Nerves? You?

A few weeks ago I was asked by my University’s press office to talk urgently to the Daily Mail, where a reporter was wanting some information comparing what life was like for women at Cambridge University in the past and now. As the University’s Gender Equality Champion, as well as having been a student back in the days when there were only 3 colleges who admitted women to the University, it seemed appropriate that I should respond. I assumed my university’s press office would have vetted the background to the story for suitability before passing on the request so that there would be no obvious pitfalls. However, there appeared to be some urgency and so I had to conduct the phone interview in a somewhat public space at the Royal Society, where I happened to be that day. On the train home that evening I tweeted ‘Being interviewed by the Mail always makes me nervous’ to which I got the response from someone in Norwich, ‘Nerves – you? Go for it!’ which made me realise the nerves I was referring to weren’t due to the fact that interactions with the media are always liable to be stressful, so much as  worry about newspaper interviews in particular, because one has so little control over them.

My media training has prepared me for some sorts of interviews; I’d certainly recommend getting such training if you’re ever offered it, regardless of at which level of the academic ladder you are currently. I know, at least in principle, how to dodge the bullets and lead the conversation back to safer ground. I know how to prepare, so that the facts you want to put across are at your finger tips. But those skills are most easily brought to bear when you have a specific story you are trying to put across and time to think about how best to deliver the message. If you are rung up at short notice on a topic of someone else’s choosing, it’s a lot harder to be prepared and it’s a lot harder to be in control of the situation. I am rather unwilling to discuss the details of this particular interview with the Daily Mail journalist because the piece has still not been run (despite the apparent ‘urgency’ with which the interview was carried out), so I don’t know how (or indeed if) it will pan out. Instead, I will illustrate why I am nervous about such interviews with regard to an earlier interview. Mind you, this one turned out so badly I’m not going to give any details, dates or storyline, merely give some generic indicators.

For this particular story I was rung up as one of several people being interviewed about what should have been an entirely innocuous and good news story. From my personal point of view, the reason it went wrong was entirely my own fault. Something, I forget what at this distance in time, had got under my skin in the day-job. I was feeling extremely cross when the journalist rang and consequently somewhat careless in the things I said. I was cross with the system, and some of that rage came out in the answers I gave to superficially easy enough questions. Consequently, what I was quoted as saying – which was very approximately what I had said, though not necessarily in the context apparently quoted – was inappropriate and ill-considered. I came across as a raging harpy who had my talons into the academic world in a big way – or at least, even when I had stopped being quite so angry and read what I had apparently said again, I felt it could have been interpreted in that way. It probably didn’t actually come across like that to others, but I knew that I had let irritation over something else cloud my judgement in those few critical minutes on the phone. As it turned out, the rest of the article caused others so much rage that my own poor judgement faded into insignificance and rather quickly the story was pulled off the newspaper’s website due to inaccuracies elsewhere in the piece (so there’s no point any reader of this post trying to track it down!)

That, to some extent, has taught me to be particularly vigilant. But it is difficult when journalists want a quote fast, and you are possibly not in ideal circumstances. A previous conversation with a Daily Mail journalist took place in the cycle park at Cambridge station, but the quote of mine they used was totally fine despite the less than optimum location (noisy, windy and cold). This most recent interview was overheard by a colleague who, when I apologised to her for talking in what should have been a quiet area, merely said I’d sounded very patient. However, I will have to wait and see what (if the story ever appears) they pulled out from what I said.

The trouble is that a perfectly reasonable sentence or two can be truncated in ways that make for more titillating reading than the original quote itself. You know how it is with the brief congratulatory phrases that find themselves on the back covers of books, or on billboards in front of theatres.

An amazing performance’ might mean what it appears to say, or it might have been excised from the full sentence:

‘An amazing performance of such ineptitude I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry’.

A book that had me gripped throughout’ might be just part of the sentence

‘A book that had me gripped throughout as I waited to see what clueless action the completely wet and boring heroine dreamed up next’.

So, if – in a piece about women at Cambridge then and now – I am quoted as saying ‘girls at Girton had a hard time of it’ it might actually have been part of a longer sentence saying

‘girls at Girton had a hard time of it on their bicycles, with the college being at the top of Cambridge’s only significant hill, with a mile or two further to cycle even after the climb had been completed’;

or a phrase such as ‘the boys used to stare’ may really have said something rather different such as

‘it was hardly surprising if the boys used to stare at the lone girl in the practical class, but it seemed to be curiosity not hostility; they simply weren’t necessarily used to girls.’

So the nerves are not simply about being interviewed by the Daily Mail, or interacting more generally with the media, they are because it is all too easy for a quote not to come out quite as intended, whilst still being a legitimate, if incomplete, quote.  In live interviews, for instance on the radio, one has more chance of controlling the context and making sure that what comes across is precisely what is intended. On the other hand, you also have a first rate opportunity for making a complete fool of oneself to an audience of millions if you’re unlucky. This is on my mind having just taken part in Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the subject of macromolecules. It is rare for this Radio 4 programme to stray into science of this sort, but I would hope that my fellow guests (Tony Ryan from Sheffield and Charlotte Williams from Imperial College, chemists both) and I acquitted ourselves reasonably and did indeed manage to say, and be heard to say, precisely what we wanted.

So nerves? Yes, when talking to the print media indubitably. Not because I necessarily feel I don’t know what to say or how to express it but because I worry I won’t appear to have said what was intended. The radio seems to me to be easier in that sense, but still potentially very scary – particularly in advance. There’s no time to be nervous at the time, you just get on with the task in front of you then sweat again later when replaying the dialogue in your head.


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5 Responses to Nerves? You?

  1. Owen says:

    I think you’re hostage to misquoters whatever you do. Long sentences with subordinate clauses and qualifiers can be easy to misrepresent by snipping, but short sentences can be just as bad because you can just glue unrelated bits together with a quick “said Prof Donald” in between.

    I thought you were very good on In Our Time, by the way! (The programme does more science than you might think, judging from its archive…)

    • Thanks Owen. Re In Our Time it seems to me that they do a lot of what might be termed ‘big’ science (astronomy, high energy sort of physics) but little condensed matter physics – hard or soft – or chemistry. It would be nice to change that…..

      • John the Plumber says:

        You taught me more in Our Time than I learnt in years at scool.

        I was intrigued to learn that we cannot make spider’s web, like spiders do – easily.

        I am always amazed when I see orange specs of dust – baby spiders – spread across a spiders web. Touch the web and the dust runs home. Minute specks, almost too small to see, with little legs, with little leg joints, and a brain to say danger run for cover lads – and lasses – each knowing where to run to. – Specks of dust made of however many thousands of cells, each cell with a nucleus packed full of long chain DNA molecules telling how to make the speck they are part of – and how to make web easily. There’s an awful lot of atoms all in the right places in these dust specks. Now that to me is big science. You can see stars any night of he week.

  2. Mike says:

    Athene, I think this post highlights the power of scientist bloggers. We can get the story out there on our own terms. It may not always reach as wide an audience as the Daily Mail, but it’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps the most successful bloggers reach an even wider audience than the Mail!

    And as many online versions of newspapers include comments sections following a story, it also allows the originators of quotes to pop up and redirect people to the full context of a quote if required.

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