Every day around the world, thousands of journalists are checking their rolodexes and email address books to find expert sources to comment on the news of the day.
Should you be on their lists?
If you’re reading this publication, the answer could very well be yes. Of course not everyone can be an expert source, but the truth is that IEEE members (and others in high-tech professions) are in many ways uniquely pre-qualified. They’re highly educated people working in cutting-edge niche fields, something that doesn’t describe the majority of people. That intrinsic expertise has value.
What Makes an Expert?
Okay, so let’s assume that you’re an expert. What exactly, then, is an expert source?
Put simply, an expert source is someone a journalist can turn to for outside commentary on a current news story or greater context about a broader issue. “They can provide expert insight into new research findings or specific subjects,” says Matthew Shipman, research communications specialist for North Carolina State University and the author of the new book, Handbook for Science Public Information Officers (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He says this expertise can offer context to help readers understand new science or its implications.
Journalists turn to expert sources for a few key reasons. Sometimes writers need an unbiased opinion about a newly announced scientific discovery or a technology that just hit the market. Other times they turn to experts for perspective on the broader news stories of the day, or for articles that dive deeper than that, like the career focus articles you’ll find here on IEEE-USA InSight. Either way they provide depth and greater context to a report in a way that benefits the reader or viewer.
Becoming an Expert Source
Where do journalists locate these experts? Well, there are quite a few places. Reporters can start off with the public relations or communications departments of companies, universities or other organizations to see if they have knowledgeable people willing to be interviewed on a given topic. Many journalists also turn to LinkedIn or Twitter and search various key words to find people working in or talking about a given industry. Similarly, search engines such as Google can reveal sources if they have their own web pages.
In addition, professional organizations such as IEEE often maintain their own expert lists, as do some outside organizations. For example, the Women’s Media Center recently launched a service called SheSource to help reporters improve the diversity of their sources.
Of course, once a journalist finds you, the next challenge is to make sure that you’re actually going to be a good source. That starts with some advance preparation. For example, you may want to ask if your organization offers any media training. Shipman says part of his job is to provide his university’s experts with training, “so that they’re able to explain their work effectively and be more comfortable having these conversations with reporters.”
The more you prepare, the more comfortable you’ll be, says Kate McCarthy, director of SheSource. That means working on your message. “Try and decide what you want to say and why, then practice it.” She suggests working with a friend or colleague to get used to answering questions a reporter might ask.
Many potential experts in high-tech or scientific fields worry that they’re going to be asked to “dumb things down.” Instead, Shipman says the goal is to make the subject you’re talking about accessible. Take a step back and think about how the subject you’re discussing is going to be perceived by someone who doesn’t have your years of experience, knowledge or industry insider shorthand. “In many instances, researchers have enormous expertise and often aren’t even aware of how much they know relative to the public,” he says. “They’re not aware of how little most people know compared to them about whatever the subject is.”
Serving the Topic, Without Being Self-Serving
It’s also important to be intellectually prepared. “Go into an interview with the goal of being honest and serving the science to the best of your ability,” suggests Shipman. “Input from an expert really helps reporters place work in the proper context. The reporter benefits because they’re able to write a better story. The reader benefits because they’re going to have a more complete understanding of what’s going on.”
One thing you don’t want to do is try to make the story about yourself. “We don’t want somebody who’s just self-promoting,” McCarthy says. “You’re not going out there to get someone to say you’re great. You’re doing it to say the work or the topic is great and that it’s potentially changing the world.”
Even if you’re not being self-serving, being an expert source can serve you well. “If a person is presented as an expert in their field, then that raises both their profile and the profile of their research program,” says Shipman. It could help you find collaborators, or it could help with your next promotion. “If a person can cite that they’ve been quoted in an article or on TV or the radio, it absolutely helps with their career,” says McCarthy.
Being an expert source can also help to improve important skills, says Cecelia Abadie, director of APX Labs, who frequently talks to the media about wearable technologies. “Knowing how to communicate better helps you in every aspect. Communication, if you think about it, is at the heart of everything you do.”
Know When to Say 'No'
Most reporters work on pretty tight deadlines, so if you’re acting as an expert source it’s important to answer any requests quickly. Sometimes that response might just be to politely decline if you’re traveling, working on your own deadlines, or are otherwise unable to serve as an expert on a timely basis.
You might also need to turn down a request if you feel you’re not the right expert for the story. If that’s the case, don’t feel bad to admit it. As a writer, I often reach out to potential sources who reply by connecting me with someone else they feel would offer more relevant comments for my stories. That’s always appreciated, and it makes me more likely to return to the original source when the right topic finally comes around.
That’s the last thing to know about being an expert source: journalists often return to people they know and trust or who have provided good commentary for other reporters. If you do a good job once, chances are you’ll be asked to do it again, and again, and again. And who knows where that might lead?
John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSight, Scientific American, TakePart and other publications.