Experts have an important role to play in the media cycle. Discoveries and “breakthroughs” can lead the news agenda, while on breaking news stories, journalists look for expert analysis to provide essential background and authoritative perspectives on complex topics.
When the media start calling, it’s an opportunity for motivated researchers to step forward, answer the questions that are on everyone’s mind and bring wider attention to their area of study. You may be surprised by how much of an impact you can have when you engage at the right time, in the right way.
“Journalists have to quickly boil down a subject to its essentials. When journalists write stories or angles that are too simplistic, or miss the point, it can be the case that the scientist was not clear enough at getting their main point across, and the journalist simply misunderstood. Some reporters will go the extra mile to understand the story before writing it, but many do not have the time and resources or inclination.”
Ian Telfer, news reporter, Radio New Zealand
So what are journalists looking for when they contact an expert?
Timely response: With deadlines looming, often the number one priority for reporters is a quick reply. While you might prefer to put off replying to an unexpected media query for a day — or a week — the reality is that journalists will have moved on the next story, and you will have missed out.
“Getting back to a journalist quickly can mean the difference between an accurate story or one filled with misinformation. Often we’re relying on you to help us through some data we’re seeing for the first time or simply to double check that what we’re putting to air is bang on. My most trusted contacts always answer my calls or let me know when they’ll be free to talk. In nightly television news, minutes can make a difference.”
Samantha Hayes, co-anchor, Newshub Live at 6pm
Keep it simple: An expert who can explain complicated things in a lively, clear and accessible way is priceless to the media.
Don’t over-prepare: It’s rare that you’ll be asked to rattle off screeds of figures or track down the precise details of an obscure published paper. Journalists want straightforward explanations of key trends and big-picture context for research findings, much of which you’ll already have in your head.
“We don’t need to dumb it down, but we do need to express complex ideas in ways that can be understood. And it can be done.”
James Frankham, publisher, New Zealand Geographic
“It’s not really my field, BUT…”: Even when the topic is outside your immediate research interests, you may be more of an expert than you think. If you know more about the topic than the reporter asking the questions, that may be all they need. If you’re really not the right person for the job, suggest some names to point them in a better direction.
What the facts tell us: Sometimes the reporter is seeking an independent, objective perspective on an issue. You may be asked to give an expert opinion on where the balance of evidence lies, and should be ready to answer questions about what actions this may call for.
Don’t shoot the messenger
Many people are involved in shaping the final story that appears. A reporter does the interview, but editors and producers have the final say in how a story is covered and what aspects will be highlighted – if the story runs at all. Don’t be surprised if other news events lead to a science story being cut short or dropped altogether. Scientists are sometimes frustrated by headlines on science stories. Don’t blame the journalist — headlines are written by different news staff, tasked with grabbing the reader’s attention in the space available
“You might not like the headline, but if someone stops and thinks ‘bloody hell, that looks interesting’ and reads what you have got to say, it’s better than them turning over the page and ignoring you completely.”
Anna Fazackerley, Freelance writer
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