May 23, 2016

Sources make — or break — stories. Reliable sources can become journalists’ guides into complicated stories and help them build credibility among subject matter experts. Here are some guidelines to conducting interviews with scientists that can help you gather accurate information and cultivate relationships with reliable sources.

  • Preparation is essential: Science interviews shouldn’t be cold calls. Take 15 minutes before the interview to review your sources’ backgrounds and potential biases. Know enough about your topic to ask a few key questions, even if one of those questions is: How would you explain this topic to a sixth-grader?
  • Clearly explain the interview process and your story to your sources. Scientists may be brilliant, but they also may not know how different journalism is from their own world of publications, which are months, if not years, in the making.
  • Confirm that your sources understand what “on the record” and “off the record” mean. Make sure they understand that they are talking with you on the record. If they have explicit concerns about speaking on the record, address those concerns up front so you are cleared to use all the information they provide.
  • Pick a good location. Find a place where there is minimal distraction and high comfort for your sources. Your studio may not be convenient for them and may make them nervous. Visit their labs or offices instead.
  • Repeat answers or summarize them to your sources to confirm that you accurately understand what your sources are saying, what it means and why it matters to your audience.
  • Ask pointed questions: “Can you put this in perspective for my audience members?” or “How will this finding/story/research impact their lives?”
  • Listen with an open mind and without being stuck in your own agenda. Respond to what the source says in response to your questions; don’t just forge ahead into new and different topics because you are sticking to your list of questions. Your sources know when you genuinely listen and want to learn.

Taken from Whose Truth? Tools for Smart Science Journalism in the Digital Age, a self-directed course by Elissa Yancey at Poynter NewsU.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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