As a scientist and a soon-to-be citizen journalist, each story you craft has to be more than a series of facts but also an engaging and accurate depiction of the truth. Your source of information should always include referenced facts and figures, but also including first-person accounts from scientists you meet at conferences, seminars, or at a local pub can add depth to your writing. Perspectives and insights gained from interviews are great for empowering you to tell your story and can help drive important research questions. And just like the journalist whose task it is to filter out someone’s opinion from a bona fide fact, so too must scientists learn how to talk to people in order to learn the facts and perspectives that are relevant for telling a science story.
I had the opportunity to interview four researchers from our institute this summer and was able to see the power of interviewing with and listening to researchers from fields other than my own. Talking to someone in an interview format is a terrifying prospect, but by approaching the conversation with an open and curious mind, I found that I learned more from the experience than the simple facts and figures I took home with me. In a post-truth world, the connections we make with people as we search for truth and understanding will continue to become as important as the data and the figures that we make to tell our story.
But let’s start out simple: What is an interview? Simply put, an interview is an opportunity to ask specific questions and receive answers, with the primary purpose being to get quotes, facts, insights, and to build a relationship with your interviewee. An interview is more formal than a casual conversation over coffee, just like how a job interview is more formalized than talking to someone at a conference about a job at their company. An interviewee is put on the spot to answer specific questions, and an interviewer is tasked with asking good questions, listening to responses, and collecting everything for analysis at a later date. It’s an intense process on both sides, and one that involves more than a simple series of questions and answers.
In the world of journalism, there are two types of interview styles. In a collaborative interview, your subject is willing to or very keen on telling a story. Your aim and theirs are the same: you both want to convey facts to the public and share their story for a specific purpose, such as making an audience more aware of a topic or sharing a new research finding. This is the most common type of interview you’ll be doing as a science communicator/citizen science journalist. Alternatively, an adversarial interview is when the interviewee is held to account on a topic while the subject is challenged to provide answers on something he or she might not want to answer. Perhaps if you stray into a controversial topic about someone’s research you might engage in this type of interviewing style, but for the most part working with other scientists there’s no need to put them in the hot seat.
There are also different types of questions you can ask at an interview. Open questions such as How does PCR work? or Why is your research important? are questions that put the power in the hands of the subject. These types of questions allow you to find out what the subject knows in a more open manner, especially related to things you don’t have any prior knowledge about. The disadvantage here is that it can allow your subject to ramble on about something beyond relevancy—leaving you to either intervene or to let them carry on while taking time from other questions.
Closed questions such as Did the new experiment work? or Were the findings statistically significant? can be answered very simply with a yes/no/short explanation, but the subject can also expand upon the answer if they feel like adding more. Closed questions give the interviewer the control and can enable you to focus on a topic and bring a discussion to a point, but it also limits what you hear—with these types of questions, you can’t find additional answers beyond what you’re asking or what you know about already.
No questions are an interesting approach I learned about in the citizen journalism Coursera course. It’s quite literally a question that’s actually a statement (I really don’t see the importance of that), and sometimes it’s not anything more than a Really?, Honestly?, or even just a period of silence from you. It can open up the subject for a reply, as people tend to want to fill the silence. It’s a way to get people to say things without a specific question preceding it. If you’re doing a collaborative interview you likely won’t need these types of approaches, but if you do run into someone that’s not providing a lot of feedback, this is one way to go about getting answers.
Interviewing as a journalist also means adhering to a code of ethics regarding consent and deception. Rules will vary internationally but in general they require you to identify yourself and your employer before an interview, to use fair and honest ways of obtaining materials for a story, and to never exploit a person’s vulnerability. Scientists working on science writing and communication activities should also strive to adhere to similar types of guidelines: be upfront about who you are and the purpose of your work, the intended output/audience, and be cautious when trying to sell a “breaking story” on research that hasn’t been published yet.
The formal definition of deception is to make people believe what we ourselves do not. This involves nefarious ways of developing empathy with a subject that are done under a false pretense or changing the story once new facts come in without your subject being on board. The rules on deception and entrapment are complicated for journalism, but as with the rule above: be clear about what you’re doing and be honest about what your goals are.
Prior consent means obtaining permission from a subject to interview them, including any media materials (like photos or videos) that you’ll collect for your story. Your University or institute might already have rules in place for using a picture or a video of someone on a blog or a news story that you’ll post on a Twitter account, so be sure to check with your publications office or a press officer before publishing any media online for your organization. This is especially true if you’re working with minors—get in contact with the appropriate press contacts before including any quotes or photographs of younger students, and do your homework before the event so you can collect any required permission from parents as needed.
Setting up an interview might seem too formal or unnecessary, but whether you’re a writer, a scientist, or just want to learn something from someone, an interview can be a great opportunity to gain information beyond the scope of a normal conversation. People do answer questions differently when in an interview setting, just as those of you who have applied for a job know that being put on the spot is different than talking about your life’s goals over a cup of coffee. Envision the interview with purpose, as a way to get information, insights, and also to build a relationship with another person. As we previously discussed in our networking post, building a professional relationship is crucial for progressing in your career. Interviews, and the information you’ll gain from them, can help you get there and can help you tell a story using more than just facts and figures.