Science Soundbites

Journalists rely on soundbites to concisely convey what sources know. As scientists craft and hone main messages about their research, they can think ahead to what kinds of soundbites they’d like to see in news reporting.

When scientists develop their own soundbites, they’re ultimately helping journalists do their jobs and they’re increasing the likelihood that they and their scientific peers will be happy with the resulting media coverage. Importantly, good soundbites also help messages stick, whether its with the media or with other public-facing audiences.

These soundbite classifications are based on ones originally identified in The Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media from the Union of Concerned Scientists and I delve into soundbites a bit more in my Udemy course on science communication.

Put your findings in perspective

Quotes like these help journalists convey why a finding stands out or where it fits in with the bigger picture. These are the most common kind of science soundbites, particularly when it comes to describing new research findings.

  • “What’s unprecedented about this die-off is, first the spatial extent of this die-off, which covers most of southern Alaska,” Renner said. “Second, it represents an extended period of time.” (Data gaps hinder explanation for Alaska seabird die-off, Associated Press, 2/4/16)
  • “For the Arctic this is definitely the strangest winter I’ve ever seen,” said Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, which tracks sea and land ice around the world. (“Unusually warm Arctic winter stuns scientists with record low ice extent for January,” 2/6/16)
  • “The nasal dome is a completely new structure for mammals — it doesn’t look like anything you could see in an animal that’s alive today,” study author Haley O’Brien of Ohio University said in a statement. (“This ancient wildebeest was surprisingly dinosaur-like,” Washington Post, 2/5/16)
  • “We often hear about how new species are being discovered from remote corners of the Earth, but what is remarkable is that these spiders are in our own backyard,” Auburn University’s Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study,said in a statement. (“New species of tarantula found near Folsom Prison named for Johnny Cash,” Washington Post, 2/5/16)

Paint a picture

Be descriptive. Tell journalists what you’ve seen and heard. You can also use visual metaphors to help people picture the phenomena you’re talking about.

  • Joyce Zhu, a doctoral student, went to collect samples at a Flint hospital, looking for signs of the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’. “When I turned on the tap, you see this corrosive, reddish, brownish tap water,” she said. “It’s that moment that made it so real.” (“As Flint Fought to Be Heard, Virginia Tech Team Sounded Alarm,” New York Times, 2/6/16)
  • “…the entire assembly folds up like origami, allowing the completed mirror to fit inside the payload space of an Ariane 5 rocket.”  (“Gigantic Space Telescope’s Main Mirror Now Complete,” Bad Astronomy blog on Slate, 2/5/16)
  • “The huge advantage of millimetre wave is access to new spectrum because the existing cellphone spectrum is overcrowded. It’s packed and there’s nowhere else to go,” says Jacques Rudell, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and specialist in this technology. (“Project Skybender: Google’s secretive 5G internet drone tests revealed,” The Guardian, 2/1/16)

Parallel structure and alliteration

This sort of sentence construction is very common in speeches and op-eds. It works for sound-bites, too. These phrases can be memorable because they rely on using the same or similar-sounding words or phrases to drive home a point, not unlike a catchy advertising jingle.

  • “It’s really up to the beekeepers. When they keep their bees healthy, they also keep the wild pollinators healthy….” (“Scientists say spread of virus that’s killing honeybees ‘a man-made thing’,” Washington Post, 2/7/16)
  • “To better understand the ecosystems that we want to preserve, we need to better understand sharks.” (“Shark with lowest known metabolism is a sluggish success,” Phys.org, 2/2/16)

Show a little emotion

You don’t want all your quotes to be emotional, of course, but don’t be afraid to show the human side of conducting research or the real-world benefits your research delivers to people. Research conclusions can also make audiences hopeful, fearful or worried, so it can be worth bringing those emotions to the surface, too.

  • “It is rare and it is exciting,” Mr. Weldt said of this opportunity for a do-over. “I was jumping when I saw the first one and the second one. It’s something you don’t want to miss when working as a biologist in a cave.” (“In a Slovenian Cave, Hoping for a Batch of Baby ‘Dragons’,” New York Times, 2/5/16)
  • “Closing down climate research capacity at a time of rapid global warming is not just short-sighted, it borders on the insane,” said [Stefan Rahmstorf, a German climate researcher]. “A country that amputates its ability to analyse and understand climate change in its own region will simply harm itself – it is basically setting out to adapt to a changing climate blindfolded.” (“CSIRO scientist criticizes cuts,” Sydney Morning Herald, 2/5/16)

Cliches and cultural references

Borrow phrases and ideas from topics that other people are familiar with. These sort of quotes can be a great hook for talking about your research because they tap into what people already know.

  • “Just like Google Earth changed the way people look at geography, a sophisticated tree of life browser could really change the way we look at the life around us,” said Mark W. Westneat, the director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. (“Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life,” New York Times, 2/9/2009)
  • Climate change gives us “extreme weather on steroids.” (“Steroids, Baseball and Climate Change,” University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, 2/12)
  • “There are quite a few studies out there on the psychology of skepticism, but the insights are scattered across so many bitsy data sets and so many different disciplines it was hard to see the forest for the trees,” said the new paper’s lead author Matthew Hornsey, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. “The meta-analysis was a chance to step back and to get that birds-eye view. It’s like a Monet painting – the more you step back, the more it makes sense.” (“Science confirms it: Denial of climate change is all about the politics,” Washington Post, 2/22/16)
  • Ben Neuman, an expert on viruses at Britain’s University of Reading, says there are many hurdles ahead. “To be useful, a Zika vaccine would need to be effective and safe, but it’s difficult to do both,” he told Reuters. “It’s a balancing act.” (“Scientists’ path to usable Zika vaccine strewn with hurdles,” The Star, 2/3/16)
  • “The planet is not quite as lonely as we first thought, but it’s certainly in a very long distance relationship.” (“Scientists have discovered the widest solar system,” Associated Press, 1/27/16)