At long last Danny and my paper on loss of phylogenetic diversity in neotropical agricultural systems is out in corporeal form! In cliff note form we find that while agriculture can support bird species from across the avian tree of life, it tends to favor younger, more recently diversified species, whereas the older, more evolutionarily distinct species have difficulty. Nevertheless not all agriculture is created equal, and by increasing the amount of tree cover and vegetative complexity on farms you can support nearly double the number of species that can exist on more industrialized farms (thereby saving ~600 million years of evolutionary history that would have otherwise been locally lost).
Because this was published in a high profile journal, the media seem to care much more than they usually would, giving me a little bit more basking time in the (admittedly, none-too-bright) limelight than would normally come my way as a graduate student (e.g. here, here, and here).
There’s been a great deal written about the often strained relationship between scientists and the media, especially as science desks at major newspapers dry up and crumble away like Claudia in a sun-tunnel (of ‘Interview with a Vampire’ fame). However, most of the interviews went quite well, and all the journalists I talked to did an admirable job distilling what could be a very messy concept into a form that could be relatively intuitive to the general public. Yet there were some aspects of talking to the media that I found somewhat unexpected, and I think meditating on these topics briefly may be of some benefit—if for no other reason than to adjust my own expectations and plans for the next time.
- Scheduling. Some reporters can be surprisingly flakey. Multiple reporters set up appointments to call for interviews and then missed them, only to attempt to reschedule a day later. As the media tries to rely on fewer reporters to cover more and more topics I suppose it’s not surprising that journalists end up with unexpected deadlines, and science stories (which tend not to be front and center breaking news) would naturally be put on the backburner. Fortunately it’s the summer so my schedule was pretty devoid of anything concrete, but I could easily see this being a source of annoyance during a busier, more regimented time of the school year.
- Misquotes. This is a perennial problem, and a constant source of paranoia. A few of these cropped up in an article or two—nothing tremendously serious, just a few swapped words that somewhat obliterated the sense-making capacity of the sentence, and a little confusion about what particular random natural history fact pertained to which species. This however seemed especially problematic when dealing with words that rhyme over a phone connection jammed by 1-ft think walls originating from the 1960’s over-fondness for concrete (i.e. ‘extinct’ and ‘distinct’). I’ll remember to take interviews in line of sight of a cellphone tower, to enunciate very clearly, to cheerlead the demolition of the current Stanford biology building so it can be replaced by one that doesn’t inherently act as a cell jammer, to avoid using words that rhyme with other words, and to ask (probably with no hope of agreement given the way deadlines in journalism work) for reporters to send me copies of the quotes they’re going to use so I can spot check them for craziness.
- Quotable moments. So I knew from listening to interviews of people on the radio and general exposure that you’re supposed to stick to the point, and not meander aimlessly down tangents. This is hard for me, as there are so many absolutely fascinating tangents in the world. I certainly got better at it over the course of the few interviews I did, and I suppose practice makes perfect. I also knew that having a few prepackaged sound bites to let the journalists use as quotes would help. Journalists took my sound bite ‘bait’ about 50% of the time (i.e. the overly used, but still useful biodiversity stock market metaphor, ‘not all agriculture is created equal’, etc). I got immense enjoyment reading the articles and seeing which quotes they decided to use. Sometimes, though, they choose the strangest damn things to quote. Not surprisingly, the prepackaged sound bites sounded way more coherent to me when quoted than when they quoted me talking off the cuff regarding some subject that I didn’t anticipate. This tells me a) that I should probably learn to shut up when I feel like I’ve strayed too far off the point, and b) to have a larger supply of punchy one line statements about stuff connected to my work. Please send me any of the latter if you have any particularly clever additions. I’d love to add them to the repertoire.
- Random moments of genius due to press-induced hysteria. So yeah, talking to reporters for essentially the first time was a little stressful. This media-stress led to both some terrible incoherent garbage, but also a few flashes of potentially useable material as the inner turmoil generated an upwelling of subconscious nutrients to the surficial layers of my brain. When asked “What are your policy recommendations?” I panicked (as this could actually be important) but thought of the large benefits in terms of total phylogenetic diversity preserved if farms possessed even minimal vegetative complexity. I blurted out the Portlandia-esque “If you have a plot of land, put a tree on it”. If there’s nothing else we’ve established in Costa Rica it’s that birds sure do love those trees. Still, I think “Put a tree on it” has lots of potential for the conservation zeitgeist. Do take note, oh manufacturers of ecofriendly apparel (but please cite the relevant studies on the back of the shirt).
- Interviews versus no interviews. The final observation is that press articles that actually interview you do way better getting the research correct than the ones that go it alone and simply attempt to re-summarize a press release. Some of articles I found in this latter category simply approach the surreal and bizarre. So I suppose the final message is that talking to journalists really does help make science more accessible to the general public.