solution for it, but that’s a hard part of the job.

[1:05:42]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah, I’d agree with all of those best parts of the job. The only thing I’d add on the worst part – and this is just a personal thing – it’s no fun knowing that a large portion of the population doesn’t like me just because of what I do. You know, and a lot of that is because of what they see on cable news, which I think is a little bit different than what I do. But that distinction doesn’t really matter if the perception is otherwise.


What makes for a great scientist interview?


[1:06:06]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Yeah, that has to be really hard. A question for, I think, any one of you – what makes for a great scientist interview? What qualities in an interviewee get you excited as a reporter or help you walk away feeling like you got exactly what you needed for your story? Naseem, maybe we’ll start with you. What makes for a great interviewee?

[1:06:30]

NASEEM MILLER: So when I look back, I think a great interview is somebody who can explain the research to me in clear, plain language. You know, I’m not looking for you to repeat what you’ve written in your published article, and that’s why I ask you for an interview because that is a published – you know, a journal language. It’s very scientific. It’s jargon-y. And I don’t want any of that. So I’m speaking with you to – in a conversation to understand how you did your study, why you did your study. You can tell me what’s significant. Sometimes when – and that’s a question we always ask about you – what’s significant about your findings? It’s – a lot of times that’s woven into the research, but it’s not really popping out. So that helps me a lot to understand what to put on top of my story about your study.

And being able to explain and having the patience to explain simple things to me – if I ask you, what is a spirometer – which I think is this device for measuring lung function – you explain that to me without judging me for not knowing what that is or explain to me – oh, you talk about EVF. It’s like how much air you blow out or take in – so those simple things – and understanding that a lot of times reporters, especially at local level, who are you calling you may not be science reporters, may just be assigned to the story. And please take your time to explain to them, oh, this is what an observational study is. This is a peer-reviewed article. And you can explain to them what that process is. Or this is a pre-print. Please clarify when your study, as interesting as it might be, is a pre-print so they can pass that on to their audience to let them know that there is – actually, there is this difference between published studies and pre-prints, as much as many pre-prints are great, you know? So take the time to explain those things to reporters. And I always appreciate that when somebody asks me, is that clear? Do you want me to repeat that? Did you get that? You know? So it’s this back-and-forth and understanding that we are journalists; we’re not scientists. So anything that – just err on the side of overexplaining. I always appreciate that.

[1:08:45]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, and it’s not always necessary or appropriate, but when there is, like, just a human angle, that you can share, you know, some part of the research process that was disappointing, that was surprising, where – you know, where there was some emotion, where there was, you know, joy or fascination or what inspired you. You know, it might not always make it into the story, but the things that excite you about your research are probably the things that will excite the reporter and the editor and the audience about them, too. And it’s really generous to share those, and people really respond well to that.

[1:09:23]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah, I’m looking for the emotion. The data I can get from your paper or from, like, an email with the information. I want emotion. I love it when someone is excited about their work, as I am about mine. It’s so fun to talk to someone who’s just really into what they’re doing and they can express that ’cause I imagine most people are really into what they’re doing. But if you can express, like, how excited this guy or – like, what was just said, how surprised you were, that emotion is really key.


How important is diversity among the sources you use in stories? And how do you find sources with diverse backgrounds?


[1:09:57]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: We have a question again about sources. And, Laura, maybe you can take this one to start. How important is diversity among the sources you use in stories? And how do you go about finding sources with diverse backgrounds?

[1:10:11]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, it’s extremely important. We have a new policy at Scientific American that we don’t publish a story unless there’s a member of an underrepresented group – so a woman, person of color. You know, basically, every story has to have a variety of sources. And that’s true – you know, at our author levels, too, we pay a lot of attention to what we call filing counts to make sure that we’re publishing stories by a variety of authors. It’s very important, and there are some practical ways that reporters look for improving the diversity in their sources, in their quoted sources and the people they’re covering. So SciLine is really good. If you need somebody for an important – best in a certain region, from a certain background, they can help set you up. There’s also a group called 500 Women Scientists that has a kind of find-an-expert database called Gage – G-A-G-E. So I’d recommend that one, too. And there’s also another database called Diverse Sources that you can sign up to participate in to speak to journalists.


What is one key thing scientists should take away from today’s discussion?


[1:11:17]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thanks. Before I turn to our very last question to wrap things up, I want – had a couple of housekeeping notes for our attendees. Before you log off the briefing, you’ll see a really short survey. I know everybody hates surveys, but I hope you’ll take a moment to complete that and give us your feedback. This is the first time we’ve done (inaudible) – eager to hear what you think. (Inaudible) – and I encourage you to keep an eye out for that. So my final question for each of the panelists is, what is the one thing you hope that scientists in attendance will take away from today’s discussion? Laura, do you want to –

[1:11:59]

LAURA HELMUTH: Oh, I think Meredith froze, but I think I got the question. Yeah, what’s one big takeaway? And this is really just, please do – you know, thank you. I know it takes a lot of time. It can be stressful. It can be confusing. Sometimes things go wrong. But please do talk to reporters, both, you know, responding when you get an email or a phone call from them, and do please (inaudible) – you know, on these databases of scientists where reporters can find you and also on social media and on Twitter. If you have expertise about something that’s happening in the world, please share it with the world. We want to get the story right, and we want you to help us understand what’s happening. And Meredith might be frozen, so maybe, Naseem…

[1:12:49]

NASEEM MILLER: OK, I can go. Yeah, definitely. So I guess the thing I would like to leave you guys with is, you know, first of all, support your local paper, and don’t discount local reporters when they contact you. I know it’s great to get interview requests from New York Times and The Washington Posts of the world. But if you get a interview request from a local journalist, if you don’t know who they are and what they do, just look up their byline, look up what kind of stories they write, and don’t disregard it right away because they’re from small paper because, a lot of times, national reporters that we have today used to be a local reporter once upon a time. So, you know, consider that. And I say that because I’ve been a local reporter. And kind of, you know, with the best of intentions, we reach out. We do our work. We just – and, you know, local news is so important because it’s a pillar of our democracy, and it also informs national news. So pay attention to your local news. Support your local papers. And don’t hesitate to reach out to local reporters, even if they haven’t reached out to you. You can do coffee with them, get – introduce yourself to them. If you’re at a university and want to get to know your local health reporter, science reporter, just tell them what kind of research you do. You don’t have to be promoting any specific work, but you can always let them know that you’re there, you’re available, you can speak on certain topics. We love to hear from people out of the blue, so – especially experts and scientists like you. So, you know, we can open that line of conversation.

[1:14:28]

BRIAN GRIMMETT: Yeah, I would just say that we can have – reporters and scientists can have a mutually beneficial relationship. And not that relationships always need to be transactional like that, but we can – we rely on you. We aren’t experts. And so we rely on you to be able to get good and important and valid information out there to the people who are your neighbors, essentially, especially the scientists that I call locally. I mean, I’m calling to talk to you about things that impact you and your neighbors and your friends and your family. And so we can help each other out. And I’d just like to say, you know, we are doing our best. We’re not perfect. We will make mistakes. I hope you reach out to us when we do. We really do just want to try to understand it. And a lot of times, you know, reporters might be asked to cover something that is way beyond their depths. And so if you can be understanding of that and help them understand it, I think it’ll go a long ways to not having those miscommunications. And just lastly – this is kind of an addendum – but if you know of other people who would be interesting to talk about on a subject, if we’ve reached out to you, we would love it for you to refer us to those other experts or – especially if – you know, on that diversity question, it is something that I’m not always the best at because I’ll find something that’s interesting, and I’ll just talk to the person who’s doing the study, and I’m not aware of who else is out there. So all the help that I can get on those kind of recommendations is much appreciated.

[1:16:02]

MEREDITH DROSBACK: Thank you so much to Naseem, Brian and Laura for your time, for your insight and for spending this hour with us. And to everybody in attendance, thank you so much for your interest and your great questions. Feel free to follow us at SciLine on social media at @realsciline, and check out all of the free resources we offer on our website – again, that’s sciline.org. Thank you again to everyone. And enjoy the rest of your day.


Creative Commons LicenseThe text and video on this page are licensed as Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Journalists are free to use any text or video on this page with or without attribution to SciLine.

Brian Grimmett

KMUW, Kansas News Service

Brian Grimmett is a two-time Regional Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist covering energy and environment stories across the state of Kansas for KMUW radio and the Kansas News Service. Brian loves to dive deep into complicated issues with the hope of making them easier to understand for general audiences. His curiosity about the world around him has driven him to be a constant learner. Before coming to KMUW and the Kansas News Service, Brian worked at KUER radio Salt Lake City covering the Utah Legislature.

Laura Helmuth

Scientific American

Laura Helmuth is the editor in chief of Scientific American. She has been an editor for The Washington Post, National Geographic, Slate, Smithsonian, and Science magazines. She is a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s standing committee on the science of science communication, and she serves on the advisory boards of SciLine, High Country News, Spectrum magazine and 500 Women Scientists. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

Naseem Miller

The Journalist's Resource

Naseem Miller is senior health editor at The Journalist’s Resource, a project of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Prior to The Journalist’s Resource she was the senior health reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, where she covered the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting. In 2017, she helped start the Journalists Covering Trauma Facebook group to create a supportive space for reporters who cover tragic events.

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