Translating psychological science for the media: Use these tips to engage with journalists and improve coverage of science

A journalist once quoted psychologist Elena Newman, PhD, talking about “post-dramatic stress disorder.” Don’t let that happen to you, Newman told participants at APA’s Education Leadership Conference.

“Journalists don’t learn science,” said Newman, a psychology professor and research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Tulsa. Journalists get less training in psychology and other sciences than in the past, she said, and there are fewer dedicated science reporters.

To help reporters overcome that lack of education and experience in science, Newman offered suggestions for psychologists interacting with the media:

  • Don’t be afraid to engage. Instead of avoiding contact with the media, psychologists should learn to value journalists, said Newman, noting that the media can provide accurate information to a wide audience, highlight what the public is thinking about an issue, act as watchdogs and serve as a communication system during emergencies. Help journalists be accurate by answering their questions, admitting what you don’t know and providing alternative sources if needed, said Newman.
  • Understand the culture of journalism. Journalists are deadline-driven, so speed is of the essence, said Newman. “They need to tell the story quickly,” she said. Journalists also have a different notion of privacy than psychologists do. While they believe that privacy is important, she said, the public’s need for information can override privacy.
  • Cultivate relationships with journalists. Get to know journalists, but not with the idea of making them your public relations arm, said Newman. Instead of trying to promote your own research or lab, which will erode journalists’ trust in you, promote psychological science. Invite journalists to your events. And explore ethical ways to facilitate journalists’ access to people affected by an issue. “Public faces are really important,” said Newman, noting that broadcast journalists in particular need people to interview.
  • Practice describing your work simply. Newman has her students practice talking about their research in just three minutes, asking them to imagine themselves chatting at a cocktail party. Her students also create fact sheets boiling their research down to one or two pages. Defining your terms and avoiding jargon are also essential.
  • Praise good work. “Don’t just send notes of complaint, but also praise for good coverage, whether locally or nationally,” said Newman. “We know from science that praise is better than punishment.”


About the Author

Rebecca A. Clay is an award-winning freelance writer in Washington, DC. In addition to being a long-time writer for APA and the APA Practice Organization, she has written everything from press releases and articles to full-fledged reports for such clients as the Ford Foundation, the University of Chicago and the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. She has lectured on writing at the Smithsonian, the National Press Club, the University of Khartoum and other venues. When she isn’t writing, she is traveling. So far, she has visited more than 100 countries and all seven continents.