Journalist Becomes Source: What to Do When the Press Comes Calling

  Léelo en Español

A microphone with a pop filter attached sits in the foreground, in front of a blurry background.
Milan Markovic/iStock


It started out like any other pitch. Ayesha Tandon, an Oxford, U.K.–based science journalist at Carbon Brief, noticed distinct disparities among the identities of researchers writing high-profile climate science papers: They seemed to be mostly men, and mostly from institutions in North America and Europe. So, she set out to quantify the diversity within the field’s most influential studies, to get a more precise sense of the problem.

For a week, Tandon spent her evenings trawling through 100 frequently cited papers and documenting the gender and geographic location of more than 1,300 listed authors. Then she published an in-depth analysis of her findings in October 2021: A wide gender gap, and a stark lack of researchers from the Global South. [Disclosure: I am an editor at Carbon Brief, but I played no role in Tandon’s analysis.]

To broaden the impact of Tandon’s work, her editors suggested she pitch the analysis to the environment correspondent at BBC News. “I had no idea that you could do that,” Tandon confesses now. To her surprise, the outlet bit.

She couldn’t be sure what the interview would cover, so Tandon jotted down some thoughts on what she wanted to say and practiced answers to questions she thought the correspondent might ask. She took the call while pacing around her flat, stuffed up with a cold. Despite her nerves—and her congestion—it went smoothly. And all of a sudden, Tandon became a go-to source on the topic of diversity in climate science, appearing on a wide range of podcasts, webinars, and panel discussions in the subsequent months.

As Tandon discovered, talking to the press about your work is a great way to expand the reach of an important story. Many reporters also find that the experience helps them hone their interviewing skills and build empathy for their own sources. And while journalists are not experts in the same way that their sources might be, they are usually experts at communicating their beat, which can sometimes be more valuable to an audience.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of an interview request, taking time to prepare as Tandon did will help you maximize your impact—and minimize your jitters. But the most important thing is to “maintain your own excitement” about or interest in the topic at hand, says Casey Grove, the host of Alaska News Nightly, an Alaska Public Media audio program. “What you want is for people to engage with what you’re talking about.”


Responding to Requests

It might seem backwards at first for a journalist to receive an interview request, but those wanting to speak with journalists are often seeking a certain kind of expertise. A reporter tends to have “a 50,000-foot view of things,” says Brit Hanson, a Washington, DC–based producer at NPR’s Short Wave, a high-output science podcast that often interviews journalists about recent stories they’ve written. Because that person will have put in the legwork talking to a range of experts and synthesizing information, interviewing them can be a safer bet for a short segment than speaking to a single expert. And a journalist’s skill at weaving a narrative that listeners “can sink their teeth into” can help translate tricky topics in a way that an expert might not be able to, Hanson adds.

Similarly, Grove often interviews other journalists to streamline his reporting process. When he needs to cover the Alaska State Legislature, for example, it doesn’t make sense for him to make the nearly 600-mile plane trip to the capital in Juneau from his home base in Anchorage. Instead, Grove interviews people who have done that reporting from the ground. The approach saves time and money—especially important for a broadcast outlet with fewer resources—and honors the work that those journalists have already done, Grove says. In some cases, he adds, they “are just so steeped in what they’re reporting on” that they’re almost subject-matter experts themselves.

Consider the possible risks of extra exposure. Putting yourself out there as a more visible public figure—especially if you cover troll-attracting topics, such as the climate or the COVID-19 pandemic—can open you up to online abuse.

Receiving an interview request from another journalist can be flattering, and it provides a good way to increase the exposure of your own work. But always take a minute to evaluate the opportunity. Weigh the time and effort involved against the potential benefits to your story and to your career. Unpaid appearances like these come with opportunity costs for freelancers in particular, because they take time away from work that makes money.

You also want to make sure that you’re the right person to speak about a topic, without overselling your expertise. That’s easiest to determine when you have a clear idea of what an outlet is looking for, and why their producer or reporter wants to talk to you, specifically, says Fermín Koop, a Buenos Aires–based regional editor at Diálogo Chino, which covers the environment and the relationship between China and Latin America. Ask follow-up questions and do a little reporting, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the outlet. Sometimes outlets just ask Koop to “speak about climate change,” as opposed to interviewing him about one of his articles. That usually results in a more superficial segment, he says, though he often still accepts. In cases where Koop feels he’s not the right fit, he tries to suggest more appropriate candidates.

Consider, too, the possible risks of extra exposure. Putting yourself out there as a more visible public figure—especially if you cover troll-attracting topics, such as the climate or the COVID-19 pandemic—can open you up to online abuse. People of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women, and others with marginalized identities often face the brunt of these attacks. If the risks seem too great, remember that these appearances aren’t required. There’s no harm in staying behind the scenes and letting your reporting speak for itself, if that’s your preference. “I like writing because I can edit myself,” says Betsy Ladyzhets, a freelance science, health, and data journalist based in New York City. While Ladyzhets does appear regularly in the media to talk about her work on COVID-19, she adds that some people “just like being bylines,” and that’s okay.


Preparing for the Interview

If you do accept a request, you should put in some time to prepare for the interview—just as you would if you were the one asking the questions. Plan out your key talking points, and organize your notes for quick reference. Tandon divides a sheet of paper into thirds, with each section devoted to one of the major questions she’s used to hearing: What is the problem? How does your story cover it? And what is the solution? She writes down key themes she wants to get across in each section, and as the interview goes on, she makes sure that she’s hitting each section at least once. “As long as you’ve covered some points from each box, you know you’ve got a coherent storyline.”

To make sure her appearances go smoothly, Tandon also keeps a document on her computer full of go-to statistics, answers to common questions, and engaging anecdotes. Ladyzhets does something similar, compiling juicy quotes from experts that she might want to sprinkle into her interview. Aleida Rueda, a Mexico City–based science journalist, meanwhile, prefers to write out the things she wants to say in full sentences, and bolds the critical points. When she does video interviews, she keeps the document up on her computer screen to avoid breaking eye contact to look down at her notebook.

No matter how much you prepare, at some point, you will probably face a question that you can’t answer.

Preparing for a live recording takes a little more finesse, says Koop. Without the benefit of after-the-fact editing or redoing a fumbled take, you’ll want to make much more rigorous and specific notes, to be sure you touch on the most crucial points. Since those interviews are usually quite brief, you really need to “use time properly,” Koop says—making sure that you’re hammering home your key messages and avoiding time-wasting tangents.

Journalists can also prep their surroundings for delivering high-quality audio or video recordings. It “wouldn’t hurt” to invest in good recording equipment such as an external microphone, Grove says, especially if you find yourself on the receiving end of interviews often. But even if you’re not ready to shell out extra money, “a little bit of extra setup” can go a long way, he says.

If you don’t have a microphone, you’ll get better sound quality by recording your side of the conversation using something like iPhone’s Voice Memos app and sending the audio file to your interviewer, than you would recording over Zoom. Soften your surroundings with sound-absorbing materials—whether that means drawing the curtains, putting your laptop on top of a book rather than an echoey surface, or building yourself a pillow fort. Even facing your chair into a closet full of clothes can help with audio quality.

If you plan to record by holding your phone up to your ear or with an earbud-style headset, Hanson suggests removing earrings to prevent clicking and scratching noises. Try to minimize background noise by turning off fans and silencing notifications on your phone and computer. Rueda says she tries to schedule appearances during hours when street noises are quieter. For video interviews, find your Wi-Fi signal sweet spot and spend some time thinking about how your background will appear on camera.


Fielding Questions

No matter how much you prepare, at some point, you will probably face a question that you can’t answer—or one that strays outside the scope of your reporting. It’s “definitely fine” to ask the interviewer to move on in some cases, Koop says. But it’s better to say something, even if it’s just to explain that the question is beyond your research and point the interviewer towards an expert who might be able to offer an answer.

As an added benefit, overcoming your nerves and facing a microphone gives you a feel for what your own sources might experience.

You can also borrow a tactic from politicians, and answer the question you want to answer, rather than the one that’s been asked. The trick is to “nod to the question,” Tandon says, and then segue to one of your own key points. Figuring out how to pivot gets easier with practice, Rueda adds: It’s a “talent” to make someone feel like you are answering their question when you’re not.

If you start to feel flustered, whether it’s from an out-of-left-field question or just the red recording light staring you down, remember to breathe. Tandon suggests taking a deep breath before answering each question to slow yourself down, even if the words come to you right away. And while hearing yourself talk might feel terrible in the moment, Grove says that, on tape, “it’s not going to come across later as awkward as it might have felt.”

As an added benefit, overcoming your nerves and facing a microphone gives you a feel for what your own sources might experience. Going through the process several times has helped Ladyzhets appreciate “how hard it is to come up with really nice pithy quotes in the moment,” she says. As a result, she has more empathy for nervous sources.

The more you serve as a source, the easier you may begin to find it. Once you start appearing in segments and stories, there can be a bit of a “snowball effect,” Koop says. As people begin to recognize you and remember your name, more are likely to seek you out. At the same time, you don’t always have to wait for someone to find you. In fact, pitching yourself as a source for an outlet like Short Wave makes life much easier for producers, Hanson says. Just like a regular pitch, you can email a producer and lay out what makes your story interesting and why you’re the person to tell it. If it covers a timely topic, that’s always a bonus. And though promoting yourself can feel uncomfortable, producers love to hear from people who are excited about stuff, Hanson says. “Whatever you need to do to hype yourself up to send us an email or whatever, do that. Be proud of your work.”


Giuliana Viglione Courtesy of Giuliana Viglione

Giuliana Viglione is a Washington, DC–based science and climate journalist. She is currently an editor at Carbon Brief, where she leads the team’s coverage of food, land use, and biodiversity, and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Nature, Chemical & Engineering News, Gizmodo, Discover, and other outlets, and she was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at King 5 News. Giuliana earned her PhD in oceanography at Caltech, where she co-founded the science communication outlet Caltech Letters. She is happiest on a boat or reading a book, and preferably doing both at the same time. Follow her on Twitter @GAViglione.

Skip to content