State Leadership Conference

Getting a clear, focused message about psychology out through the media can be a daunting task. Psychologists run the risk of oversimplifying the science. Reporters may overstate how broadly a small study’s findings apply to the population at large. But with the right preparation, psychologists can effectively talk to reporters about their science and practice experience or comment on psychologically relevant topics in the news, said a panel of media experts at a session of the State Leadership Conference.

Psychologists should avoid the technical jargon and statistical equations they’d use when talking about science with their peers and instead opt for simpler narratives, said Wayne Holden, PhD, a researcher and clinical psychologist and executive vice president of the surveying firm Social, Statistical and Environmental Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “Get rid of all the graphs and tell some stories,” Holden said.

The best stories are those that illustrate a psychological principle you’re describing using scenarios that readers can relate to. For example, Holden said, if you’re describing the plight of children’s mental health people aren’t going to respond as powerfully to numbers and data trends as they are to stories of children and families suffering and the reasons why.

Deborah Kotz, a science journalist who’s covered health topics for more than 20 years for the Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, and other publications, agreed that psychological science is a rich source for compelling stories. “I very much rely on psychologists for my reporting,” she said.

If a reporter contacts you to discuss a psychology-related story, your first step is to find out what kind of story it’s going to be, Kotz said. If it’s a short news piece, think of ways to condense your message to just a couple of sentences. “Think in terms of sound bites,” she said. If the reporter is working on a larger feature, try to weave in historical information and expand on some of the more complex ideas.

Audiences will also want concrete statements about what the science says. That can be tricky for psychologists, Holden said, because psychologists are used to talking about implications in terms of “mights” and “coulds.”

It’s tough to strike the right balance between maintaining objectivity and educating the readers on what the evidence suggests, he said, but it helps if you can think in terms of an overarching message you’d like to convey.

To help do that, psychologist Mary Alvord, PhD, APA public education coordinator for Maryland, created a mnemonic process called REPAC to “repackage” psychology for a mass media audience:

  • Responsive: Call or e-mail reporters back quickly.
  • Ethical: Don’t discuss your clients in any identifiable way and don’t step outside your expertise.
  • Prepare: Review the relevant research. If the reporter’s story is grounded in a specific research article by a different researcher, ask for a copy.
  • Accurate: Stay true to what the science says and don’t overstate the implications. Back up what you say with data.
  • Comprehensible: Avoid jargon and use easy-to-understand comparisons.

Alvord, who directs a clinical practice based in two offices in Rockville and Silver Spring, Md., and has spoken about stress and anxiety to publications such as The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, said the fear of speaking to the media or getting misquoted shouldn’t get in the way of the opportunity to bring psychology to those it might not reach otherwise.

“For us as psychologists, it’s such an opportunity to reach people beyond our own audience,” Alvord said.