Journalism: Interviewing Experts

Background

Science journalists ask questions to form stories and write about science for broad audiences. They can write for different mediums such as newspapers, TV, radio, and online. Articles written for science journalism typically give the big picture, discuss the broader impact of the science, and provide expert information from interviewing scientific leaders in the field.

Science journalists typically talk to 4 different types of experts — scientists, industry leaders, politicians, or companies — to gather details on particular topics and to formulate their stories. Journalists seek to get information from individuals who have authority to provide facts and evidence to support their story.

During the interview, journalists ask the interviewee for their opinion and perspective, which can then be converted into a quote. Within the piece it is critical to use facts and figures to support the article. Journalists must also think of the wider relevance for the topic and avoid jargon as these pieces are usually written for broader audiences. An important question that journalists keep at the forefront of their mind when writing is: Why would the reader be interested in this piece? What aspects of the piece can resonate with the reader?

Interviewing is typically performed independently by a single journalist. After the interview is written into an article format, journalists then work with an editor to prepare the piece for final publication. The article will also go through a fact checker and copywriter. After publication, science journalists can also follow up and look for new developments in an area, which can result in a second piece.

The Process

The process depends on the medium you work for, and timelines are such that a  quick turn around is required. Some newspapers publish daily. For a typical article the process may take approximately 1-2 weeks, as it includes: identifying who to interview, setting up the interview, conducting the interview, and writing up the piece. Below is the overall framework of interviewing as a science journalist:

  1. Select your topic. 
  2. Decide the outlet. Where the piece will be published or featured? This informs the questions asked, and how the article is written up. The outlet is an important consideration as a publisher may want two sides of the story which will differ from writing up a structured Q&A. 
  3. Select the format for the interview: Profile, Research, Content/new interview, or Oppositional.
  4. Identify the people to interview. They should provide pertinent information for your narrative.
  5. Prepare interview questions. 
  6. Decide the medium by which the interview will occur. Interviews can typically be done over the phone. You can send an email with questions if: you think it will take some time to get a response, to help the individual prepare, or if there are considerations such as language or international time zones.
  7. Conduct the interview. Ensure you ask all your questions. Listen intently to ask pertinent follow-up questions.
  8. Write up the article. Keep in mind where you are publishing and their publishing deadlines. Get input from someone senior, depending on how comfortable you are, and always ensure any statistics, facts and quotes are accurate. Choose a write-up format from one of these typical formats. Structured Q&A/interview format provides answers to the public as it makes the facts digestible. Extended narrative format, typically used by journalists.
  9. Submit to the editor.
  10. The article goes to publish.

The Exercise

A journalist or reporter will write an article entirely independently. If you’re new or in a shadowing role, an editor can provide you with questions as well as advise you on who to interview. 

For this simulation, you are an intern science journalist, who works as part of a larger team of senior science journalists. You’ve been given a topic by the science editor. You are instructed to conduct a research interview and write it up as a Q&A (see example Q&A format). Prepare for writing the piece by identifying the experts you want to interview and formulate a set of questions to ask. The senior reporter and editor will review your work before publication.

Task 1: Select your topic and stance

Step 1 of the process. Select a topic or idea that you’d like to write about. Decide on the stance for the article. Here are example topics, experts you may want to contact, and possible stances:

  • science policy – e.g., covid response; contact the local public health officer for the county
  • science communication – e.g., outreach events; contact museum outreach coordinator
  • science – particular specialities – e.g., contact an environmental health professor to ask about their work

Task 2:  Research the outlet

Step 2 of the process. If you’re writing for a particular organization, get to know their audience and style of writing.

  • What is the typical article length (how many words)?
  • Who do they interview (what types of experts and from which industries)?
  • Do they aim to get information from diverse perspectives?
  • Who is their typical audience?

Task 3:  Identify experts

Step 4 of the process. Identify 5 or 6 experts you’d want to interview to support the story, and think about the rationale for why you’re talking with them. Journalists typically interview more experts than they need, and aim to use information and quotes from at least 2 experts. Note the industries they work in. Are you representing diverse perspectives and backgrounds?

Here is some information on the different types of experts you might interview to support your story and stance.

  • Scientists – seek facts, rather than opinion, to start. They are the experts in the field, and provide a strong voice because they have facts.
  • Industrial experts – ask how they become an expert to begin with. Journalists pay attention to how experts deliver answers and journalists may need to tailor the way a question is provided. The expert may need prompting depending on their level of experience. Senior leaders with 15 years of experience, for example, may have a lot to say and some experience speaking to journalists. Look for people with experience and track record and this will enable you to draw from differing views from the field. The goal is to get the most senior person in the field to speak with you. You want the best of the best, they will give you the utmost information from trusted sources.
  • Companies – typically send questions via email as they have a press office. Journalists may call the company and alert them of an email. If you’re promoting their product, they will be happy to talk to you, and be on TV.Radio. Write and ask for the right to respond through the press office. You want to be clear with claims and what you’re asking.
  • Politicians – be methodical, because they will not talk more than they need to. Ask open ended questions, then hone in on specifics. Open ended questions give the journalist a feel for how the interviewee answers questions. Do the interview in person. Have curveball questions. Hold them accountable – partial attack and have some emotion to respond.

Task 4: Prepare your interview questions

Step 5 of the process. Come up with the types of questions to ask during the interview. Depending on the stance, think about what you want the audience to be aware of, and how you can be objective by providing several points of view.

Preparing for an interview is how science journalists determine what is known in the field and who the experts are. By researching the background information first, journalists are able to roughly plan out the flow of the article before they conduct the main interviews. This allows them to direct the interviewer towards certain areas of interest and get useful quotes.

Write a list of ~10 questions to find out background information about this topic, and also hone in on specifics of the article, such as:
– Who are the leaders on this topic?
– What are the current new developments in the topic?
– How do these developments impact the general public?
– How do these developments impact the future of this topic?
– Why will the audience care?

The Deliverable

Task 1- Topic and stance 

Task 2, 3 – Information on the outlet and list of experts to interview

Task 4 -Questions for the interview


Sample Deliverable

Topic – Article on public policy and local health department’s Covid19 response
Outlet selected – ESAL, online
Stance – How STEM professionals can leverage their skills to support local efforts, and how a local county obtains and utilizes information.
Interview type – Research
Expert – a local county health expert in Maryland

Write up type – Structured Q&A

Questions

  • What is the jurisdiction of the county public health department?
  • What is your role in responding to public health concerns as broad as mental illness in homeless populations, pandemic response, and even first line-of-defense for bioterrorist attacks?
  • How do counties get information about COVID?
  • Given how quickly available knowledge is evolving, how do you assess what is current and what needs attention?
  • How do you work with state and federal officials? Have they been providing you with the assistance you need?
  • Do you see any significant challenges or unmet needs that could be addressed by someone with technical skills – such as those with a STEM background who wish to get involved?
  • What is the importance of scientists and engineers becoming involved in their local communities?
  • Can you say if there is a direct way of getting involved?
  • Is there anything else you would like to mention that has not been covered?

View the published article – https://www.esal.us/blog/state-health-departments-tackle-covid/


Resources:


Skills used to perform this task:

  • Science writing and editing (verbal and written science communication)
  • Ability to filter through large amounts of information to identify the most interesting content
  • Ability to connect with your target audience
  • Creativity

Skills used in Science Journalism:

  • Broad understanding and interest in scientific topics (it’s not necessary to have a PhD in science)
  • Ability to identify content that is both salient and interesting to your audience
  • Confidence in interviewing people over the phone and in-person
  • Active listening, reflecting quickly on the conversation. Building rapport with others 
  • Understanding confidentiality
  • Being diplomatic
  • Resilience
  • Ability to work with mixed media
  • Project Management
  • Ability to write clearly

Tips for building your science communication skills

  • Listen to/observe good science journalists, e.g. writers and reports you enjoy reading and listening to. Ask why they’re good and what techniques they use. Practice using these techniques and get feedback from friends/colleagues.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Keep building your journalism portfolio to prove to editors that you can do this type of work. You will improve with each article you write.
  • Try different forms of science journalism (written or radio) and see which media suits your skills and interests.
  • Take part in a regular public speaking group/event to practice your communication skills. You don’t need to talk about science, but use the opportunity to build your confidence.

You are viewing a job simulation. To get started, set up SMART Goals to perform this simulation in a reasonable timeline. If you have completed the task, fill out the Self-Reflection Sheet.

Simulation author: Rosie Dutt, PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis and assistant editor-in-chief at the The Journal of Science Policy and Governance.

Simulation vetted by Wendy Bohon, science communication specialist.