Being able to interview scientists well, from finding the right sources, to researching the subject, to dealing with interviewees’ concerns, is a basic part of science journalism. Even seasoned reporters sometimes struggle with this challenge. But being able to get the best from interviews is vital for the success of your story.
Not everyone has the same approach to preparing and carrying out researcher interviews. While some writers always prepare detailed question lists, others prefer to have freer, but still structured, conversations. Some share questions with sources before speaking to them. Others avoid giving specifics at all costs, sharing general themes instead.
But all agree that preparation is key. You do not need to become an expert on the topic you’re interviewing about. But you need to find out enough to understand what you don’t know, so you can ask the best questions of your interviewee.
Improving your interviewing skills is a win-win. A great conversation not only maximizes your chances of getting the information you need and drawing out narrative details and quotes that take your article to the next level, but it can also help build scientists’ communication skills and trust, reassuring them that taking time to talk to journalists is worthwhile.
Find the Right Scientist
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding sources for science stories. Many science writers use a combination of methods to identify the best researchers to approach. These methods include scanning relevant scientific papers (including the reference sections) to find other scientists working in the field; searching databases such as PubMed, Google Scholar, and ScienceDirect; drawing on their personal and professional networks; working with public information officers; and trawling for contacts on Twitter.
Red flags include indications that an individual has been involved in scandals, has a history of making unsupported claims or of using scientific methods not approved by their peers, or is selling something or has some other conflict of interest.
Once she has found a researcher she may want to contact, Nigerian freelance journalist Shola Lawal checks online to see what they’ve done in the past and analyzes how that relates to her own story. She also tries to get a sense of how the researcher is regarded within their field. Having a history of collaborations with other researchers, serving as a journal reviewer, or winning prizes can indicate that a source is solid, Lawal says. You can usually find this kind of information on a researcher’s university page, LinkedIn or ResearchGate profile, Twitter account, or CV, if it is online.
Red flags include indications that an individual has been involved in scandals such as scientific fraud or sexual harassment, has a history of making unsupported claims or of using scientific methods not approved by their peers, or is selling something or has some other conflict of interest. Talking to other researchers in the same field and searching online can help turn up these issues.
Lawal also avoids experts who have been quoted multiple times. Instead, she looks for people who have done relevant work but haven’t had much media exposure, to avoid getting the same quotes as other journalists.
Like Lawal, Sarah Wild, a freelance science journalist based in South Africa and the U.K., is careful about seeking out scientists who are frequently in the news. “[I] ask myself what they aim to achieve by being so readily available for comment,” she says. It may simply be that they care about their science being portrayed correctly—or it could be that they are pushing an agenda of their own.
Sometimes, an expert has a lot of media coverage because they are the only person who can answer certain questions—this might be the case, for example, for the director of a leading research group in a specific country. But if you have to interview a source that has already been featured heavily in the media, then make sure you look for additional interviewees too.
It is important to avoid quoting the same voices over and over again for another reason—doing so tends to exacerbate the lack of diversity in scientific sources included in media stories. As awareness grows around the need to include all types of people in journalism, so does the number of resources available to help journalists find them.
One way that Sarah Kaplan, a climate reporter at The Washington Post, holds herself accountable is by trying to make sure that her reporting reflects the “true diversity of people working in the sciences and affected by science policies,” she says. “I ask scientists, especially those I have a good relationship with, ‘Who else in your field is good and doesn’t get quoted enough, and deserves to be spotlighted?’”
Wild also says she prioritizes getting greater diversity into her reporting. “There are Black astronauts, there are Black female scientists, there are queer or nonbinary people who also should be heard,” Wild says. “It just takes effort to find [them].” It’s important to make that effort, she says. “If we keep talking to the same people over and over again, we are putting the mouthpiece of the media into the hands of a few, and doing a disservice to our readers.”
Do Your Prep
Once you’ve found a source and scheduled an interview, then you must prepare yourself. It is essential to read up on a scientist’s work before an interview, but precisely how you do this depends on how much time you have and the type of story you’re reporting.
If she’s covering a single study for an article, Kaplan always reads the text of the study, usually with highlighter in hand so she can quickly mark up crucial or particularly interesting parts. When writing a profile, Kaplan reads other writing about her subject, to figure out what they’ve said in the past and to try to come up with a new approach for her story.
After your reading is done, it is time to prepare questions. The kind you want to ask will vary depending on your assignment. For a straightforward news story, Mia Malan, editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa, an independent health-journalism publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa, asks the basic journalism questions—the who, what, where, when, why, and how—as well as questions specific to the angle she is taking for the piece.
For narrative features, she chooses questions that, she hopes, will produce answers that she can use for color. For example, she says, if an interviewee talks about something that happened on a specific day, she will ask what the weather was like, what time of day it was, or how they felt, so she can weave those details into the story. Other classic interview questions that are useful for features and news stories alike include those that focus on why a scientist is interested in a particular question, what the broader implications for the research are, and what has proven surprising or challenging to them so far.
A journalist’s lack of scientific expertise can be an asset.
One constant for Malan is the need to write detailed questions. “It is important to come prepared and to not waste someone’s time,” she says. Preparing thoughtful questions makes it easier to get usable facts and quotes from an interview, she says, and lessens the risk that the conversation will veer off in “random” directions.
Kaplan always writes out a list of questions before talking to a source so that she can refer to it and make sure she does not forget anything. “If I’m feeling nervous about the interview—if it’s a really important person, or I think the conversation might be confrontational—I will devote extra time to research so I can feel really confident about my grasp on the subject,” she says.
In some situations, a journalist’s lack of scientific expertise can be an asset, notes Kaplan. The fact that you are not deeply embedded in a particular field of research makes you a better representative of the reader and ensures you’ll ask the questions your readers would ask. “I try to remember that if I don’t understand something, the reader won’t either,” she says. “And I try to be up front about what I don’t know.”
It’s natural to be nervous when interviewing. Knowing that a tense interviewer can make for a tense scientist, Lawal treats doing interviews like talking to a long-lost friend and tries to relax herself first. “Enjoy the interview process,” she says. “If you keep thinking interview, interview, that will make it a bit intimidating—take it easy!”
Wild finds that following a question list tends to make her interviews feel stilted and forced, so she prefers to treat interviews as a guided conversation. “Interviews need focus because, while I’m listening, I’m also actively being curious about what they are saying, and thinking about how that fits into the story I’m writing and the questions that I’d hoped that they would answer,” she says. At the end of an interview she checks if there is anything she has left out.
Ruona Meyer, a Nigerian investigative journalist and Africa initiative manager at the Solutions Journalism Network currently based in Germany (and moving to Abuja, Nigeria, in May) advises journalists to record interviews and transcribe them afterwards so that they can concentrate on listening in the moment. She also recommends noting down anything that sources mention during the interview that you want to follow up on before you finish.
“Probe deeper and ask follow-up questions when the interviewee says something that raises another question,” she says. That could be an answer that includes something you need clarification on, or when the source says something that contradicts what they or other researchers have said before.
The number of questions to prepare depends on how much time the interviewee has available. “For a 30-minute interview, I would ask about 10 questions,” Meyer says. If she thinks that her time might be cut short, then she prepares a shorter list.
Anticipate Scientists’ Requests
Often sources ask journalists to send questions in advance of an interview. It’s easy to understand why people want to go into interviews prepared—no one likes to be caught flat-footed. But sending verbatim questions or committing to sticking strictly to a script can be problematic.
“I don’t want them to give me planned answers or write their answers and just read them out to me during the interview,” Kaplan says. “The point of an interview for me is to have room for serendipity and connection. You don’t get that if people have already planned out everything they’re going to say.”
Although she’s usually willing to give sources a general sense of the topic she wants to explore, she’s generally resistant to sending questions to her sources before interviews.
It can help allay scientists’ fears if you run through the editorial process briefly early on with them.
Still, it’s reasonable for sources to request some advance notice of what ground the reporter hopes to cover. “Often, sources ask for questions to make them feel secure, so I give them a few,” says Malan. “I also make it clear that I [will] ask them follow-up questions during the interview.”
Meyer has a similar approach. “What I do is, I’m vague,” she says. “I will frame the questions in a way that is introductory and will not send specific questions.”
Most science journalists have, at some point, been asked by interviewees if they can review their own quotes before a story is published—and sometimes they even ask to see the entire piece. This is a sticky issue. Often, such requests come from an understandable fear of being misquoted or having something incorrect attributed to them. It can help allay scientists’ fears if you run through the editorial process briefly early on with them, including details of how the piece will be fact-checked.
Different publications have different rules on sharing quotes, so you should check with your editor what the policy is. Some, including Bhekisisa, allow reporters to check scientists’ quotes with them. “That’s one of our ethical practices,” Malan says. It’s done to ensure accuracy and build trusting relationships with sources.
Many publications prohibit reporters from sharing quotes directly but will allow reporters or fact-checkers to paraphrase quotes to a source, often over the phone. Others forbid sharing unpublished material, including quotes, in any form, to prevent sources from having any influence over the finished piece. Being ready for the question will help you handle it in the right way if it comes up.
Doing your utmost to find the right scientist and then preparing fully will give you the best chance of getting what you need from an interview. Ultimately, though, there is no formula to predict if a particular researcher is going to make a good interviewee or have all the information that you need. As journalists, that’s something we need to accept. “I’ve had interviews that yielded nothing,” says Wild. “It happens, and you move on to the next person on your interview list.”
Abdullahi Tsanni is a science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and is currently a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has reported on science, health, agriculture, and biotechnology issues in Nigeria for publications including Nature, AllAfrica, Cornell Alliance for Science, Nigeria Health Watch, and African Newspage, among others. He works as a volunteer with Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network, and has a degree in biochemistry. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni.