Staff Writer

April 13, 2023 (Updated )

From reporting on Covid-19 to climate change, journalists are often required to turn around science stories quickly and without much specialist knowledge. As a result, it’s vital to know how to navigate interviews with scientists and researchers.

While the process can feel intimidating, no matter where you are in your career, it can lead to immeasurably better stories. Interviewing is an art — one that I am definitely still perfecting — and you’ll rarely be brilliant from the outset. The flip side? It can absolutely be learnt with practice.

How To Approach An Expert

Before you settle down to an interview, you need to work out who to talk to and how to reach them. In many cases, the easiest way to do this is to look through research papers — published pieces of academic work that explore new, well, research.

Research papers can be useful tools for finding experts to speak to — about a paper’s specific topic or something else related to their field. Jocelyn Timperley, a freelance editor and writer for BBC Future and Future Planet explains: “The first author listed on the paper tends to be the least senior scientist who likely did the body of work to produce the paper. They are more junior, but they probably know more about what actually went into the paper, the context, [and] they might know more about the specific area of research.”

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Jocelyn Timperley (L) and Miriam Frankel (R)

You don’t need to talk to everyone who worked on the paper, but different people can provide different insights. According to Miriam Frankel, science editor of The Conversation UK, while the more junior scientist may be able to offer more details on that specific study, the senior supervising scientist (usually listed last on a paper) could be better placed to discuss broader implications, what it means, and how reliable it is. You should therefore consider what you want from the interview before reaching out.

Sabrina Weiss is an author and freelance science journalist specialising in deeply reported features and multimedia storytelling. She says that in science journalism, it can be tempting to just Google professors and experts to find them. But as she explains: “[This] just tends to draw up the same names of people that have been either widely cited or interviewed in the media, and they tend to be men.”

According to the Global Media Monitoring Project’s 2020 report, for every one woman in the news there were nearly three men — a ratio it says has scarcely changed over the preceding 25 years. In fact, their 2021 report found a fall in women’s voices and visibility during the reporting of the pandemic. Researchers also analysed Nature’s journalistic coverage in 2020, finding that 69 per cent of direct quotes were from men.

Journo Resources
“The first author listed on the paper tends to be the least senior scientist who likely did the body of work. They are more junior, but they probably know more about what actually went into the paper.”
Jocelyn Timperley, science & environmental journalist

These findings highlight the importance of citing a range of voices in science journalism. Weiss suggests using expert databases as a starting point for incorporating a range of voices. She suggests exploring the following: WMC SheSource, Global South Climate Database, 500 Queer Scientists, and Qwoted. Timperley also recommends asking your interviewees to point you towards other experts in the field.

Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist and editor whose reporting focuses on gender, climate, biodiversity, and environmental health. Echoing Weiss, she says: “Often you will see that the same person is being quoted by everybody, which means that the information must have come through a press release or some comments. Here is your chance to branch out and quote other people too, [which] helps you build your networks.”

Resources To Find Papers & Experts

EurekAlert! A non-profit newsroom run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Google Scholar A free-to-access database of research across various disciplines.

Nature: One of the globe’s leading scientific journals, publishing a wide range of research.

Science: Another leading scientific journal, publishing a huge range of research.

WMC SheSource: A database of media-experienced women experts.

Global South Climate Database: Climate experts from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Pacific.

500 Queer Scientists: Self-submitted biographies from queer scientists across the globe.

Qwoted: A database of more than 100,000 experts.

The Science Media Centre: An independent press office linking journalists to scientists and researchers.

If you’re covering or following up on a breaking news story, it’s also worth looking up The Science Media Centre. As an independent press office, it works closely with institutions like universities to provide journalists with interviews and briefings in tight timeframes. Essentially, it sends roundups and rapid reactions following the release of big papers or news events.

While primarily used for breaking news, Weiss highlights how useful they can be for finding experts to comment on feature stories. After checking who was quoted in the initial coverage, Weiss then contacts the relevant experts to interview for more deeply reported stories.

Weiss also recommends regularly checking news sites like The Conversation, which publishes articles written by academics. If you are trying to find case studies and personal voices for your reporting, Weiss suggests approaching NGOs, charities, support groups, and searching social media with pronouns like “I” or “me” to surface personal posts.

What Questions Should You Ask Scientists?

Once you’ve found the right person, getting in touch is often the easy bit, with most academic institutions listing contact details on staff profiles. So, how to tackle the interview itself?

Ghosh advises asking as many questions as possible — and if the expert is digressing, bring them back to your questions. Even if they tell you it’s in the research paper, she recommends powering through and asking all your questions, “even if you feel that you are going to sound stupid.” She expands: “I think sounding stupid can be a gift in certain situations because you ask some of the very basic questions, and that gives you some cool responses.”

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“I think sounding stupid can be a gift in certain situations because you ask some of the very basic questions, and that gives you some cool responses.”
Sahana Ghosh, Science Journalist

Ghosh also recommends asking a few questions not directly related to the story and requesting a basic overview of the subject. Speaking from experience, Ghosh says this helps reporters write better, more objective stories.

She also urges you to always ask the questions you need, even if they feel intrusive. She says: “Do not be apologetic about asking questions. I used to be apologetic about asking questions earlier, but then I realised that that is my job.”

She explains that sometimes, you won’t actually need to quote a researcher — you might only need an overview of a topic and some background information. So, think about the purpose of the interview beforehand.

It also really helps to build a relationship early on with your sources, so when you need to, you can contact them for background information and research.

Granted, this can be easier said than done when starting out, but if you begin building your own database of sources and good relationships from the outset, you’re more likely to be able to come back and do this later down the line.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Sahana Ghosh (L) and Katarina Zimmer (R)

Weiss also recommends spending time in your pre-reporting asking researchers about anecdotes from the field. She says: “Fieldwork can be very complicated, it can be tough, it can be messy, but that is where you really can show the human side of science as a process.”

Be Clear About Your Level Of Understanding

The Scientist has explored how mutually beneficial a researcher–journalist relationship can be, if approached with care. However, it also highlights some problems researchers have encountered from journalistic interviews. For example, computational biologist Rafaël Najmanovich said he found many of the final articles oversimplified and unclear, finding that journalists had not totally grasped the fundamental elements of the research.

To avoid this, Frankel likes to summarise the research or findings in her own words to see if the scientist intervenes or corrects her. She says it is “a good way of knowing which phrases you can use later on when you are writing.” Frankel also always asks interviewees if she can follow up with questions via email, in case something comes up when she has done more reading.

However, she adds: “I think if you spend too much time just reading up on something before you talk to people, you sometimes do not ask the best questions because you basically become another scientist.” So if you find yourself drowning in research papers and never-ending references, remember this — as a journalist, you are not expected to become an expert researcher overnight. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and consider what a general reader would want to know.

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“You need to look at other research in that field and talk to a wide range of experts to get an idea for how strong a finding is and how reliable it is.”
Miriam Frankel, science editor

As Katarina Zimmer points out in The Scientist article, researchers’ main audience tends to be the scientific community, whereas journalists are usually addressing wider audiences and more general readers. While a researcher might feel strongly about one aspect of their research or a specific paper, this won’t always be the part that is most relevant to general audiences.

Frankel says being clear about your intentions is vital, explaining: “Yes, they might be upset, but I think you have to be honest with them and explain to them that this is what a general audience will be most interested in — they will be able to glean that from your questions anyway.” She also advises speaking to as many people as possible, especially if something is contentious. “You need to look at other research in that field and talk to a wide range of experts to get an idea for how strong a finding is and how reliable it is.”

It’s important to recognise that you are working with scientists and researchers in order to make science stories accessible to general audiences. Think of it as a partnership in which you are responsible for creating a compelling narrative arc. Consider building a template of questions like Ghosh, and creating a contacts database early on.

And lastly, remind yourself that asking questions is your job — so don’t be afraid to keep asking and to help tell science stories clearly to the world.

Header image courtesy of benjamin lehman via Unsplash
Further Reading
Learn more about working with researchers below.

Not sure what to do when a scientific expert or researcher asks to review your piece before it is published? The OpenNotebook has a guide on copy approval.

For more interviewing guidance, check out the top 10 tips from Writer’s Digest.

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and in 2018, was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by the SPA.

She was a BBC Sport Kick-Off Reporter in 2019 and in 2021, co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying for the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.