8.5- Interviewing a scientist
And you can help convey that sense of excitement, and of real people carrying out important work by quoting the scientist in your story. That helps the scientist take a step back, and begin thinking kind of big picture. Because this is where the person your interviewing takes a minute to think about interesting, or important, or kind of side comments about the research that maybe didn't fit in the paper.
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For these next two modules, I’m thrilled to have a guest speaker. Amy Adams is the Director of Science Communications, at Stanford. And she’s going to be talking to you about interviewing scientists, and using social media. I’m Amy Adams, and I’m going to be talking about how to write about science for a lay audience. And the first step, in writing for a lay audience, is interviewing a scientist about whatever topic you’re going to write about. And the challenge in conducting an interview isn’t just understanding the science. It’s also trying to get the scientist to speak in a way that the general public would understand. Getting them to talk about their work in a way that is interesting and engaging. And helps people and the lay public understand what it is that those scientists are excited about. So this cartoon, I think, illustrates the problem. In the first panel you have a scientist saying, I have filtered out earthquakes by looking at the energy ratio between adjacent frequency bands. And thinks to herself, I am great at explaining things. And what the public hears is blah, blah, blah, earthquakes, blah, blah. They think they are so smart, never trust a scientist. And another scientist from a different discipline hears, blah, blah, blah, earthquakes, blah, blah. And they think to themselves, that is terrible, I would never use that much jargon. But, of course, what we know is that this nice scientist man in the final panel really would use a lot of jargon. And it’s part of the writer’s job to break scientists out of that jargon. And to do that, first, let’s talk about why scientists can’t let go of the jargon. And part of it is just that’s how they talk all day long. And so then they turn to you, and they talk to you the way they talk all day long. But they also don’t want to be imprecise, those jargon words really mean something. And scientists don’t want to say something that could be interpreted incorrectly by the public, which makes sense. They also really just don’t understand what people do and don’t know. Some of these words and concepts are so fundamental to them, in their work, that it is hard to remember that someone who was say, an Economics Major. And hasn’t seen Biology or Physics, or Chemistry since high school, probably does not remember those words. If they ever even knew them. And also, I think a lot of scientists don’t care that the public understand their work. Some do, but many don’t, and that’s why we need writers to help interpret them. So, when you’re going to write a news story, why is it that you need the scientist to drop the jargon and speak coherently? I mean, if you’re a good writer, and you’re going to write a story about this science. Why can’t you just interpret the science yourself, and let those scientists keep their jargon? A number of reasons, one of them is that you want to quote the scientist in stories you write. News stories are a great way to help scientists come alive. To help the public who might be skeptical of scientists, or might be intimidated by science. This is a way to help the public, see these scientists as real people and believable. People who are excited about their work, and excited to go to lab every day, and learn something new. And you can help convey that sense of excitement, and of real people carrying out important work by quoting the scientist in your story. It also makes your story more interesting. You often need their analogies and descriptions. Despite complaints about the scientists using a lot of jargon. They have often spent a lot of time thinking about ways of describing their work or analogies that really work. And you want to elicit those from them, because it helps you tell a better story. You want the scientists to seem like real people, they should seem believable, accessible. So the challenge here is that scientists use jargon with each other. They do not use lay language with each other. They use lay language, maybe, with their families, with friends, with people who they consider to be non-scientists. So your job, when you talk to scientists and you want to get a good interview, is to make yourself appear to not be a scientist which is hard. You need to check your ego at the door, and go in. And feel like you can ask stupid questions, to help the scientists feel they can use smaller words with you. Okay, if you read news stories about science. You will see, as we’ve been talking about, that they usually include quotes from the scientist. So, if you look at those quotes when you read a news story, think what kinds of questions elicited good quotes? Do you want a scientist simply repeating their findings? We found that protein A interacts with protein B. That’s not the kind of quote that really conveys their excitement or show them as real people. What you want to get the scientist talking about is, what is the big picture? What’s the significance of protein A interacting with protein B, or whatever it is that they found. Why is that important to people, why are they excited about it? Who’s going to benefit from this work, what did they think when they got the result? Were they excited, were they confused, were they surprised? What are some emotions, let’s get some emotion in this work. I think people who do science understand that it really is pretty exciting, or sometimes very confusing. What made the scientist ask these questions, sometimes there’s a really interesting back story. That can help the public understand why this research is important and interesting. So in the interview, not only do you want to ask questions that help you understand the science. And then, help you write accurately about the science. But also ask questions that get at the significance in the emotion. Okay, so what does this all mean in terms of an actual interview? The first question I always ask is something really big picture, like can you describe the key finding? That helps the scientist take a step back, and begin thinking kind of big picture. What is it that was important in this piece of research? It also put some context on the science. You might read the paper before going into an interview, and think you know what’s important. But you’re not the one who did the work. And so, if you don’t ask this question first, the questions you ask the scientist might take you off in a different direction. So you really want to understand what the scientist thinks is truly important about the work. Okay, so after they describe the key finding, why is this important? So that gives you some context, helps you think about how you’re going to kind of frame the story for the reader. How does that work? These are the kinds of detailed questions that you need to ask. Just to make sure you actually understand the science well enough to write about it accurately. And then, finally, is there anything you want to add? This is maybe the most important question in their interview. Because this is where the person your interviewing takes a minute to think about interesting, or important, or kind of side comments about the research that maybe didn’t fit in the paper. Or maybe it’s perspectives on the research that you wouldn’t have thought of, but they had. You often get really interesting answers. And I like to ask that question before I really think the interview is all the way over. Because you will often have follow-up questions from this. So overall, it’s pretty straightforward. Get the big picture, get some contacts on emotion, get the details, and then, get the magic with your last question. Okay, so you get your interview, and now it’s time to write the story, so how do you use quotes in a story? So, the rule of thumb is that you always use a quote exactly as it was said. Because when you quote someone, those quote marks indicate that someone really, truly did say that. And that’s, in my mind, a pretty hard and fast rule, except that you want to be nice to the person. If they add filler words in the middle of the sentence, so, here, we have a made up sentence. Be polite, in the sense that you should, tidy up, you know, the quote, what that person really said was, be polite, tidy up the quote. You can erase words, or tidy up words, or add punctuation, if it’s going to make the quote make more sense. And mean exactly what the person meant it to mean. And the Poynter Institute has some rules of thumb on this. So the way you edit the quote should be truthful. You’re not going to edit the quote in a way that makes it seem different than what it was. Adding language is more dangerous than taking stuff out, because you can distort the meaning. So you can remove the word or you know, or like, but you don’t want to add words because that could change the meaning. Be careful with slang, do not try to use slang or dialect unless your ear is really good. If that’s the way someone speaks, that’s fine, but don’t try to edit them to include dialect. And I think this one is great, the American language is a great treasure. I would say any language is a great treasure. If you edit a quote to get rid of ums or likes, that’s fine. But don’t edit the quote to get rid of, if there’s a part of the country that uses an expression sightly differently than the way you would, leave it the way it is. And then, as we said, be polite. So we’re going to talk about a couple different kinds of stories. One is a QA, which is not exactly one long quote. So a Q and A, so the question and answer, is a really good option. If you have a scientist who speaks really well, or if that person is the story, or the point of the story is to get that person’s opinion. Or if you don’t have a lot of time, the Q and A format is definitely faster than the struggle of trying to write your own news story. Or if you want to help your readers understand a process, the Q and A format can work really well. And in terms of a Q and A, its essentially, the same rules of thumb apply as editing a quote. So if you ask someone a question, and they give you an answer. You do not need to use the entire answer, as it was said, you can edit it lightly. But at the end of the day, whatever gets listed as the person’s answer should accurately reflect what that person intended to say. Yeah, okay, but it’s not a literal transcript of the entire answer. Because really, most people are not that interesting for several long paragraphs. So the point, here, is that in order to be interesting for a couple paragraphs. You often need to edit out repeated ideas, repeated sentences, repeated quotes, to make it a little tighter. Yes, here they are clapping happily for the person in the Q and A. And that is because, you the writer, have made their answers more succinct. And a more engaging version, of what the person actually said. And then there’s some slight differences, when you’re going to interview for a Q and A. We had an outline for what a typical interview would look like for a news story. With a Q and A, the questions should tell a bit of a story. So you should write the questions out in advance, and have a sense of what your story arc is going to be. And that will allow you to end up with a Q and A that tells a bit of a story. I often have more questions prepared than I eventually use. Because sometimes, the answers to a question that I am very interested in turns out to not be interesting. So I need to be prepared, to dump some questions, that were not as interesting as I thought. And still have enough questions remaining, to produce an interesting Q and A. So I find five, to be kind of a good minimum number, in a final Q and A. So I would normally go in with seven questions, and just be prepared to dump some, if they’re not sufficiently interesting. And the other thing with the Q and A is you really need to listen to make sure that the person answers the full question. Because in a Q and A, you can’t go back and just add context that you know. Or add details of the science that you happen to know, the way you would with a news story. They need to actually say the whole thing. This is an actual quote that I had in a Q and A. And the way they actually said it was, so that problem was waiting to be solved and was solved. Because there were two people in different fields who decided to work together. And they got money in the form of a seed grant. And actually, the students also had a fellowships to really launch the project, which is a bit long. So if I change it to, that problem was solved because there were two people in different fields who decided to work together. And they got money to launch the project.
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