So, you’ve been contacted by the Science Media Centre asking for an expert reaction…
We know that these requests can come out of the blue sometimes and researchers are often unsure what exactly we’re asking for, so here are some more details.
We’ve approached you because we think you have relevant expertise in the area we’re after. What we’re asking for is some brief feedback on a research paper, report or breaking news item, providing comment in your own words.
Unless a paper or topic is particularly complex, it’s usually unnecessary to repeat what the study or announcement says. Rather, we’re looking for you to help add context through your own expertise. This could be your personal reflections, the strengths, weaknesses or implications of a study, or an aspect that may not be immediately evident to a journalist. We’re available to discuss what you could focus on if you want to bounce ideas off us.
Our primary focus is to provide New Zealand media with access to qualified experts to help inform their news stories. We distribute expert commentary to about 500 journalists across national and regional news organisations who have registered to receive our updates.
These comments offer essential context to reporters covering the topic. They help journalists evaluate evidence behind new findings, understand implications and gauge reaction from researchers. Journalists may decide to use your comments directly or may contact you to follow up with further questions.
We also share the comments on our public website (with any contact details removed). Our aim is for these comments to be in your own words – we will only edit for format, spelling and grammar, anything more than that we’ll check with you first.
Sometimes your comments may be distributed by our colleagues at international SMCs including the UK, Germany and Australia – this will normally be when you are responding to breaking news events that have happened while experts in other timezones are asleep. Sometimes it pays to be at the bottom of the world!
We work hard to provide as much notice as possible, but due to the breakneck speed of the news cycle, we often need to hear back from you ASAP. Your comments are most valuable when journalists are still preparing their stories, rather than after news has made the rounds. Timely input can have a real impact on how well the media covers your area of expertise.
When there is a breaking news issue – be it an earthquake, weather event or response to an international story – journalists will be looking for expert commentary as soon as possible. That means even a couple of sentences can alert media to your interest and availability to contribute further.
If something is under a media embargo – like a report or journal article – once the embargo lifts the ‘news value’ drops rapidly. When journalists register with the SMC, they agree to respect all media embargoes on information we share with them. That means you can have confidence that material you provide and any follow-up conversations will be held for publication until the date and time set for public release.
If you’re unable to contribute this time around, please let us know as soon as you can and feel free to suggest other experts. Don’t worry: we’ll keep you in mind when future opportunities come up.
We know it seems odd when you’re used to writing research articles and perspectives, but short is perfectly fine and, in fact, encouraged. We suggest aiming for 100 – 200 words, though of course, you can be as thorough as you need (and as time permits). The key is that the comments we ask for are intended to spur media coverage; that is, we hope you will be available to take calls from journalists – especially radio and TV reporters – to expand on your written comments. So it’s better to have something short and snappy that will lead to more coverage, than to spend hours writing a page of foot-noted comments that might arrive too late to be useful. Which leads us to …
Often journalists will want to follow up with you to talk further. It may be that they want more detail, or they want to record an interview for radio or TV. Either way, it’s important that you let us know where you are (that is, are you travelling, at a conference, in an all-day meeting or a far-away timezone?) and when you’re available to talk to any interested media. Some researchers will make notes about when they’re available, or that they’re teaching but can respond by text to arrange a good time to call. The more detail the better, so if you’re happy to hear from interested journalists we’ll pass on whatever information you have.
If you’re happy for us to do so, our preference is always to share mobile numbers with journalists where possible. We know many researchers aren’t in their offices much of the time – you’re teaching, doing fieldwork, in the lab, in meetings – so office numbers often aren’t much help to journalists trying to get hold of you in a hurry. If you’re somewhere you might not be able to answer a call, a good solution is to ask journalists to text first identifying themselves so you can arrange a time to talk by phone.
We only ever share these contact details with registered journalists and will never make these public.
Crucial to our role is being seen as a trusted conduit for expert commentary, and that relies on being aware of potential conflicts of interest. We’ll always ask you for these, and we encourage you to consider a wide range of potential conflicts to provide to us: we’ll pass those on accordingly to journalists so that they’re aware of any possible questions they may need to raise with you.
We’ve got more information about conflicts in our expert policy, but in general we want you to think about funders, professional and personal relationships that might have an impact on your ability to comment independently on the given issue. If in doubt: declare.
Can I use my quotes elsewhere?
Yes and please do. We make all the comments we solicit freely available to journalists and publicly available on our website (after the embargo lifts, if applicable). We encourage you to contact your communications team to discuss using your quotes in a press release, or fleshing your thoughts out into a blog, op-ed or newsletter article. You’re busy, so anything you can do to make the work you’re providing to us go further is strongly encouraged.
We’re always available to talk further if you have any questions and greatly appreciate the time and expertise put into providing expert commentary for media.
A peek behind the curtain
See this October 2020 blog for a look at how the SMC team organised local expert commentary around a NASA announcement.