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Interviewing Skills: How to get great stories from scientists, researchers and health care professionals

Interviewing Skills: How to get great stories from scientists, researchers and health care professionals

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Last month, Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample said this about interviewing on his beat: "Consider how much trust your interviewees put in you. Misrepresent their work or opinions and you might as well not bother. An interesting story is a worthless story if the information is wrong."

Interview by Eelco Kruidenier

Indeed, interviewing scientists, researchers and health care professionals can be challenging. Reporters walk a fine line between representing their work accurately and applying appropriate, analytical skepticism. This week at Career GPS, we're discussing how to interview scientists, researchers and health care professionals to get great stories and solid health news to your readers. You can now find health media jobs and opportunities in a separate post by Kristen Natividad each week. Keep up with Career GPS posts and jobs via RSS or by bookmarking this page.

Tami Dennis, vice president of health content for Tribune Co. and member of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships advisory board, laments the often shallow presentation of studies and research in health news. She writes in email:

I'm continually frustrated by the lack of context in stories about particular researchers or doctors or developments. Too often, the stories are myopic, saying essentially: "Hey, this is being done!" They omit information that readers need to put that spine procedure or that finding about cancer risk or that data in perspective.

Interviewing skills - during, before and after the actual interview - can help solve this problem, Dennis wrote. She offered this advice:

Familiarize yourself with the context in which a scholar, researcher or doctor's work occurs. This seems obvious, but reporters, even specialized ones, can't be experts on all things, especially on deadline - and the true significance of an expert's work or opinion might not be readily apparent. Reporters can, and need to, take the time to understand the bigger picture. A scholar's paper, a doctor's procedure, a researcher's finding - none of these things occur in a vacuum. Each of them fits into an existing panorama.

Such understanding not only suggests to the expert being interviewed that you're to be taken seriously, it elevates the interview, getting the conversation to a deeper, more meaningful level more quickly.

Similarly, learn something about the expert and his or her potential agenda - plus the opinion of others in the field. This can ensure that you have the interview you truly need, not an interview with someone who will make your story seem ill-informed to those who know better. I've pulled sources from stories at the last minute because they weren't actually experts in the topic – they simply had marketing folks who'd billed them as such.

Perhaps most important, such diligence will ensure that the readers have perspective, that they've been given well-rounded, well-informed information that truly does tell them what they need to know.

Diligence, of course, has to be practical. What Los Angeles Times health and science specialists know, and often discuss, is how to put scientists' work in context and remain skeptical in the face of expertise.

If you're profiling individual doctors or scientists or their work, you need to know just how significant they and their efforts are, where it fits in. You can't simply accept their word that the work is important - nor their publicist's word. You also must explain to readers the way in which it's important.

Say you're highlighting the work of one researcher at a local university. You need to know – or rather, readers need to know – whether this individual effort is unique or whether it's part of a larger effort nationwide. This is crucial to readers' understanding of the topic. Such an approach warrants calls and pre-interviews – with other experts in the field outside the university.  Sometimes the work won't prove to be that of a scientist on the verge of curing a dreaded disease. That's fine. Work that simply advances our knowledge about an interesting topic is story-worthy as well. But readers need to know how to filter what you're sharing with them.

Or say you're profiling a relatively new procedure that a local doctor or hospital has begun to offer - and he or she is the only one in the area who does it. Readers need to know what other types of procedures are available and where this one fits in. They need to know whether this is truly cutting edge - or whether doctors in other parts of the state or country or nation have already moved on. For all readers know, there are newer, better or safer procedures, and the promotion of this one is a way to recoup some investment costs on the part of the hospital or physician.

If you're truly pressed for time and just looking for a third or fourth expert, do a quick Google search and filter the responses for reliable outlets and not-so-reliable outlets. If the expert is used by solid content providers that you trust, then that's a mark in his or her favor. If the expert is touted on websites that have only a passing acquaintance with reality, then that might be a mark against them.

There are no hard and fast rules. The point is: Do what you can. And don't assume you're getting a true assessment from your source. You may be getting an honest one, as he or she sees it, just not a true one.

Vincent Lim, editor at the USC Roybal Institute on Aging, specializes in creating content that bridges the gap between scholars and readers. (As an aside, the Roybal Institute has great daily news briefings and a weekly newsletter rounding up news, briefs and studies related to aging.) He writes in an email:

In doing background research, it's always helpful to read published research (if you're able to freely access it) by the scholar/scientist/doctor that you're interviewing. I've found that people like that others are reading their research, just like journalists and writers like that they're being read. It's also important to not be afraid to plead ignorance when you don't quite understand what a researcher is saying or you're unfamiliar with a technical term. As someone who has been to graduate school, I know that researchers can sometimes get caught up in speaking about particular concepts and using specific terms that are only familiar to those in the field.

After the interview, I've found it be helpful to follow up. I would also suggest recording the interview if possible. Some theoretical ideas are hard to digest the first time (or second, or third...) that you hear it. You might need to listen to the interview again to fully grasp it. In addition, it's important to keep in mind that some scholars are quite particular about their word choice, so you need to be careful about how you're using quotes. Their ideas aren't snatched out of thin air; they're based on years (or sometimes decades) of pain-staking, in-depth and detailed research.

Lim points to the case of The Sunday Times, which granted a rare apology to a climate scientist for misquoting him. Dennis' rules for quoting scientists are the same as her rules for quoting anyone: "A quote is a quote. A paraphrase is a paraphrase. If the former is too dense, go with the second."

Medical journalist Larry Husten, who writes CardioBrief, has a basic rule for interviewing: "My single best advice is to never pretend to know more than you actually know. If anything, pretend to know less than you actually know and don't be afraid to ask really basic questions."

What are your tips and questions about interviewing really smart people? Share in comments.

Photo by Eelco Kruidenier on Flickr.

Related Posts from Career GPS:

What does it take to be a good science writer?

Quick Tips for Better Journalism: Selections from a NewsU webinar

Back to Basics: Lifelong Writing

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