Experts: Who needs ’em and why?

Editor’s note: A session titled “Experts: Who needs ’em?” with a panel of three writer/experts experienced in science communication will be presented at the OWAA annual conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., in June.
By Mary J. Nickum
We all need experts. We call on experts all the time in our daily lives. Every time we visit our family physician, go to a hair stylist or take our cars to the repair shop we are seeking the services of an expert. Why shouldn’t we consult an expert when we’re communicating science to the public? Few of us as writers have the expertise necessary to explain adequately how cancer cells invade surrounding tissue or how an e-mail message travels on the Internet. Just the fact that someone hunts, fishes or photographs wildlife doesn’t mean that person is an expert on fish and wildlife. We need to consult experts in these subject areas. How do you distinguish among real experts, pretenders, and ambitious individuals who want to use you to publicize their work and ideas?
When writing a feature article for a magazine, you’ll almost always have to find people to validate what you say. So if you’re working on an article on, say, breast cancer, you’ll need to interview experts who can explain technical terms and the benefits of treatment, patients who’ve battled the disease, and maybe even a couple of celebrities who are willing to share their experiences. After all, the primary objective of any writer is to have a basic understanding of the subject and then to find the best way to communicate that information to the target audience.
Getting a useful interview is harder than you might think. Many scientists are notoriously fond of jargon. Getting them to stop using it can be next to impossible. The approach one writer suggests is to tell your subject to pretend you are a potential funder, that you’re drunk and don’t have the faintest idea what his work is, but he won’t get a penny unless he can explain his work to you. If that method is unsuccessful, keep looking until you find an expert who is capable of explaining the topic so that you understand it.
Your readers hold you to a high standard of accuracy. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions until you get it straight, and don’t be afraid to keep going back to your sources to clarify points, check facts and get responses to new information that comes up in your reporting. Science is a highly competitive enterprise, filled with lively and interesting characters. Writing about science by focusing only on the research data would be like covering Congress by focusing only on the language of the legislation. Conflicts can lead you to hot areas of research – the most intense fights tend to be about important scientific issues – and they can also be a way to write about difficult areas of science in a lively way.
So, your task then, as a writer tackling a science story assignment, is to “Get the facts, just the facts.” How do you find experts who can give you the facts? The Internet is your first line of attack, but, beware, anyone can put information on the Internet. Verify the information you find there. Think of it as getting a second opinion. With that word of caution, here are some strategies for finding experts.
Search databases: There are dozens of databases that contain listings of experts, along with their professional qualifications, details about their work and contact information. Some popular databases are:

  • Since 1994, has provided millions of users worldwide with access to the information and expertise that they need. As one of the nation’s most established and premier Internet registries, serves as a “who’s who” of experts at the top of their respective fields.
  • offers free Journalist News Media Resource benefits and Directory of Experts Listing information.

Hit the bookstores: Find out the authors and publishers of the latest books related to your subject by visiting a bookstore or Locate contact details of the author or publisher online and send them a request for interviews. Because authors are constantly looking for publicity, especially for their new books, they may be happy to help you.
Contact public relations people: They can be your best friends, or your worst nightmare, but PR people serve a very important purpose when it comes to connecting you to quotable, media-savvy professionals. Keep in mind, though, PR people themselves are not the experts. Do remember, too, that the larger your publication, the more likely PR people will respond to you.
Contact extension specialists at land grant universities: These individuals are specialists in their field, they have wide contacts within their fields, and a major part of their jobs is to communicate science to the public.
Be a collector: Companies often send out press releases regarding company changes, product launches and important events; authors announce their new books and professionals looking for publicity regularly offer tips and new ideas. The contact information for these people is on every press release and this is often the most helpful part of the document. The contacts have agreed to be listed and typically are very responsive to interview requests.

Find a professional association:
You’ll find dozens of associations, nonprofit organizations and clubs on almost every topic imaginable. Look up the Encyclopedia of Associations (a three-volume set) at your library and find a group that’s relevant to your subject of interest. You can call the organization and ask the public affairs department to recommend someone. You can also do this with the public affairs offices at universities.
The best idea of all is to use a combination of several of the above techniques, instead of relying solely on one. That will not only give you a quick selection of experts, but the most credible ones as well. And that’s bound to help in securing more lucrative assignments.
marynickumMary J. Nickum is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in World Aquaculture, Northern Aquaculture, Aquaculture Magazine and Fish Farming News. She’s been an OWAA member since 2000.

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