The Research-Media Partnership

Table of Contents

The Research-Media Partnership

The care and feeding of journalists

As a member of the CIHR family, your work is potentially of interest to the media and theaudiences they serve. The research-media interaction can be a great opportunity for you to share your knowledge and enthusiasm and promote the work of CIHR.

Of course, like any partnership, working with the media can have its ups and downs. Have you ever heard a colleague, or maybe yourself, say something like "I can't believe that my 25-minute interview ended up as a 15-second sound bite"? This guide will help you get beyond that media-induced exasperation. The better you understand how the mass media works, the easier it will be to communicate your research to the public. This guide is designed to make you media savvy, to help you respond to a call from a journalist and see it as a professional opportunity-the chance to share important research with thousands or millions of people.

For CIHR, professional interaction with the media is essential for three main reasons:

  1. Media coverage is a key part of research translation

    The professional journal article is one step in the research communication process. Coverage in the mass media is another. The popularization of research:

    • Provides researchers with critical public feedback;
    • Is a powerful force for cross-disciplinary communication;
    • Increases future professional reference to research journal articles;
    • Informs the public and decision-makers.
  2. The media significantly influences funding decisions for universities, hospitals and research granting agencies

    Positive media coverage of CIHR and its grant recipients promote federally-funded research in that it:

    • Demonstrates both the accountability and relevance of the research;
    • Demonstrates the value of public investment in Canadian research;
    • Boosts federal and provincial research policy.
  3. Canadians want to hear about your research

    Canadians have an enormous appetite for research results of all kinds. This interest in research is manifest in such daily science/research-based TV news shows, and the Discovery Health channel. The media are also the public's single most important information source on science and health.

The Media

Inside the Black Box

When dealing with the media, think of yourself as a research ambassador. The better you understand media culture, the better you can represent your own.

What, for example, are the professional motivations and challenges of the journalist on the other end of the phone? And how does a story move from the labor library to an item on the TV news? This process can seem as complicated to the uninitiated as the details of a newly discovered protein pathway are to a TV V-jay. Here's a brief behind-the-scenes look at the key aspects of the mass media universe.

  1. Mass media are entertainment and news business

    Why did Harrison Ford's picture receive more space than the announcement of your research results? In a highly competitive business, editors and producers must appeal to a broad, popular audience.

    It's essential to make your message as accessible as possible.
    Think: How does your research touch Canadians' daily lives?
  2. Here today, gone tomorrow

    All journalists live by merciless deadlines. This is particularly true in TV and radio.

    When dealing with a journalist, it's critical to reply promptly and understand the particular timeline involved.
    Ask: What's your deadline?
  3. News is the first draft of history

    First drafts inevitably contain errors. Getting a news story to print or broadcast is a complex information transfer process. One media analyst estimates that the daily media has an error rate ashigh as 10 - 25%.

    Minimize the level of error by being concise and providing written background material.
  4. Journalists don't write headlines

    Headline writers write headlines, and they are often under pressure to pump-up the text. A sensational or misleading headline may annoy the reporter as much as it does you.

The Media and Researchers

Researchers are from Mars, journalists are from Venus

Researchers may feel like you and the journalist are living in different worlds. You are. The two professions use different language, have distinct professional customs and operate in different time zones. Once you understand these differences you'll be able to communicate more effectively with the media.

  1. Peer Review vs. The Scoop

    In contrast to peer review, it's part of the journalist's code of ethics to keep the final content of a story under wraps until it goes to print or air. This practice is a firewall to maintain journalistic objectivity. The guideline can, however, sometimes be bent when it comes to complex research.

  2. The Inverted Pyramid

    Want to turn a scientific journal article into a news story? Turn it upside down and lead with the conclusion. Whereas the final results in a research paper are contained at the end, to the mass media these results are the story.

    Share the detailed conclusions first.
  3. The 8-Year-Old Rule

    Like all professions, yours has developed specialized language to communicate specific details. But technical terms can leave even a science writer grasping for context. The mass media communicate with a broad audience of varying backgrounds and levels of education. If the message isn't clear, the audience will "switch off."

    Explain your research as you would to a bright eight-year-old. Use uncomplicated language-avoid jargon, acronyms and technical terms.
  4. Time Lines

    Researchers accustomed to multi-year research projects are often annoyed by the mass media's rapid fire race to print or broadcast research results. However, while a research project takes years to accomplish, the daily media operate in hours, and sometimes even minutes.

    Understand and respect journalists' deadlines.

Ms Manners meets the 5th Estate

General guidelines for working with journalists

Once you have a general sense of how the media operates, there are several basic rules ofetiquette when dealing with them.

Respond promptly to media enquiries
One of the best ways to maintain positive ties, and increase media coverage of CIHR or a research project is to provide timely replies. If you can't respond immediately to a request for an interview, call the journalist to say when you can talk or, if appropriate, pass the request on to a colleague and follow up with the journalist.

Stick to the facts
The easiest way to avoid coverage you don't like is to stick to the facts (rather than opinion) as they relate to your research, program or policy. If a question is outside your immediate domain, say so. Avoid personal comments or opinions about political issues, management policies, activities and/or staff.

There is no such thing as "Off-the-record"
Really. While it may make for cinematic intrigue, in practice it's disastrous. For the journalist, everything you say is potentially useable.

Tell the truth (even if it hurts!)
Fibbing is bad manners under most circumstances, but a potential quagmire with the media. To areporter, a lie, however small, has the smell of larger scandal. It also seriously reduces your long-term credibility.

Never say "No comment"
"No comment" stonewalls journalists and implies a level of culpability to listeners, regardless of the truth of the situation. There is always a more tactful answer. For example: "I can't respond to questions at this time" or "I think my comments would be premature."

Maintain a professional relationship
Like all professionals, most journalists are highly conscientious and want their work to be accurate and of high-quality. Maintaining a professional relationship based on respect, humour and cordiality, will, in time, create a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.

Hot issue? Designate a spokesperson
For complex issues it is often best to identify one person to field media enquiries in order to ensure a consistent and clear message.

Quick Tips to Popularizing Research

From myocardial infarction to heart attack

The Interview

Get in the passenger seat with the map

The interview is the bread and butter of media-research interaction. Yet, the thought of doing a media interview is unnerving for many people. This anxiety is often caused by the perception that in an interview you will be a powerless object at the whim of a journalist's questions.

BUT, as the interviewee you have an agenda and are in a powerful position to share your message. To use an analogy, the interviewer is driving the car, but you hold the road map. You must know where you want to go and how to get there.

Remember the following universal interview guidelines:

  1. Don't say anything that you don't want the whole world to hear.
  2. If you don't know the answer, say so. Don't guess or speculate. With phone interviews, tell the reporter you'll call back or send any missing information.
  3. Never argue with a reporter. Reporters always have the last word.
  4. Be clear from the start on whose behalf you're speaking. Do you represent the granting agency, your university or hospital, your research team, yourself?
  5. Respond to questions in your own terms. Don't let journalists put words in your mouth. If the journalists fail to ask a key question, you can raise it yourself.

The Interview

Prepare, Perform, Post-Script

An interview, like a friendly sports match, has three stages: the preparatory warm-up, in which you go through the motions; the game itself; and the post-game locker room follow-up. Each of these stages is important to a successful interview.

Pre-Interview Checklist

Be prepared. That way you'll be relaxed and at your best in the interview. Here's one routine for a vigorous pre-interview workout.

Be proactive. Ask the journalist the following questions based on the medium involved, i.e. printer broadcast:

  1. What's the journalist's name, phone number, and media organization?(-so you'll be able to follow-up if necessary, and pass the information on to your public affairs and media relations division).
  2. What's the focus of the interview/story?
  3. What's the deadline?
  4. How long will the interview last, and where will it be conducted?
  5. When will the story be printed/broadcast?
  6. Is anyone else being interviewed on the subject?
  7. Is the interview part of a longer feature or story, or will it stand on its own?
  8. Will the interview be live or taped (TV/Radio)?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can decide if you want to-or are the appropriate person to-give the interview. If the answer is 'Yes,' then it's time to prepare.

  1. Arrange the interview at a time and place that suits your comfort level
    When you get a call for an immediate phone interview, you may well want time to think. Take it.
    Arrange a time to call back, respecting the journalist's deadline-perhaps in 15 minutes. When arranging a phone interview, make sure to find a quiet room in which you won't be disturbed. Media deadlines and studio locations will often dictate when and where radio and television interviews will take place. But there's always room for congenial negotiation.
  2. Prepare 3 key messages
    Write down the three (3) concise key messages that you want get across to the public.
    These three messages are your mantra, the essence of what you want to say. For example: research results and their relevance to the public; or the benefits of CIHR policy. TV and radio interviews will often involve a pre-interview by a producer. This is an ideal time to drive home your key messages and thereby steer the path for the interview.
  3. Practice your messages
    Practice making your key points in 15 to 20 seconds.
    Brief quotes are more likely to be used-especially on TV and radio. If you can get your point across in 15 seconds, you'll probably get to deliver that message to the public in your own words. Ask a colleague to listen to your key points and offer feedback. While this might feel awkward, it's better to practice with a friend than on national TV.
  4. Anticipate negative questions and practice responses
    Have someone in Communications or a colleague play
    devil's advocate and rehearse your responses to difficult
    questions you may be asked.
  5. The Interview

Be message-rather than question-driven

Here are five concrete steps for achieving your interview goal to clearly and powerfully share your messages during the interview.


After the interview, offer to provide the journalist with written reference material (i.e. a press release, journal article, or other background material). This is one of the best ways to increase the accuracy of the coverage because now the journalist doesn't have to prepare a complex story solely from scrawled notes and a possibly incomplete interview. Other tips:

Want a copy?

The easiest way to get a copy of an article or broadcast is to ask your university or research institute's Public Affairs Division for one.

Radio and TV

When the red light goes on, the picture's worth a thousand words

Television and radio interviews are performances-there is an audience, though you can't see it at the time. Given this fact, here are several points to remember in broadcast interviews. Research indicates that only 7% of our TV message comes from our choice of words. The vast majority of the message is based on appearance (55%), and tone and attitude (38%).

Treat the interview as a conversation with one person
This will foster a relaxed, conversational tone.

Look at the interviewer, not the camera in a person-to-person TV interview
For 'double-enders,' in which you're interviewed by phone while being filmed, look into the camera.

Dress for the camera
An interview is a professional activity that requires professional attire. So, choose clothing that makes you feel professionally comfortable. Avoid visual distractions: very bright white or primary colours; loudly patterned materials; and shiny or dangling jewellery. Ask if the producer has any preferences-some colours may not work well in a given studio.

Location, Location, Location
For television interviews, choose a location in which your institution and CIHR's logo is clearly visible in the shot.

What to do when the media get it wrong

Everyone makes mistakes. All journalists are under a variety of structural constraints (space or deadlines) that limit their ability to use all of an interview. So it's important to make a distinction between a severely edited quote/statement and a misquote, i.e. one that's just plain wrong. There are also cases when we're shocked to see our words in print, but in fact did say them. But, if you've been misquoted there are numerous avenues of recourse. To begin the journey:

Your Communications Specialists

Like most research, media relations is a collaborative effort that involves a wide array of players: journalists; communications and media relations officers; researchers; and granting agency members and staff. To smooth this process, CIHR's Communications Branch offers media relations support to members of Governing Council, staff, Institute spokespersons and research grant recipients. That support includes:

A note on bilingualism
Media interviews/requests from CIHR staff are available in French and English. If you don't feel comfortable doing media interviews in one or the other of Canada's official languages, arrange for someone else to respond to those media requests.

Acknowledging CIHR
In order for CIHR to communicate research developments or discoveries effectively and maximize visibility for both CIHR and the researcher's organization, close collaboration between the lead investigator, his or her institution and CIHR is essential when planning and implementing public announcements of research findings. News releases or a news conference as well as any written material produced to promote findings by CIHR-funded researchers must have the joint approval of the University Vice-President of Research (or his/her delegate), the President of CIHR (or his/her delegate) and the lead investigator(s).

CIHR-funded researchers should inform, in advance, the office of the Vice-President of Research and CIHR, through the CIHR University Delegate, of all significant reporting of knowledge marked for publication in a scientific journal.

Communications Contact Information:

Director General:
Christina Cefaloni
Director General, Communications and Public Outreach

Media Specialist:
David Coulombe

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