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Archive for May, 2009

Experts: Who needs ‘em and Why?

             We all do. We call on experts all the time in our daily lives. Everytime we visit our family physician, go to a hair stylist or take our cars to the repair shop we are seeking the services of an expert. Why shouldn’t we consult an expert when we’re communicating science to the public? Few of us as writers have the expertise necessary to explain adequately how cancer cells invade surrounding tissue or how an e-mail message travels on the internet.  Just the fact that someone hunts, fishes, or photographs wildlife does not mean that person is an expert on fish and wildlife. We need to consult experts in these subject areas.  How do you distinguish among real experts, pretenders, and ambitious individuals who want to use you to publicize their work and ideas?

            When writing a feature article for a magazine, you’ll almost always have to find people to validate what you say. So if you’re working on an article on, say, breast cancer, you’ll need to interview experts who can explain technical terms and the benefits of treatment, patients who’ve battled with it, and maybe even a couple of celebrities who are willing to share their experiences. After all, the primary objective of any writer is to have a basic understanding of the subject and then to find the best way to communicate that information to the target audience.

            Getting a useful interview is harder than you might think.  Many scientists are notoriously fond of jargon. Getting them to stop using it can be next to impossible. The approach one writer suggests is to tell your subject to pretend you are a potential funder, that you are drunk, and you don’t have the faintest idea what his work is, but he won’t get a penny unless he can explain to you what his work is about. If that doesn’t work, you should find an expert with whom you can discuss the topic until you do understand it.

            Most writers are willing to admit that they don’t really understand the topic in detail; but, many don’t really know how to go about finding a reliable expert. Writers need to know how to ask questions. They also need to know who is the best person to approach and they need to have a feel for the varying personalities and preferences of the people – the subject matter experts–to know how best to approach them. Once the writer has found the appropriate expert to approach, strong listening skills are required to capture the information necessary and to know which follow-up questions need to be answered.

            Your readers hold you to a high standard of accuracy. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions until you get it straight, and don’t be afraid to keep going back to your sources to clarify points, check  facts, and get responses to new information that comes up in your reporting. But, science is a highly competitive enterprise, filled with lively and interesting characters. Writing about science by only focusing on the research data would be like covering Congress by focusing only on the language of the legislation. Conflicts can lead you to hot areas of research—the most intense fights tend to be about important scientific issues—and they can also be a way to write about difficult areas of science in a lively way.

            So, your task then, as a writer tackling a science story assignment, is to “Get the facts, just the facts.” How do you find experts who can give you the facts? The internet is your first line of attack; but, beware, anyone can put information on the internet. You will still need to verify the information you find there with an expert. Think of it as getting a second opinion. With that word of caution in mind, here are some strategies for finding experts.

Search the databases: There are dozens of databases that contain listings of experts, along with their professional qualifications, details about their work and their contact information. Some of the popular databases are:

  • http://www.experts.com Since 1994, Experts.com has been providing millions of users worldwide with access to the information and expertise that they need. As one of the nation’s most established and premier Internet registries, Experts.com serves as a “who’s who” of experts at the top of their respective fields.
  • http://www.expertclick.com offers Journalist News Media Resource benefits; Directory of Experts Listing Information.
  • http://www.refdesk.com/expert.html

Hit the bookstores: Find out the authors and publishers of the latest books related to your subject by visiting your local bookstore or Amazon.com. You can find contact details of the author or the publisher online and send them a request for interviews. Because authors are constantly looking for publicity, especially for their new books, they may be more than happy to help you.

Contact public relations: They can be your best friends, or your worst nightmare, but PR people serve a very important purpose when it comes to connecting you to quotable, media-savvy professionals. Keep in mind though, PR people themselves are not the experts. Do remember, too, that the bigger your publication, the more likely they are to respond to you.

Contact extension specialists at land grant universities: These individuals are specialists in their field, they have wide contacts within their fields, and a major part of their jobs is to communicate science to the public.

Be a collector: Companies often send out press releases regarding company changes, product launches and important events; authors announce their new books and professionals looking for publicity regularly offer tips and new ideas. The contact information for these people is on every press release and this is often the most helpful part of the press release. The contacts have agreed to be listed and typically are very responsive to interview requests.

Find a professional association: You’ll find dozens of associations, non-profit organizations and clubs on almost every topic imaginable. Look up the Encyclopedia of Associations (a three-volume set) at your library and find something that’s relevant to your subject of interest. You can call them and ask their public affairs department to recommend someone. You can also do this with the public affairs offices at universities.

            The best idea of all is to use a combination of several of the above techniques, instead of relying solely on one. That’ll not only give you a quick selection of experts, but the most credible ones as well. And that’s bound to help in securing more lucrative assignments.

            A session entitled “Experts: Who needs ‘em” with a panel of three writer/experts experienced in science communication will be presented at the OWAA Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids, MI in June, 2009.

Published in Outdoors Unlimited

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