10 tips to handle the media as an academic researcher

As a researcher, there may come a time when you interact with the media. It may make you cringe; for traditional research publications, we have the protection of editing, and feedback from mentors and colleagues. Interviews feel much more risky: Questions are unpredictable, and there is seldom an opportunity to polish the product before it goes into the wild. Yet, interacting with the media offers an opportunity to garner attention for your research team and share ideas.

What can you expect?

Here’s the nitty gritty:

You may be contacted because you research a hot topic, you are an expert, or your mentor is an expert that is involving you for you to gain experience (my case). I was incredibly nervous for my first interview. My mentor, Victor Montori, MD, MSc suggested that I craft a one-liner.

Tip #1: Prepare a sentence conveying your message. Ideally, it should be free of jargon and catchy. Anticipate questions and draft answers that lead to your one-liner. Mine was “Prediabetes should be addressed as a social problem, not solely in the clinical setting.”

Perhaps the best way to become comfortable with the interview process is to watch a skilled colleague.

Tip #2: Ask to sit in on interviews so you can get a feel for the process. Take notes on statements that stand out to you and try to understand what makes them poignant. Perhaps, as in my case, you and your mentor can do some interviews together.

Once you have prepared to participate in the interview, you can expect the following process to ensue:

  1. The reporter may contact you directly or through the media relations department of your institution.

Tip #3:  You can reach out to the media relations department or institutional information office for help throughout the process.

  1. The reporter will ask to schedule an interview, often on a short timeline.
  1. At the time of the interview, they will likely know who you are and will verify your title and position.

Tip #4: I realized early in the process that it was important to me to be associated with my research unit and not just the institution at large; identify your preferred affiliation and a concise description of your position before the call.

  1. They may ask your permission to record the call; we have only received this offer once.
  1. The interview will begin; this is where it gets interesting. While you likely have a specific angle on the topic, the reporter may have a very different one. You will have to negotiate answering questions relevant to the reporter’s interests while emphasizing your own point.

Tip #5: Be explicit about your area of expertise and avoid answering questions outside of it. You may know a colleague who can better answer some questions, refer the reporter to them if you feel you are entering unfamiliar territory.

You may find that you are, in fact, the most appropriate person to answer these questions, yet the reporter is skeptical of your position.  If you are passionate about sharing your message, and it is unpopular, it may require considerable effort synthesizing evidence and making it easily digestible for the reporter and public.

Tip #6: In these situations: tireless generosity and focus on the evidence. This may mean making time for follow-up interviews. We found it useful to create a fact sheet summarizing and interpreting the relevant evidence.

  1. You may find yourself getting nervous or flustered during the interview. Refer to Tip#1 and transition to one of your prepared answers. Even if the answer isn’t perfect, this strategy can provide a safe mental break.

Tip #7: Repeat your one-liner as much as possible during your interview; it increases your chances of getting your message across (and getting it quoted).

  1. If you are interviewed several times on the same topic and tire of repeating the same points, this may come across in

Tip #8: Stay up-to-date with relevant topics in the news. We received interview requests during the opioid epidemic. We took this opportunity to draw parallels between prediabetes and the opioid epidemic: Both are social problems addressed mostly in the clinical setting.

  1. When concluding the interview, you may offer to provide references, summaries and to review the resulting write-up.

Tip #9:  Create a folder to store relevant references and summaries for reporters. The same questions are likely to arise in different interviews.

After the interview:

  • You may receive follow-up questions or requests for articles.
  • Some reporters will send you your quotes for fact-checking before publication.
  • Some reporters will send you the link to the article on the day of publication.

Do not be surprised if:

  • You are not notified that the article has been published, and you have been quoted.
  • You are not quoted correctly (even after fact-checking, above).
  • You are not recognized despite significant time spent contributing to the article.
  • The article has an unexpected spin.
  • You are the dissenting opinion in the article.
  • You are delighted by your quote!
  • You develop a professional and lasting relationship with the reporter.

Contributing to articles published in the media can be both exciting and terrifying. Some measures can be taken to decrease the risk of being misquoted or misinforming the public. But, more importantly, it is an opportunity to share ideas we are passionate about beyond the walls of academia and the pages of scientific journals. We may get the chance to see them woven into a beautiful (or controversial) story. After publication, if we dare venture into the ‘comments’ section of the published article, we can get a pulse of the public opinion.

Should you avoid talking to the media?

When asked, we offer a cautious but emphatic “no.”

Tip #10: Let your ideas roam in the wild; free to take a life of their own.

They may tarnish, corrupt or expire into the depths of the internet. But, they may start conversations; connect you with others and create unexpected relationships.

Gabriela Spencer Bonilla is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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