Last week we spoke with Jelena Obradović, an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Child and Adolescent Development program. Her research focuses on how children overcome adversity. We got in contact with her after interviewing Anne McIlroy, who used Obradović as a source in her article on orchid children. Obradović talked about her experience being interviewed and gave us tips on how to get scientists to open up.
Show some interest
Obradović said she was very impressed with Anne McIlroy’s interviewing style. She felt that McIlroy was genuinely interested in her field, and was able to speak with her at a more advanced level.
“I was actually very impressed with Anne’s knowledge of the field. Something that stood out for me was that she wasn’t just interested in my article, but she was interested in the whole new idea that the article is representing… I felt like our conversation was probably more complex than just (talking to) the general audience. So it was really easy to talk to her.”
Showing real enthusiasm is important. Even if you aren’t thrilled about writing a science article, try to drum up some interest! It’ll make preparing for the interview much easier, and the interviewee will appreciate your effort.
Keep an open mind
Obradović told us about an interview request she received in which the reporter asked for somebody who could basically go along with a quote he had already written. This frustrated her and stopped her from speaking to him.
“I looked at that email and was really appalled that somebody would be wanting to interview me already with a set mind as to what they wanted to get out of that interview… I basically declined the interview. One thing may be, and it may be a really simple one, is to go into an interview with an open mind and not with a predetermined story you want to tell,” she said.
Although it’s important to have an idea for a focus before going into an interview, be flexible and listen to what the scientist has to say. Don’t expect to be able to write the story yourself and just fill in the quotes later.
Be aware of the scientist’s fears
Interviewing a scientist can be nerve wracking, especially when you don’t completely understand his or her work. But remember that the interviewee is also afraid– of explaining things wrong, of having their work misinterpreted, or being unable to answer the reporter’s questions.
“(There’s the fear that) the message would be too simple and the audience would misinterpret it… There’s that joke about two-handed scientists, where on one hand it’s such and such, and on the other hand, it’s not. I think when you go talk to the press you feel like they’re going to chop one of your hands off,” she said.
Remember that the scientist might be just as nervous as you are. Make them feel more comfortable by doing your research, knowing what you’re talking about, and writing the article properly so that their work isn’t misunderstood.