How I decide whether or not to give an interview to a journalist

I’m quite selective about what journalists/ publication I’ll agree to an interview with, as well as what topics I’ll agree to speak about. I turn down ten or so interviews for every one that I agree to give, though I will often recommend alternative experts for journalists to interview.

First and foremost, if I don’t have time, I won’t do a media interview. My primary job is to focus on my Ph.D. research so I can finish and graduate. If it means helping a friend or taking advantage of an amazing opportunity for exposure, I may be able to reshuffle around some time, but that’s only for exceptional circumstances. Similarly, I’ll generally only do interviews before or after work, while I’m in the car between campus and home, or during my lunch break, because my main job comes first.

Secondly, I won’t speak about topics outside of my area of expertise. Doing this has the potential to seriously annoy colleagues, and there’s no upside (at all) to doing it. This includes commenting on other people’s research, unless I’ve previously asked them if they’re comfortable with me doing this. Journalists, I know you like to get feedback from an expert not associated with that specific project, but scientists sometimes see it as someone else taking credit for their work. And I will never publicly criticize a colleague’s research in the media, regardless of my private feelings about it.

Thirdly, if I don’t know you and you ask me to do an interview, I will look up some examples of your writing to see if you do a good job covering scientific or environmental issues. If you take things out of context or present issues unfairly, I won’t agree to an interview. And if I can’t find any evidence that you’ve written about this stuff at all, that’s a huge red flag for me. I recently turned down a TV interview on “Fox and Friends,” for example, because the hosts don’t have a great reputation for accurately covering scientific and environmental topics.

I think about whether commenting on this issue will help advance my goals related to shark conservation and public education about the ocean. I’ll happily talk about cool new discoveries or conservation issues, but I’m less eager to help give media coverage to fearmongering stories of sharks biting people. And if I don’t particularly care about a given topic, I’m less likely to want to comment on it.

Finally, if you’re rude or pushy, that’s almost certain to be a deal-breaker for me. Talking to journalists is not my job, it’s something I do in my free time as part of an outreach strategy about ocean science and conservation. If you’re being unpleasant, there’s nothing at all forcing me to put up with you.

So there you have it, folks. If you’re a friendly journalist with a good record of covering scientific or environmental issues and you are asking me about issues I care about that are in my area of expertise, I’m happy to provide a quote…if I have time. If not, no thanks.


  1. Nick Higgs · October 29, 2015

    I see where you’re coming from, but I definitely see this as part of my job as a scientist and would almost be reluctant to do it outside of my working hours. That said, I guess it isn’t the main part of my job.

    • Andrew David Thaler · October 29, 2015

      Knowing that at the height of Shark Week, David fields 40 – 50 request per day, I think the biggest issue is scale. Doing a handful of interviews after a big paper comes out is one thing. Getting several dozen requests when any piece of shark news breaks anywhere in the world is a totally different beast.

    • David Shiffman · October 30, 2015

      If I participated in every interview request I received, I would have no time for anything else at all.

  2. Marina · November 1, 2015

    I have no problem with scientists being selective about which media interviews they do. It makes sense, and it is hugely helpful if they at least suggest another expert. I do have a huge problem, however, with scientists (especially if they work with public money) who says that “talking to journalists is not their job”, but “something extra that they do in their free time”. No! Engaging public and policy audiences is an integral part of being a research scientist and a key way to influence public opinion and policy. I strongly recommend you read this article “Stand up for Science” – – where Nancy Baron argues that being a good (public) communicator actually makes you a better scientist. And then, get hold of a copy of her book “Escape from the Ivory Tower”, filled with case studies of scientists who went from marginal to leaders via effective public communication, especialy via mass media and social media. Doing media interviews should be part of your overall communication strategy and you should nurture relationships with good journalists. You are not doing them a favour. They are giving you an opportunity to make your research visible and to become a leader in your field.

    • David Shiffman · November 2, 2015

      A lot of people who are not my employer seem to have very strong opinions about what is and what is not “part of my job.”

      I receive hundreds of media requests a year. I absolutely cannot respond to them all.

    • Calvin Wendler · November 3, 2015

      If you did any research on him you would know David spends a substantial amount of time communicating with the public and using social media for science. More than likely you yourself used found him on social media or you would not be here commenting. He literally already does everything you mentioned! His point is that he cannot, and doesnt have to, always say yes.

  3. Marina Joubert · November 2, 2015

    You are lucky that you are working in a field where you are likely to get many requests for media engagements. Being selective is fine. No one expects you to respond to hundreds of interviews. Choose the best opportunities and make the most of them to make a difference in your field (and hopefully do some good for sharks too!). All I’m pleading for is to get rid of the mindset that you’re doing journalists a favour. They are giving you a platform to raise awareness of conservation issues, attract young researchers, lobby for policy changes, etc … Think about science communication strategically. You (and your employer!) can benefit if you make it part of your job (even if you do it after hours).

    • David Shiffman · November 2, 2015

      I like how you are assuming that because my outreach views are different than yours, I must not be “thinking strategically.” You are incorrect about this.

    • David Shiffman · November 2, 2015

      A complete list of people who can tell me what is and is not part of my job, and what I need to do on my own time if I do it:
      My employer.

      An incomplete list of people who cannot tell me what is and is not part of my job, and what I need to do on my own time if I do it:

    • bluegrassbluecrab · November 2, 2015

      There’s a real, easy-to-find definition of what’s part of someone’s job – and it’s their contract. While we all agree here that outreach is a good thing and reaching outside the Ivory Tower may be the future saving grace of academia, currently contracts usually stand something along the lines of “60% research, 30% teaching, 10% service (to the university)”. Outreach is not in there. It should be, but we’re not there yet. Scientists are not professionally rewarded for it and often actual supervisors will count the amount of time spent on outreach as something in that 100% that should have been spent elsewhere (therefore outreach can be hurtful). Sympathy towards those constraints is a needed part of the science-communication axiom.

  4. Andrew David Thaler · November 2, 2015

    “Think about science communication strategically.”

    That is the entire point of this article.

  5. Marina Joubert · November 2, 2015

    Thankfully there are many top scientists, including marine biologists, who embrace and value opportunities to communicate about their work and don’t obsess about whether it is “their job” or not.

    • Andrew David Thaler · November 2, 2015

      Like, for example, David Shiffman, who also helpfully provides even greater insight into his workflow and how he prioritizes the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Seriously, you’re lecturing one of the most prolific ocean science communicators on the internet about this? David gives more time to outreach efforts than the next 10 ocean scientists combined. Cod forbid he prioritize his health and well-being, too.

    • David Shiffman · November 2, 2015

      This person is saying that it’s a good thing that other people do ocean science outreach because I don’t do ocean science outreach and I literally can’t even.

  6. Marina Joubert · November 3, 2015

    No, that’s not what I said. I know you are active in outreach and do it really well. I just think it is really unfortunate to send a message that doing media interviews is not part of a scientist’s job (seen in a broad societal context in terms of the contract between science and society that pays for science through their taxes). Im concerned that young scientists who are not yet active in outreach will also hide behind the “time” excuse after reading your blog. Research has shown that many scientists “who don’t have time” to communicate simply need some confidence (good media skills training) before they too can become visible in the public and policy domain and benefit from the rewards of a career where public and policy communication is strategically integrated as part of their research.

    • David Shiffman · November 3, 2015

      Not having any time to do things that aren’t part of your job because you are busy doing things that are part of your job is not “hiding behind an excuse.” Insulting people who are just trying to survive in a competitive and stressful field is not a good way to win people over.

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