Beware The Quote From The Scientist


Let’s say you’re a scientist, and you just got a call from a reporter asking to interview you about something that’s popped up in the news. Maybe the reporter is looking for an outside perspective. Maybe the reporter wants you to judge someone else’s work. Maybe the reporter needs extra content. Maybe all of the above.

So you arrange a time and chat with the reporter. The reporter tells you that they’ll be recording the call, and the entire conversation has an awkward flow to it as the reporter frequently stops to scribble down notes. They ask a lot of questions, you give a lot of answers. Sometimes they’re brief, sometimes they’re detailed. Sometimes you’re not exactly sure what to say, so you say that.

Before you know it, a half hour has gone by. The reporter thanks you for your time, and a few days later the article appears. You scan it for your name, and find a few surprises. There are a few possible results from your interaction with the reporter, including but not limited to:

  • The reporter did a decent job understanding your comments, and put together a good story with your quotes logically placed.
  • The reporter very obviously did not understand the topic, and got several key aspects incorrect, misplacing your quote and information.
  • The reporter did understand the topic, but wanted to go with a certain angle. If your answers aligned with that angle, you find yourself frequently quoted. If it didn’t, you may not even appear at all.
  • The quote attributed to you is some sort of bizarre mishmash of concepts you did indeed say, but not necessarily with that structure or implication.
  • You made some harmless off-the-cuff remark and the reporter latched on to that, because it was the most interesting and/or juiciest thing you said.

As a scientist, you’re never exactly sure what’s going to come out of the interview process. You may find yourself approvingly nodding along with the finished article, liking what you see. You may with that your screen was made of paper so you could properly crumple it up and throw it away in disgust.

As a reader, you’re never exactly sure what went down between the reporter and the scientist. Always be a little leery of quotes. Those few words may or may not accurately reflect the intention of what the scientist was trying to say, and the scientist may or may not agree with the tone, premise, or angle of the entire article.

But this can be a good thing: scientists are people too, after all, with their own biases and axes to grind, and a good reporter can see through that to the larger picture.

As usual, reality is much more nuanced than we first assume.

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