Interview Class Helps Make Science Clearer

September 1, 2015

EJ Academy


It was a magic opportunity to teach, and it happened in one of our first interviews.

A journalism undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut was interviewing a graduate science student about her research into mosses. They were doing the interview live, in front of a class of journalism and science students learning about interviewing techniques.

The researcher said that mosses were natural carbon sinks.

The journalism student paused, and it was clear to some of us that he had no idea what a “carbon sink” was. After a moment, he continued the interview in a different direction.

Afterwards the journalism student admitted he did not know anything about carbon sinks, which trap carbon before it rises into the upper atmosphere and contributes to global warming. He had missed the opportunity for an interesting angle. The graduate student had also erred by failing to see the confusion in the reporter’s face, or if she did see it, not seeking to be more clear about the significance of a carbon sink.

It was, as my colleague at UConn Margaret Rubega pointed out, a lesson so important that it would not matter if students learned nothing else the rest of the semester. They needed to know: Journalists at times have to admit their ignorance; interviewees need to be clear in their communication.

Improving interviewing skills is a concept I have been team teaching for the last few years along with Rubega, a well-regarded ornithologist with a strong interest in communication, and Robert Capers, a former Pulitzer Prize winner at the Hartford Courant who left to get a doctorate in botany and is now at UConn.

What we are doing is also part of a growing national trend, especially on the science side. The National Science Foundation insists that the scientists it funds must make their research available and understandable to the public.

Increasingly, journalism schools and professors are developing communication programs for scientists. Instructors at Stony Brook University use acting improvisation to get scientists to be more expressive and clear in their communication. At the University of Miami in Ohio, workshops bridge the gaps sometimes found between scientists and journalists, and the results have even included poetry and art exhibits.

Teaching how to ask right questions

My goal at UConn was primarily aimed at my journalism students, who rarely seem to get enough training or experience in interviewing. Too often we spend more time on a student’s writing, when the core problem is failing to ask the right questions.

Rubega, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, had learned early in her career that she needed help in talking to reporters. The Leopold Leadership Program awarded her a fellowship that provided a range of communication skills including how to do an interview. Now she is a strong advocate for working with both graduate students and mid-career colleagues.

The course, which we’ve developed through trial and error over the last five years, has ranged from one to three credits and often combines an undergraduate journalism course with a graduate science seminar.

The course pairs a journalism student who wants to learn more about interviewing with a graduate science student (and sometimes a science faculty member). The scientist provides some basic background information, either by supplying a research paper or directing the student to a blog or website.

The individuals sit down in a neutral location for a videotaped 20- to 25-minute interview. The student, with assistance from a technician, sets up the camera and hits the record button. Teams use a tripod, a table or lapel microphone and a range of cameras including DSLRs and even mini iPads.

The journalism student then prepares a 500-word news story or a two-minute video report. The story goes through at least two drafts. The video has no voice-overs or B-roll and simply shows what portion of the video would likely be used in a news story. Other students get a copy of the story before class meets again.

In class we review the interview video and discuss what worked and what did not work. For instance, I count the number of questions that were asked, which helps us determine how successful both individuals were in accomplishing their missions. We look for clarity and good quotes, and we stress that both sides must take responsibility to insure the interview’s success.

Then we examine the story or short video. It is helpful to have the full video, especially if the science student cites what appears to be a factual error in the story. Sometimes the journalist has made a mistake, but usually it is also clear that the two sides did not communicate very well and that was the cause of the error.

Earlier in the semester we discuss what makes a good interview, such as doing background research, asking short questions and following up on new information. Sometimes there are other course requirements, including doing a longer story or multimedia report.

One of the challenges in teaching the course is how to give students more than one opportunity to do an interview. If the class is large enough, students may not get to do a second round. However, students still learn a great deal simply watching the videos and discussing them.

My colleague Rubega believed that the most important lesson was that the course “gives both science and journalism students a shared sense of responsibility for working and understanding the other side.”

Sometimes ‘painful’ learning experiences

Science graduate student Chris Field (left) being interviewed by journalism student Caitie Parmelee.
                                                             Photo: courtesy Bob Wyss

Jargon is a big problem. The scientists must learn to avoid it, and the journalists must ask that it be explained. Plus, both sides must come prepared.

That failed to happen once when the journalist began by asking for an explanation of the graduate student’s research. He replied that that was hard to explain. Eventually, under prodding from the journalist, the researcher eventually explained his role, but it took many, many questions.

Another teaching moment was at hand. Rubega said she often has had students come up to her and exclaim, “This is way harder than I thought it would be.”

For the most part, students enjoy the course.

“I thought it was one of the most valuable courses that I took,” said Caitie Parmelee, who graduated as a journalism major in 2014. “It was really worth it to learn how to interview people in an area that I knew nothing about.”

Chris Field, a doctoral student in biology, said the course gave him the opportunity to practice his interviewing skills. “You need a safe place to make mistakes,” he said.

On the downside, students may find watching videos of themselves to be painful. “It was definitely challenging,” said Gwen Craig, a journalism graduate. “I’m not a fan of the camera.”

Bob Wyss is a former reporter and editor at the Providence Journal. An associate professor in journalism, he has been at the University of Connecticut since 2002 and is the author of the environmental journalism textbook “Covering the Environment.”

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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