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Can I quote you on that? Tips to help scientists talk to the press

I’ve probably talked to the media more than the average scientist has. In fact, sometimes I am the media. So when I received a random email from a television news program last month asking to interview me, I thought I knew what I was doing. All I’d have to do—I told myself—was candidly, plainly, maybe even amicably answer the questions as they came.

Oldest delusion in the book.

The topic was Dr. Jill Biden’s choice to use her doctoral honorific. I don’t know Dr. Biden—which is odd, I guess, given that we’re both from Delaware, and our state only has like 40 people—but I wrote a column a few years ago about Ph.D.s choosing whether to use the title “doctor,” so presumably they thought I could speak on the topic. And because I’m a doctor-but-not-that-kind-of-doctor who has thought about this question a bit myself, I thought I might be qualified to do so.  

The interview was scheduled for 53 minutes after the email arrived. I used those 53 minutes to Google the news source (no immediate red flags), balance an iPad on a chair on a coffee table, turn on a bunch of lamps, and shave for the first time in a week.

I don’t remember my exact words during the interview, but I made a point to repeatedly convey that Dr. Biden has every right to use the title. Then, the interviewer asked whether I use it for myself. I said that I sometimes do, but other times it feels pretentious, especially if the scenario involves correcting someone.

I felt pretty good about the interview. I announced on Facebook and Twitter that I’d be on the news that night. Then … I watched the program.

Some of my interview was harmless enough. But at one point, they used my answer about “doctor” sounding pretentious—without any additional context. The segment that aired made it sound as though I was calling Dr. Biden pretentious, not myself. I was now on record, on video, saying something authoritatively when I actually believe the opposite.

Since that evening, I’ve given a lot of thought to whether the journalist, or their editors, or their network, deliberately manipulated my words to create or enrich controversy. I even half-wrote an “I’m disappointed in your choice” email that I never sent. The reality is that I’ll never know what choices were made behind the scenes. Maybe it was deliberate. But it’s equally possible that it was an honest misunderstanding. Maybe my response, of which I have no record, was unclear to begin with.

I’m not thrilled about what happened with my interview. But it served as a reminder that there’s more to being a good interview subject than showing up and shooting from the hip. Here are some tips to make sure you don’t end up with unintended sentiments ascribed to you for eternity:

You’re providing material, not direction. Think of a journalist as a chef and your quotes as ingredients. You can provide high-quality ingredients, but ultimately, it’s the chef who decides what to cook with them. Try to respond to questions in such a way that your answers will be valuable, coherent, and complete, however they’re used. Remember that your answer can, and in many cases will, become uncoupled from the interviewer’s question, so it’s up to you to provide context in your responses. For example, “I’m strongly in favor of it” leaves the entire spectrum of nouns for someone to misunderstand you as favoring.

Don’t just say whatever comes into your head, if you’re that sort of person. Sometimes, if I feel nervous, I’ll just start sayin’ stuff. It’s an irresponsible practice, I know, but it happens. The result is that I sometimes end up sayin’ something that’s flat-out wrong. If you’re like me, work on actively curbing this tendency. Fixing your habit of just sayin’ stuff will help in other areas of life as well, such as the job interview where you said, “Sure, I know how to use that lab instrument,” or that dating app where you said, “Sure, I feel like we have a future together.”

If you ignored that last piece of advice, backtrack. If you say something you shouldn’t have, there’s nothing wrong with adding, “Oops, you know what? I’m actually not really certain if that last thing was true. Don’t use that, please.” Most reporters want to get the facts correct. Assuming your comment was a misstatement of a fact and not, say, an inadvertent admission of financial malfeasance, a responsible journalist will forgive a misstep and not put you on blast.

Along those lines, acknowledge you don’t know what you don’t know. When someone treats you like an expert, it can be satisfyingly flattering in a way you might not ordinarily experience. You may even have flashbacks to childhood bullies who stuffed you in the trash can for writing an extra-credit report—but now who’s on Channel Eight Public News, jerks? Unfortunately, the radiant glow of self-importance can backfire, because when you’re being treated like an expert, it can be tempting to feel like you’re supposed to be an expert on everything. But claiming knowledge you don’t have will most likely lead to embarrassment and wasted time all around. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” or even turning down an interview for which you don’t feel qualified.

Speak like a human. You remember what that’s like, right? Describe your work in plain language. After all, inscrutable highfalutin jargon is useless to a reporter—unless they’re writing for the Journal of Inscrutable Highfalutin Jargon, which is also called the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Give concise answers that leave room for follow-up questions, and check in as you go to make sure the interviewer is getting what they need. Your goal is to convey, not to expound.

Remember that most of what you say will never be shared. Unless you’re being broadcast live, your big interview, your moment of true connection, will be whittled down to a soundbite. An hourlong dialogue becomes a minute. A thorough explanation becomes a sentence. It may feel cruel, but the journalist is only doing with words what you do with research—publishing the most relevant parts and leaving the rest to die in the notebook. It’s even possible that your entire interview will end up on the cutting-room floor if the piece takes a different direction, or if the journalist was interviewing you for background information or context. You might feel disappointed, but know that you helped in the way the journalist found most useful.

Don’t expect to read, proofread, or edit the piece in advance. That’s just not how this whole thing works. Reporters may subsequently recheck facts with you, but that’s usually all. Trust your interviewer to do their job well—and ask to be notified when the piece is made public so that you can share it if you love it, or politely point out its flaws if you don’t.

When the interview is published, don’t read the comments section. In fact, never read the comments section of anything ever. I mean it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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