Sense About Science Surveys Journalists About the Interview Process

Just in time for ScienceWriters2015, Sense About Science USA has published the preliminary results of a major survey of science writers aimed at helping scientists know what to expect when they're interviewed by a journalist.

Designed by Neda Afsarmanesh, deputy director of Sense About Science USA, the survey asked reporters to share insights about their typical reporting process before, during, and after an interview with a scientist/source. 

The results make useful reading—not just for scientists, who can use them to prep for their next encounter with a reporter, but for journalists, for whom the results provide a fascinating window into common practices in the profession.

About two-thirds of respondents, for example, said they never (or infrequently) explain the difference between "on the record" and "off the record" to their sources.

An equal number, two-thirds, said they would always or often let a scientist know if the focus or tone of the story they were working on changed during the writing or editing phase. Which means, presumably, that the other third wouldn't.

 Sample data from Sense About Science USA's survey of journalists on their interview practices. Courtesy of Neda Afsarmanesh.

Sample data from Sense About Science USA's survey of journalists on their interview practices. Courtesy of Neda Afsarmanesh.

Afsarmanesh says the inspiration for the project came through an e-mail from a journalist friend. "She was frustrated with the number of times she had dealt with scientists who either asked to see drafts of stories before publication or who tried to place conditions on interviews that had already taken place," Afsarmanesh explains on the Sense About Science USA site. "She wanted to know if there was a blog or a how-to list for scientists that explained journalistic conventions and what to expect when asked to be interviewed."

There wasn't such a list—at least, not one based on surveys or recent data. But now we have the beginnings of one, based on the responses of the 218 journalists who participated. 

Afsarmanesh says the published results are preliminary and that in the coming month, Sense About Science will update its website with the complete survey results. Meanwhile, Afsarmanesh says she's happy to share the entire data set with anyone who's interested (sans the e-mail addresses of the respondents). Even better, she'll be in Cambridge on Monday 12 October and Tuesday 13 October, and says she's available to meet with ScienceWriters2015 attendees who may want to discuss the results and how else this data can be useful. She's at @nedasays on Twitter, and her e-mail address is neda@sensci.org

Wade Roush

10 Museum Way, Cambridge, MA, 02141, United States

Science and technology journalist based in San Francisco.