Facing down my first story idea as a science journalist, I knew the first step was to email researchers and set up interviews. But after spending years at the lab bench myself, I knew firsthand that scientists juggle many demands on their time. So, to grab their attention, my email had to hit all the marks while also being courteous. And especially because I had yet to secure an assignment, I wanted to be extra sure that my request wouldn’t get lost in the noise.
An effective interview request should pique the source’s interest, explain who you are, and convey what you’re looking for and when you need it. From the subject line to the sign-off, a strategic approach to what you say and how you say it can increase the chances that your source will read your message and agree to an interview.
Crafting a Clear, Effective Email
The subject line is the first thing a potential source will see, so make the intent clear. Ariana Remmel, a freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas, recommends starting with something along the lines of “Media inquiry:” followed by the publication name and a short summary of the story topic. Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, says that as a frequent recipient of media inquiries, she finds it’s most important that the subject line clearly indicates the email contains an interview request from a journalist for a relevant topic. Other information, such as the name and prestige of the publication, for example, doesn’t affect whether she opens the email or not.
When the deadline looms close or when you’re writing a breaking news story, writing “TIME SENSITIVE” in all caps in the subject line can be helpful. However, use this tactic sparingly, reserving it for when you need a response within a few hours.
Figuring out the right salutation is more complicated than people think, says Katherine J. Wu, who covers science for The Atlantic. Cultural context is important: opening with “Hi” followed by the person’s name might be acceptable in the U.S. but can come across as rude in other countries, she says. In those cases, consider using “Hello,” “Greetings,” or “Dear” instead.
Which prefix to use may also vary with geography. Professors in the U.S. are often fine with being called Dr., but “in many parts of Europe, people may be offended if you don’t address them as Prof. Dr. [last name],” Wu says. And when you’re unsure if someone has a doctorate, referring to them as Dr. regardless might be a safer choice than not.
Finally, Wu says, she avoids using gendered prefixes such as Ms. or Mr.—or even Mx., as not all nonbinary people use that prefix. When using Prof. or Dr. is not appropriate, simply “Dear [first name last name],” may be a better option.
The first element in the body of an interview-request email should introduce the journalist and, if for a specific assignment, the publication. One sentence that describes the publication’s audience and focus (with a link to its website) and that provides some basic information about your experience (and again, including a link to your website if you have one) should suffice. This information helps scientists figure out the kind of work you and the publication do, says Bruce Macintosh, an astrophysicist at Stanford University. This is especially useful if the media outlet might be unfamiliar—a new, small, or specialized outlet, for example, or a local or regional publication that’s not in the scientist’s geographic area—or if it might be hard to find in a quick internet search, such as if it uses a common word (like Spectrum or Prism) as a name.
For a freelancer who hasn’t yet secured an assignment, it’s fine to omit an outlet name or just explain that you’re planning to pitch a story to whatever publication you have in mind. It can also be helpful to mention outlets that you’ve written for in the past, as a way of establishing your bona fides. But a journalist should never contact a potential source under false pretenses, says Dan Garisto, a freelance journalist based in Long Island, New York, who covers physics. You shouldn’t say you’re working for a certain publication unless you at least have a tacit verbal confirmation, Garisto says.
Reason for Contact
Next, clearly state why you’re interested in talking to the scientist. Are you writing a news story on one of their recent research papers or seeking a conversation about a broader scope of work for a feature story? If you’re looking for an outside comment on a newly published paper from another research group, say so in the email while linking to or attaching the PDF of the paper.
If the paper you’re covering is under an embargo, you should carefully consider the following scenarios before sending the paper to a prospective outside commenter. Attaching the PDF with your first email while emphasizing the embargo might give the recipient a chance to read, helping them assess whether they’re the right person to comment. However, there is a chance for the person to not honor the embargo, which could get you into trouble. Getting an explicit agreement on the embargo before sending the PDF might be safer, but the email exchange might delay the actual interview, and the researcher might say no to the interview request just because they couldn’t tell the context of the paper. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide based on how risk-averse you are.
Make your inquiry specific, Wu suggests. Instead of saying “I’m working on a story about vaccines,” it’s better to ask about the history of mRNA vaccines and why we haven’t had one in widespread use before, she says. This demonstrates a depth of thought about the subject and can give the source a flavor of the interview they might expect. Even when you’re sending out multiple requests, tailoring your email for each recipient’s expertise may boost your chances of getting a response. “The best way to get me to write you back is to ask me questions that I can’t resist answering,” Hodcroft says.
Outlining a specific line of questioning in the email also helps the scientist decide if the request is a good fit. “Every once in a while, I say no [to interview requests], just because I don’t feel like I could speak effectively to the topic that they’re looking to talk about,” says Maureen Long, a geophysicist at Yale University.
Sometimes, a scientist may be nervous about speaking to a journalist—maybe they’ve never talked to one before or have had a previous bad experience. You can put a potential source more at ease by explaining what your story is going to be about and your reasons for contacting them, to show that you’re not “just fishing for some dumb, spicy quote,” Garisto says.
Finally, your request should include your deadline or other time constraints. Keep in mind that scientists may not be familiar with the pace of journalism, which can be very different from research timeframes. Focus on when you need to talk to the source rather than when the story is due.
If you’re on a tight deadline, give a specific cutoff date or time for the interview in the email. If you’re on a longer deadline, loosely suggesting “sometime this week” or “in the next two weeks” should suffice. If your availability is limited, state “weekday mornings work best” or name certain days, suggests Harini Barath, a freelance journalist in Hanover, New Hampshire, who mainly covers the life sciences.
To smooth the scheduling process, Hodcroft says it’s crucial for journalists to mention their time zone in their email. This makes it easier for her to propose a time that’s reasonable for both parties and reduces the number of emails. Another approach is to convert your availability into the recipient’s time zone and include that in the email, says Remmel.
Getting a Response
Once you’ve crafted your email, the next thing to think about is when to send it. Many scientists don’t mind receiving emails outside of typical business hours, as long as the journalist doesn’t get upset when the scientists don’t respond immediately. That said, you can plan when you want your email to arrive, keeping time zones in mind. Each scientist may have time windows when they are more, or less, likely to respond to an email. So, “do you want to be in their inbox when they wake up in the morning? Or do you want to wait till 11:00 [a.m.] when they’ve cleared out their backlog, [so that] you’ll stand out?” Macintosh asks.
When your initial email goes unanswered, a follow-up note is always a good idea. The initial silence shouldn’t be taken as a rejection—it more likely means your email got buried in the recipient’s inbox.
How soon to follow up usually depends on the deadline. For a news story due in two or three days, Remmel says they follow up on an unanswered email the next morning, even if it’s been less than 24 hours. For a feature story with a deadline a month or more away, you might wait a few days to a week to follow up.
If your inbox is still quiet and your deadline is fast approaching, it might be time to pick up the phone. Daily newspaper reporters are often encouraged to cold-call or text even in lieu of an initial email. But journalists I spoke to say they usually save these tactics for sources with whom they are familiar. “Even then, I’ll usually try and send a text first,” to see if the source is available for a call, says Wu.
Sometimes, the source might feel the urge to pick up the phone first. This is why it’s always a good idea to include your phone number in your emails, Hodcroft says. She appreciates being able to call the journalist herself if she suddenly finds a 15-minute window in her schedule.
It’s also a good idea to email multiple potential sources simultaneously. “I used to do a linear thing where I would have maybe two or three names, and I would email one person and wait for their response, and then write to the next person,” Barath says. “I learned very quickly that that was very inefficient.” This practice also risks leaving you with no sources, too late in the game.
Beyond the Initial Emails
At times, despite your best efforts, you just may not be able to connect with a source that you desperately want—whether that be the sole author of a paper or a key outside commenter in a niche field. When that happens, the best thing to do is to communicate with your editor, says Richard Sima, a freelance science journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. The editor may be able to suggest other sources or identify ways to shift the story angle, or might even—if a source is indispensable—decide to kill the story.
In general, the more sources you can talk with, the better. But if you find yourself with more positive responses than you need for a given story, consider turning some of them down with a note of thanks and explanation. As long as the journalist explains the reason for a cancellation, Hodcroft says she won’t be offended. She has many demands on her time, and a journalist needn’t keep an appointment just to be polite.
It’s also important to be mindful of others’ time, especially for those who may be managing many responsibilities. “I think a lot of women and people who do not identify as male are so overstretched,” Wu says. Even if a person’s minority status isn’t visible, “you have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors,” Remmel says.
And remember that even a rejected request or canceled interview can bolster a connection with a potential source. When turning down sources due to a time crunch, Sima says he always leaves the door open for future interactions. That connection can pave the way for a quick response to your next email.
Karen Kwon is an associate editor at Optics & Photonics News and a master’s degree student in New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She was a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Scientific American and has a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University. Her words have appeared in Scientific American, Inside Science, IEEE Spectrum, and more. Follow her on Twitter @ykarenkwon.