The New York Times best selling author and journalist Chris Mooney has made a career out of bringing science into the mainstream. His articles, such as The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science, go extremely viral.
In a time when the Internet allows science to find the eyeballs of non-scientists like never before, a researcher wants his or her research to land on the desk of a journalist like Mooney. But how can you make that happen?
Mooney recently spoke to an audience from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology about how researchers can turn their academic headlines into news headlines. Here’s a couple of his major tips and some commentary.
Caveat: In this post, we are side stepping the question of “should scientists actually want their research to be in the media?” We generally think the answer to this question is yes. However, there are many nuances that make this a complicated issue and we will return those issues in future posts.
Mooney Tip #1: “There’s nothing like a good figure – something people can quickly grasp and understand.”
Mooney explains the idea that simple graphs do really well online. For instance, take a look at this recent graph in a psychological article on “internet trolling” that helped propel this article to mega viral status. The headline: “Internet trolls really are horrible people – Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism.”
Researchers need to make attractive graphs that can be exported into an article (or any one researcher’s power-point slides for that matter) without any changes. And by graphs, Mooney means graphs not tables. He jokes that, “Journalists need graphics from you or you run the risk they’ll make the graphics themselves.” So if you want to be viral and protect the purity of your science in the public eye, put some graphs in that article. Just because you and ten of your colleagues can understand a 10 column x 12 row table in the blink of an eye, does not mean the public and even scientific journalists can.
Mooney Tip #2: “Turn a correlation into a percent.”
Graphs can make things go viral but so can a good statistic. Mooney explains that readers and journalists don’t think in correlations, but rather in quantities like percentages. People can be moved by startling statistics like “a 25% increase in health” or “40% increase in reported enjoyment” – these items are concrete and tangible.
Mooney Tip #3: “Put your studies in context with other studies.”
Journalists often practice “weight of the evidence” when deciding what scientific pieces to write about. Many will be unwilling to publish findings that are too far off from the majority of the scientific field. Thus, when positioning one’s finding to a journalist in an email or press release, it is important to demonstrate how the finding is largely supported by other research. Also, journalists need to know whether a finding should be presented as brand new or providing evidence for an existing theory. It’s very difficult for journalists to figure this out themselves. Hell – that can be difficult for even for us as scientists! Though there may be a few journalists out there that will run any headline, most journalists are interested in getting the facts straight, so scientists need to help them with that.
Mooney Tip #4: “I need to know when your study is coming out and I need to know first.”
Journalism is a competitive business and breaking a story is one of the biggest competitions in the game. Mooney recommends contacting journalists ahead of time. Many news articles have editors who can easily be contacted.
For instance Scientific American says at the conclusion of many of their articles:
“Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, [...] at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.”
Mooney Tip #5: “Add Value.”
If a young researcher wants to develop a web presence, Mooney’s recommendation is to become a trusted brand that consistently provides a certain type of value. Readers must learn that they can rely on your blog/website/content stream for a specific and continuous content.
I asked Mooney about how this is sort of anti-academic. Many of us like to do many things. We like to jump around and move on to new things, whether that’s deeper into one theory or bouncing between theories. We don’t like making the same points over and over again, and we always are preoccupied with the new and the cutting edge.
Mooney told me how he sometimes feels the same: after promoting his first book, he quickly got tired of talking about the same thing over and over again. But he has learned through his career that if you want your stuff to matter, you have to repeat yourself over and over again – that’s part of this job. Just look at how often Daniel Kahneman talks to the public about imperfect rationality and heuristic judgments! He has been doing it for his entire career and that continued presence and quality message has made him famous and unquestionably changes policy and the world.
For two great examples of young scientists who have developed platforms that people consistently come back to for information check out:
PsychYourMind.com – a place where a crew of graduate students talk about stuff in all the best manners suited for the Internet.
Very Bad Wizards Podcast – A podcast and a tumblr about psychology and philosophy. We recommend this one with an “explicit warning.” Seriously, they talk about academics, but this isn’t like the Freakonomics podcast you listen to in your car with your conservative father.
Twitter also has quite a few examples of young scientists in our field who have built up bases of thousands of followers without yet being famous for their own research. Why? Because they are good at daily or very frequently posting quality links.
Troy Campbell’s personal webpage.