Article: How to Summarize Your Science to the Media to Minimize Misinterpretation

Many of us worry that sharing our science with the media opens us up to misinterpretation, particularly by overrepresenting our findings. Indeed, the media tries to draw readers, listeners, or viewers in, and some will stop at little to do so. Simultaneously, we focus on not overstating our work and respecting the limitations of our analyses, but the ways we present our work are less enticing than the unfounded bold claims that usually take the limelight. While we cannot prevent these mismatches from happening entirely, here are 9 ways that you hold the power in sharing your work and doing your best to reduce the risk of misinterpretation.

1. The first step to sharing your science with the media is often determining the best outlet for doing so. Sometimes, it will be sharing through a platform like Twitter. This is often best if you are sharing a link to a recent publication and want to include a Twitter thread to summarize the main findings in a way that is easily understandable at an 8th grade level. Other ways to connect with the media and lay audiences is through having a phone call with a reporter. This can be done both through soliciting your feedback, often prompted by an article you published, or by pitching yourself to them and letting them know of your expertise to place them on your radar. In either case, remember to communicate your science at about an 8th grade level so that it's easy to understand your findings.

2. It is always a good idea to ask for the interview questions ahead of time so that you have time to prepare eloquent and thoughtful responses. Especially if you are new to interacting with reporters, you may feel calmed by your preparation. Also, some institutions may require you to gain approval of your responses before speaking with the press, so check your institution’s or organization’s policies. Once you receive the questions, sketch out answers and consider running them by a colleague. Better yet, share them with a lay person or someone from the intended audience of the resulting work. Know that they may ask additional questions based on your responses. Unless you’re on a live recording, do not hesitate to take a moment to think through your answer before you begin speaking. Finally, always ask to review the article or quotes from your interview (they may not want to share the whole piece) before it goes to press. Most outlets will allow you to correct the author’s summary of your statements, but a few may not allow you to modify direct quotes. You can clarify these policies before providing any comments if you prefer.

3. Lately, news outlets will often ask interview questions by email. If they don’t send questions by email and you would prefer to answer their questions this way because you are nervous or new to speaking with the media, you can indicate that answering questions by email will allow you to respond more quickly (which is usually what the journalists need).

4. You already have some practice with summarizing your science, in the form of the abstract, the first paragraph of the discussion section, and the conclusion paragraph. Re-read these sections of your manuscript to remember the most important takeaway points.

5. Your institution or organization most likely has an internal communications or media relations department. Let them know before your paper is published that you have new work coming out that will be high impact and potentially of popular/community interest. These trained professionals may be available to draft a press release. These individuals have specific training in working with scientists to fairly represent your work. This can help you control the narrative and get ahead of the game of telephone that happens when science is discussed in the media.

6. Rather than run the risk of the public or media misinterpreting your work, get ahead of them with public-facing digests to translate your research jargon into concise take-away points. We recommend a multi-pronged approach to controlling the narrative. You can do this by developing a lay summary that describes your research as if you were talking to a neighbor. Another strategy is to break this down into an expanded abstract for social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, where there will be a combination of professionals and non-scientists reading about your work. Images help to catch the attention of social media users, so developing an infographic to accompany the expanded abstract might be a good way to stop the scrolling and leave viewers with clear points to share. Whatever you choose to do, have a peer give you feedback on the infographic or lay summary draft before you post to ensure the messages are clear and the narrative is consistent. 

7. Be honest about what you don’t know…but don’t harp on it. Media will often go to an outside expert to think about limitations of your study. The goal and focus for you should be to center yourself in your expertise and pivot questions to address what you want to communicate. You can always indicate limitations of your own knowledge or expertise while still pivoting back to what you DO know.

8. If you’re asked to comment on another study (which happens!) assess your competency to weigh in (e.g., talk about the science where you can and decline to comment where you cannot). This is where asking for the interview questions ahead of time can be your greatest asset. If you are not the right person for the job (or the whole job), reach out to an SBM SIG Chair or the SBM staff for assistance in finding a better source, and then give their email to the reporter. The perfect source is likely a fellow SBM member!

9. Your internal media communications department may also help you with preparing for a media interview, from pre-screening the media outlet and topic of discussion (e.g., to let you know if it’s a “friendly” interview), to providing you with tips to deal with their questions. You can even ask them to be present in the interview with you. This provides a great opportunity for your internal communication office to better know your work and expertise, and sometimes, they might want to do a separate news story with you!