the electrons in your sunday paper aren’t charged


Yep, you read it here first.  Electrons aren’t charged.  At least, not according to this week’s Parade magazine.  In an article by Stephen Fried, sandwiched in-between celebrity gossip and a article questioning whether schools should be able to tie down unruly students is the following quote:

“Since then, 12 major subatomic particles have been discovered: six uncharged particles called leptons and six charged particles called quarks. Physicists have also identified five particles that carry force, known as bosons. The evasive Higgs is the only boson that has never been observed.”

I was clearly a little bleary eyed when my husband read that to me this morning.

“Wait – aren’t electrons leptons?” I asked, trying to remember the wall chart I used to pass every morning on my way to my office.

“Last I checked”, he said.

It is true that leptons don’t have color charge,  but quarks (and gluons) do.  Color charge (which has nothing to do with color) is sort of analogous to electrical charge.  Electrical charge can take on two values (which we call positive and negative).  Color charge has three values (which got called red, blue and green).

Luckily, most of the public doesn’t know that electrons are leptons and it’s July.  Otherwise, physics teachers across the country would be faced Monday morning with angry students demanding to know when (and why) electrons were stripped of their charge. 

Oh, and just incidentally, the Higgs is the only boson in the Standard Model that hasn’t been discovered.  Unless someone found the graviton and I just haven’t heard about it yet.  Those four words make a difference.

OK, my intent here isn’t to be snarky about the writer or the scientists who helped him with the article.  I bet that the article was a net positive for the scientific community because the people who read it got an idea of the magnitude of high-energy physics, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  (And I’ll take on the assertion that high energy physics “helped make possible such technologies as the Internet, MRI machines, radiation treatments for cancer, and superconductors”  somewhere else.  I’ll give them the Internet, but I’m yet to the convinced about the others.) 

The fact is, science is subtle and writing a two-page article that completely describes the search for the the origin of the universe is a near-to-impossible task.  But there are things we can do to try to make sure that the science is right.  Or at least, not wrong.  Jennifer’s mediagenicity column has some general principles for helping the media get the science right. I’ve spent the last year working with various types of media and I’ve learned (mostly through mistakes) some helpful concrete hints.  With a little care, you can help ensure that electrons are never again deprived of their charge in print again.

  1. Watch the notes the reporter is making if possible. They sometimes leave out phrases that they deem to be negligible, especially if you (like me) talk really fast. If you notice they omit something important, you can repeat the phrase and emphasize the part that was left out.  It helps to repeat yourself frequently.
  2. Speak in short sentences. The more the reporter has to edit what you say, the higher the likelihood that your quote gets garbled. Scientists often speak in tangents, especially when you start to say something, realize that you need to explain a word in what you just said, start to explain the new word and… where was I going with that? If you give the reporter short sentences, you increase the likelihood of them being used. Especially in television.
  3. Always ask the reporter for his or her email and give him or her your card with all your contact information including your cell phone number.  Reporters are usually on very tight schedules and they may have a question when you’re not in your office.  Make sure the reporter knows that he or she is welcome to contact you about anything.
  4. Send a follow up note.  Thank the reporter for interviewing you, but that’s not the real reason you send a follow up.  You know what you said.  Say it again in writing.  Tell the reporter that you wanted to follow up because you know that sometimes you’re not always as clear as you could be.  Print reporters especially often end up using what you sent rather than what they scribbled down because a) it’s direct from you, so they’re sure it’s right and b) when you say something a second time, you’re usually more succinct than when you said it the first time.
  5. If you’re doing television, ask if you can answer the question again.  Everything is digital, so it doesn’t cost them anything more to tape you a second time.  Why? See #3 – the first time you get asked a question, you’re talking and thinking at the same time.  I don’t do both well at the same time.  The second time you say it, you’ve already done the thinking about the content, so  you can focus on how to say it more precisely and concisely.
  6. Tell the reporter that need to make sure you aren’t misquoted because (to a large part) scientists live on their reputations.  I find that people respond better to your telling them that you want to avoid having anything wrong rather than insisting that everything be right.  It’s a subtle point: Yes, I realize that what you wrote is much shorter than what I said and that you’re limited in space.  Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.
  7. This is the most important one for print. Offer to review the article before it goes to press.  If they don’t want to let you do it, insist.  Make sure they know that you want to review it solely for scientific accuracy.  It’s not that you don’t trust them, but you know that they are trying to make something very complex accessible to a broad audience and you recognize that it’s not always an easy thing to do.  If you are at an institution that has media people, you can get them to be the bad guy and insist on this.  If you’re on your own, you just have to grit your teeth and do it.
  8. Don’t let one bad experience sour you on talking to the media.  Sure, you were quoted in a national newspaper as saying that neutrons have positive charge.  All your colleagues know that you know better.  The ones that say nasty things are just jealous that the reporter didn’t want to talk to them.
  9. (Added 7/29/09)  Brandon’s rule: Unless you have evidence to the contrary, go into every interaction with the media assuming that you and they want the same thing:  an interesting and accurate story that get the reader excited about science.  There are always some bad apples, but the vast majority of science writers/reporters love science just as much as the scientists.
  10. (Added 7/29/09)  Don’t get upset with the writer until you know it was the writer’s fault.  Scientists aren’t used to editors actually editing.  My fights with Phys. Rev. are about commas and n-dashes.  Writers have editors who occasionally have to trim a few words to make something fit and the writer often isn’t consulted on which words don’t make the cut.  So don’t be angry at the writer without due cause – he or she may be just as upset about the article as you are.

There’s another benefit of being a physicist and not a journalist: Electrons can’t sue for libel.

5 thoughts on “the electrons in your sunday paper aren’t charged”

  1. Excellent suggestions, all, but I’d clarify that most major media outlets on principle do not let sources review entire articles prior to publication. At best, they will read you your quotes over the phone, or send excerpts via email. It’s fine to ask, but depending on the media outlet, it just might not be possible.

  2. I second Jennifer’s comment. I’ve been a public information officer (a guy who works with reporters all day, every day) for about 15 years and have never had the opportunity to review an entire story before it’s printed. Quotes? Yes. Basic facts? Yes. Story? No.
    Just out of curiousity, have you every been able to do this, Diandra?

  3. I’ve had a very different experience than Jennifer and Brandon. I’ve not only been able to review entire stories when I asked, but ~80% of the time when I’ve worked with major press outlets, they’ve asked me to look at the story prior to publishing. There’s always a disclaimer that they don’t guarantee they’ll make changes and that they want your comments on factual accuracy only and not the writing. Some institutions do have a formal policy not to show the piece to the interviewees and in some cases, writers at these outlets have told me “please don’t tell anyone I let you look at it” (which is why I’m not naming names).
    But even if they only let you review your quotes, it’s still better than nothing. If they don’t offer, there’s no harm in asking, as long as you don’t do it with an “I’m pretty sure you’re going to get this wrong” attitude. I use the “I’ve been badly misquoted in the past and that caused me some problems with my Dean. If you’d be willing to just let me check my quotes for accuracy, I’d feel much better.”
    Then there’s the student newspaper at a university that shall remain unnamed (and is NOT UTDallas). I would talk with them only on condition that I could look at the story pre-printing because they were so careless and made so many mistakes and misquotes.
    When I interview people, I usually offer them the opportunity to read what I wrote with the same caveat that I want to make sure that a) they are comfortable with anything I attribute to them in quotes and b) there isn’t anything factually wrong. I’ve done that even when I was writing things that weren’t necessarily positive about the people. It seemed to me the appropriate thing to do and I have at least a couple places where an alert interviewee saved me from looking really dumb. But then again, I’m writing science popularization, not science news.

  4. Isaac Asimov was once asked what he thought of exec television producers. “They’re shoe salesmen”, he replied. In context of the whole conversation, what he meant is that it’s a stroke of luck to have any science-related TV programming at all, let alone that it be impeccably accurate. The physics gaffe in Parade was a real snicker-engine; but it’s not a catastrophe. I consider this sort of thing to be even productive, because it’s like experimental data which don’t fit the working theory. It’s an opportunity to make a better theory.
    And so this is an opportunity for those in the know (Diandra, et al) to pick up the baton and clarify the issue, to say it even better. There is a symbiosis between professional journalists & professional scientists. And of course that’s exactly what’s on display here! Good show, Diandra. You are a service to civilization.

  5. “I would talk with them only on condition that I could look at the story pre-printing because they were so careless and made so many mistakes and misquotes.”
    I like that! I’ve put individual reporters and some media outlets in “time out” due to grossly bad behavior before. Screw me once, shame on you; screw me twice, shame on me.
    And having good relations with individual reporters who help you out without letting the editor know is outstanding, as you mentioned. Making friends with reporters when possible rather than treating them like enemies would be a good point to include on your list in the post. Reporters are just regular folks like you and me trying to do their jobs and earn a living.

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