As y’all know, a frequent topic of conversation here is communicating science to the public. While many of us do it directly via sites such as this one, the bulk of science writing that the public will read is done by the pros–people writing for the magazines and newspapers, among other outlets. Often, their stories include interviews with research scientists. However, we’re not always so easy to get in touch with, and we blow reporters off altogether–apparently, pretty frequently.
On a listserv I subscribe to, there recently was a discussion amongst writers regarding how to get academics (and business-types; don’t feel the question is limited *only* to academics) to respond to interview requests. However, given the wording of the question and some of the responses, I think the question itself highlighted a bit of the gulf between journalists and academics, so I’m putting some of my own thoughts on why academics don’t respond first (and particularly when they are at conferences or on business travel, which was the topic of one comment), and I welcome any suggestions you have on how you prefer to be contacted–and what might improve response rates for writers. It would be great if any writers out there added their additional comments as well–imagine, a dialogue!…
FIrst, regarding conferences and the like, they can be a nightmare. Priorities are usually to develop ideas for future projects, schmooze with people who might be able to help you, and find ways to get published and funded. As was already noted, answering a phone call from a stranger isn’t going to be very high up on the list, even if it has an off chance of increasing your profile or introducing you to new parties. I recently was at ASM, and yes, there were computers to check email (15 minute limit…guess which ones are going to be answered first), and yes, there was a “laptop cafe” (which was sets of plugs, standing only–also time-limited during busy hours)–but you can see how inconvenient both of those are. In the hotel where I was staying, internet access was an additional $13/night–a charge that I assume a lot of businesses don’t mind paying, but it’s more difficult to get universities to eat. So instead, I spent every night in the lobby where there was free wireless–again, really inconvenient, and I can see why many people bypass it and don’t bother checking in online while they’re away. Yes, it’s 2007, but that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to stay connected.
Additionally, conferences are draining. At ASM I was at sessions for 8 hours a day, and there was no break between them–in fact, they often ran long with questions etc., and there were long treks between buildings. At lunch, I went to view posters to try to find others doing research in similar areas, look for collaborators, introduce myself, etc. In the evenings, I’d work, and went out for dinner one night (with colleagues–it even included a video interview for that one, so definitely a working dinner). It’s science ’round the clock (at least for me), and sometimes the last thing you want to do is talk to someone else about more science. Even if one is giving a talk at an institution rather than a days-long conference, it can still be difficult to get a free moment (and then devote that moment to an interview). Have you ever seen the schedule of someone who’s out giving a talk somewhere? Depending on the level of interest in the subject matter, we’re usually scheduled from first thing in the morning until late in the evening, meeting faculty and students, having dinner with people with mutual interests, and yes, giving the actual talks. Sometimes you don’t feel like you have time for a bathroom break, much less a call to a reporter.
There are several other issues here too. First, I’m pretty young in my career, and even I’ve been burned by poor articles that have come out of interviews. So it’s sometimes a mixed blessing when we’re contacted by someone writing a story–you’re never real sure what’s going to come out of it, and whether responding will be a wise use of your time (or will, in the end, actually hurt you). For these reasons, we do probably undervalue the media, because nothing’s certain when it comes to these articles. We spend a lot of time crafting our own articles describing our work, adding the requisite disclaimers, alternative explanations, etc., but all that can be undone by a misleading article (or even a misleading headline, which may be no fault of the reporter). Unless it’s a reporter the investigator has worked with before and trusts, each new interview is a gamble, so while it has the potential to bring our work to a larger audience, it also has the potential to mischaracterize that work, or piss off a colleague who disagrees with our interpretation of the data.
Third, to be blunt, there really just isn’t a lot of reward for us to take our research to the public. We’re evaluated on our publications, our funding, our teaching, and last, our service. Interviews, especially if they’re with smaller publications, just aren’t very likely to help us when it comes to promotion and tenure. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.
Anyway, hopefully that gives a bit more insight into interview requests from the academic side of the table. Personally, I prefer to be contacted via email, and because I have 2 offices and a lab (all with different phone numbers) and I’m frequently in meetings or teaching, reaching me by phone at work in a timely manner is almost impossible.