Make the First Move: SciComm advice

Today I listened to a panel of Science Journalists at a COMPASS* science communication event.  There is such a thing as bad science journalism, which has created some distrust and fear on the part of some scientists regarding how their research might be translated for the masses. The panel put together 4 accomplished journalists to hear their perspective and to learn advice for how to make sure interactions with science writers turn out as successful as possible.

The fine print: The following are from my notes and don’t represent everything that was covered. Also, I didn’t write down which journalist said what, so these statements may not represent the experience or opinion of individuals on the panel.Those panelists were:

Moderator: Nancy Baron, COMPASS
Chris Joyce—National Public Radio
Ken Weiss – Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting
Erica Gies – Independent Journalist
Lauren Sommer – KQED/NPR


Some keys for communication with journalists:

  •             Be enthusiastic.
  •             Use short sentences and ditch the jargon.
  •             Provide the big picture/Context/Why it matters.
  •             Talk about how you got into it, why you are passionate about it.

A big message from the workshop was that researchers should be proactive in the process of getting their research out to journalists.

Even before contacting someone in the press, do some work ahead of time to be able to concisely discuss the context or rationale for the research, and to be able to do so in everyday language (no jargon). To me this sounds not too different from giving an elevator talk, which we should all be able to do anyway.

A contact email is more likely to succeed in tempting a journalist if it stands out. Make the email title catchy or provocative, not boring. Start with the problem or context before the research result. Provide hooks or links to other big stories (even outside of science).

It’s not just about the research. One thing (especially for radio/TV) is to see the discovery happening. Radio likes the sound of the environment, walking through the marsh. That can mean you shouldn’t wait until the paper is out- within reason- journalists don’t care as much about that, the peer-reviewed manuscript is only part of the story and usually not the most interesting part.

Don’t get too hung up on avoiding press because you are worried about scooping yourself with respect to journal embargoes. Obviously if you have research you think has a good shot for one of those top journals, be careful, but there are definitely ways to talk about your research without violating journal policy. Journalists should be willing to hold a story if an embargo does come into play. The opinion of the panel was that most writers would rather start on the story farther in advance anyway since they will have more time to get the story right. Also, on a hot paper, journalists know you will be fielding interviews from many news outlets, so they like to be able to get in before the crush.

How to help journalists get it right:

  •             Be patient! They are not experts in the field.
  •             If you don’t think they are asking the right questions, you can suggest to them what you think the right questions are.
  •             You can ask them to pause during an interview and recap to make sure they are getting the picture.
  •             A writer is more likely to agree to share a particular tricky part
  •             Analogies are great to help with complex topics.
  •             Provide names for other people they can talk with.


To deal with controversial topics, you can give them a heads up of people they will hear from with different view points, why they find your work problematic, and why you don’t think they are right.

For talking about uncertainty in science without killing the story, be prepared by determining limits of how far you are willing to go in terms of confidence in your conclusions. Journalists won’t publish a story if it is so filled with caveats there is no message or story. They would rather talk in bold confident terms (their editors even more so). If there is uncertainty, you can still talk about the stakes of knowing the answer, and why continuing to search for the answer is important.  Don’t lead with your caveats.

Final message:

“Journalists are not your partners, but they can be your tools”


*Mark Schwartz says: COMPASS is the group that coordinates Science Communication for (among others) the Leopold Fellows, The Smith Fellows, The Wilburforce Fellows and Liber Ero fellows (i.e., ALL  the major ecology/conservation fellows programs interested in fostering engaged science).


Black Oystercatcher, Albany, CA

Black Oystercatcher, Albany, CA

I mentioned a couple of entries ago that KQED Quest came along on the Oakland Christmas Bird Count and produced a feature for their weekly radio program. Well, that feature aired today. You can read the transcript, and also listen to the program using a link at the top of the page. Also note the Oystercatcher and Turkey photos are mine! I thought they did a really nice job. It’s always a surprise what they might include- Andrea was along and recording all morning, so must have had several hours of recordings to support the story.

Christmas Bird Counts, 2011-2 Edition

Black Oystercatcher, Albany, CA

Black Oystercatcher, Albany, CA

This past weekend was full of birds Birds BIRDS. I once again participated in two of the local Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts, in central Contra Costa County and in Albany/El Cerrito for the Oakland Count. I’ve explained a bit about Christmas Bird Counts previously including here.

One enduring fact of local counts here seemed to be that the weather would exhibit some daunting combination of at least 2 of the following: cold, wet, or windy. To me, California CBC’s mean trudging out to the end of Albany Bulb, trying to keep my binoculars dry as rain drops pepper my raincoat.

Every once in a while the weather cooperates, and this weekend we had dry and calm conditions (if a little foggy in the morning of the CoCo count). The birds seemed to appreciate it too. Although duck numbers seemed pretty low, we did well, especially on the Oakland count. With Kevin’s great leadership and willing to actually count and look through large flocks of gulls, we ended the day with 110 species! This is all between the bay and top of the Berkeley hills. Possibly the most surprising bird for me were these guys, who were seen right off Buchanan street a few blocks from I-80.

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys in Albany, CA

There are always some birds in the bay, and while we missed some that we usually see (Eurasian Wigeon, Red Knot, Blue-winged Teal, some of the other loon species) we still got some of the classic bay birding experiences, such as finding a perched Peregrine Falcon contemplating breakfast choices, or the wheeling, flashing flocks of small shorebirds crossing low over the water. While not particularly helpful for identifying birds, seeing the shorebirds scattered over immense stretches of exposed mudflat at low-tide gives one a sense that the fragile line between land and water here in the bay does provide quite a bit of habitat for many different species.

The upland birds were particularly active in the afternoon. Some counts we get a few pulses of activity, but we did quite well for bird diversity both at the often quiet Albany Hill and the Sunset View Cemetery. Some birds that we saw a lot of, and that were also seen by a lot of other folks in other parts of the count circle, were things like Lincoln’s Sparrows and Fox Sparrows (below).

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow, Albany, CA

Also a treat was having Andrea Kissack from KQED Quest along with us to do a story on the Christmas Bird Count. Her voice is familiar to anyone who has watched the weekly science magazine on KQED, or listened to the radio or podcasts. She followed along with us for the morning, listening to the process of counting birds. She was also at the countdown dinner to hear the end result and species tally. The program should air in early January.

In the Contra Costa count, our group saw 90 species, and the entire count circle totaled in the 140’s.