Sorry, this will be a text-only post. To make up for it there will be a pretty theropod picture at the bottom. Promise!
In the sadly late Douglas Adam‘s wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is one thing a field researcher for the H2G2 may never do: promise write-ups in exchange for money (e.g., payment in a bar). Obviously, they always do…. And who wouldn’t like a sympathetic write-up?
I, for one, do like them! It’s just that giving money or other favs isn’t the way to get them. And thus I have to earn them the hard way. And in Germany, this means that you don’t get very many, because our research institutions have been somewhat slow realizing that good science communication and PR are important. Not in the stupid “count the press releases” way, but rather in the “make sure that decision makes, direct and indirect, (funders, reviewers, government, voters) know about what we do, and why it matters”. But with limited to no support and guidance, “handling the press” doesn’t happen. If you’re lucky, you get no press. If you’re unlucky, they fuck you over. Only very rarely does the first contact between an innocent young researcher and a member of the press go well, if there is no pro present to avert damage.
OK, now I certainly don’t see myself as very inexperienced. Not very…. but still inexperienced. And I have had my share of bad press moments, for example when I had to call an editor to stop a closed-minded reporter from filing a story where he made up the answers to his questions himself, but ascribed them to me.
On the other hand, I have had good experiences, even if they were few and far between. Just now, my SVP talk (posts on it here, here and here) generated the latest entry on that list. And as promised in reply to a comment before, I will now name the reporter in question and relate the story how his article came about.
His name is Matt Kaplan, and he is a freelance writer often employed by Nature and The Economist. He is, as I gather from his bio and from the plethora of articles I found on the web in his name, quite experienced. Still, he came across as a somewhat stressed utterly normal guy, with a quick wit but way too little sleep.
Matt heard my talk at SVP, and later found me in the hall. He’d been emailing me, but the enormous fee the hotel charged meant that I didn’t have Internet – I refuse to be highway-robbed on a daily basis! Also, Matt used my museum email, which I did not check on the few occasions I was able to steal some bandwidth. When he finally got hold of me, Matt explained who he was, who he was working for, and why he wanted to talk to me, and about what. That was to me the first sign that he was made of The Real Stuff. People who just shove a Dictaphone at you and yell questions are not to be trusted. Those who give you info are usually a lot better.
And then Matt showed that he didn’t just know how to talk to people and and good questions, but that he really has a general grasp of the field he reports on. I do not expect journalists to be experts in the field they write about, that would be demanding a bit too much, unless they have a degree and some work experience in that field). But I do expect that they can smell a rat, if it is big, stinky and hairy to the fare thee well. And I expect them to know what the last few years’ big splash things in the field were. Matt was right on par, or maybe even above: he knew that the person to ask as “she said” (i.e., the inevitable “critical voice” in practically every media story) in my case was John R. Hutchinson. He didn’t know that John is one of the collaborators in my recent project, but that didn’t matter. Matt knew about John’s work, and from the way he talked about it I gather that he didn’t get this info from my talk, but knew it as a sort of “background info” on what was on in biomech of dinosaurs. And then he did the best and smartest thing you can do in such a situation: he got John and me to sit at one table with him (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Nature for lunch! it was very good!), and had us talk him through my idea and the research together. As a direct result, the level and tone of John’s criticism came across just right: he is very suspicious of the simplicity of my idea, and immediately had an idea of what could screw it – an idea, btw, that can be tested! That’s what’s called constructive criticism, and that’s one of the reasons I am glad to have John on board for my current project.
Now, as you can see from Matt’s website, he has a very diverse interest, and I was not surprised to learn that his training in biomechanics was not very extensive. However, he kept doing the most important thing a reporter can do: he listened! And in my previous experience, that is a thing many reporters can’t do very well. They suck up a fact here and an opinion there, then think themselves experts and rush off on tangents (or worse: total nonsense) without bothering to let you finish sentences when you try to correct their glaring errors. And then they turn around and write stuff that has you explaining to colleagues that “I never said that” for days or weeks. Been there, done that. All because of a mis-use of the human ear as a supporter for “intellectual” spectacles, instead of an auditory organ.
Now, listening is one thing, getting things right when you later write your article is another. Matt did a very smart thing by starting to write his thing while talking to us. He would read each sentence to John and me, and take our input, even ask us for the perfect phrase or wording. He wasn’t too proud to be corrected with regards to content, or have his style improved. And that’s really a big thing, as this means that his writer’s pride didn’t interfere with the quality of the article.
To top off his performance, Matt also made sure that I saw his final draft, and had time and opportunity to correct mistakes. The published article differs from it a bit, and I have had very bad experienced with editors screwing up stuff really really bad (so has Matt, it seems). In this case, however, all they did was turn a speedily written high-quality draft into a polished final article. No errors, no flaws. Me happy! I’ll shortly post on how easy it is to get this wrong. Believe me, it takes only two stations of Chinese whispers to stand what one says on its head, with a side order of made-up stuff added for free! Matt managed to get this article out with a hitch!
Matt, if you read this: Very well done, it was a real pleasure!
Oh, before I forget: here’s the theropod I promised!
Tachyerens ptenerens (Dinosauria: Theropoda) at the Berlin Tierpark Friedrichsfelde.
What, you’re not satisfied? Discontent, curmudgeonly, whining bastards!
OK, just to shut you up….
Tachyerens ptenerens (Dinosauria: Theropoda) at the Berlin Tierpark Friedrichsfelde again, this time flipping you the bird…. erhm, duck!