July 27, 2015

Why my sources are (usually) happy to talk to me

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom
Reporting on science shows me the links between journalism and research
 By Eric Hamilton



Mid-way through my experience as a science journalist for the summer, I realized that unlike some of my colleagues in the newsroom around me, my conversations on the phone with sources were rarely combative. The university researchers and government scientists and physicians were usually happy to talk with me about their work—the process, the scope, and the limitations.

(In fact, many are keen to point out the limitations, for fear of stoking baseless hype.)

Sure, getting your name in print is fun, and most scientists don’t often see that. But maybe more that that: Scientists want to look at the world and then tell other people about what they’ve seen. Is that really so different than what drives journalists?

We even use the same language. The verb “report” comprises a formal account, as in a research study, and the gathering of information and preparation for print or broadcast. Reporting is what I do at the Journal Sentinel. Reports are the main section of Science Magazine.

Science has its share of scandals and closed doors—it's a human endeavor after all—but as an institution it’s about discovery and transparency, even if it falls short of those goals.

So I can go ahead and ask probing questions. That’s what scientists are trying to do of themselves all the time; there’s no offense to be taken there.

Now, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Scientists are concerned about their reputation, like anybody else. The one piece of hate mail I have received in my work was from a researcher who was incensed, thinking we intentionally made him look bad. It was a misunderstanding, and he reacted petulantly, saying his reputation was at stake. Nobody wants to look dumb, and I’m sorry he felt hurt.

Other sources have been guarded at the beginning of our conversations, claiming they have been “burned” before with misquotes and inaccuracies. Speaking with a reporter is a brief relationship built entirely on trust, so it’s natural that when that trust is violated people are more cautious for a time. A few well-formed questions and assurances typically open them up; their inclination is ultimately to speak freely.

But most have been thrilled to set aside half an hour or more of their time to talk with me. They are passionate about sharing their work with just one person, and hopeful that our readers will see their work as they do.

I am preparing to go back to being a scientist as my ten-week internship continues to fly by. I hope that I have gained some skills in communication, writing and investigation that will help me be more successful in that work.

But I also hope that the passion for discovery and communication I hear from the sources I speak to every day sticks with me as I head back to lab.