Perhaps one of the most critical links in the information chain at the time of disseminating university scientific research, which begins with the researcher and ends with the external audience, is the public information officer (PIO) who works at the university communications office. That person is the intermediary, the bridge, the translator, and the facilitator of research explanation. He is the person who must win the academic researchers’ confidence and be extremely aware of what the different groups of scientists are trying to achieve. He must be able to distinguish why a piece of research is of interest to the public and why it is important to highlight it at a given point in time.
That is what the so-called “scientific journalist” does: he covers the advances of science and brings them to the public in an understandable manner, without the scientific jargon, but at the same time without diminishing the rigor of the scientific research concerned. He is the person who tells the public what research is being conducted by a university, institute or research center.
For that scientific journalist, the opportunity is wonderful: he will always be on the threshold of the newest science; he can look over the scientist’ shoulder and share his excitement with the public. But that journalist also has a monstrous responsibility: to report seriously and correctly the data and facts of research. For that purpose, he must balance the needs of journalism with the restrictions of science, that is, resisting the temptation to embellish research and the pressures of those who run the university.
Here in the United States, for instance, as a scientific journalist working as a freelancer or hired by a news media (newspaper or magazine), one is used to dealing with PIOs working in university communications offices. Any respected university has at least two full-time PIOs, not to cover the president’s cocktail, nor the athletic achievements of their teams out, but only to keep track of the faculty —and their graduates— who carry out research.
Although there are outstanding cases of science reports in university journals and newspapers in Colombia, I know that there are hardly any scientific journalists in these positions, except for a couple of notable exceptions (for example, Lisbeth Fog, editor of the Pesquisa Journal at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, or Jesús Anturi Perdomo, journalist coordinator at the Universidad del Norte). And I think this is something we need to improve. While this happens, I would like to share the ten commandments of a university PIO we wrote with the National Association of Science Writers:
- Be Responsive
- Answer your phone and e-mail.
- Get back to reporters even if you can’t help them.
- Respect news deadlines.
- Be Truthful
- Do not lie.
- Do not obstruct by lying.
- You may not be able to tell reporters what they want to know because of legal or other constraints, but do not present false information. Not only will it ruin your relationship, it WILL come back to bite you.
- Be Articulate
- Write clear, concise news for your audience.
- Know your audience.
- Do not write around the news or the science.
- Do not hype the research.
- Do not use the word breakthrough.
- Be Accessible
- Supply full contact information for the writer of the story.
- Supply full contact information for your researchers.
- Supply full contact information for researchers at other institutions if applicable.
- Be Helpful
- If you don’t have an expert on the subject, say so.
- Do not provide someone only peripherally able to answer the questions.
- If you know of another institution that has the expert required, recommend it.
- Be Selective
- Send your news releases to the right audience.
- Do not use a service that gets paid by the piece.
- Send only targeted mailings.
- Do not send faculty announcements, awards and events to people who could not care less.
- Be Contrite
- Own up to your mistakes.
- Fix them if at all possible.
- Be Patient
- If a reporter does not understand, explain the science if you can. No one can know every area. Sometimes general assignment reporters call.
- If you think they are looking for the wrong expert, try to explain why and who they should speak to.
- Be a Conduit
- Allow reporters to speak directly with researchers.
- Allow them to do interviews alone whether in person or on the phone.
- Be a Potted Palm
- Prepare the researchers and then stand in the background like a potted palm.
- Facilitate but do not inter.