I’ve written before about the importance of finding not just any expert but one with detailed expertise in the specific area you need when covering a study. In that context, it was with COVID-19, but the same holds true with any research. If you’re covering a nutrition study, calling up any nutritionist to get an outside opinion does not ensure you are getting a fully informed opinion from someone familiar with the evidence. You need a nutrition researcher who is very familiar with the specific research in the paper.
Another example: If you’re writing about a head-to-head study between two immunotherapy drugs for kidney cancer, you can’t call up any oncologist. You need to speak to an oncologist and/or researcher who specialized in kidney cancer and has either conducted or closely followed the research specifically on immunotherapy in patients with kidney cancer.
So what do you do if you are assigned a study in an area you know very little about — too little to know how to determine who might even be the best expert to ask?
I was recently in that exact situation. I was assigned to cover a study on a disease I’ve written about only a couple times in my career and rarely about the nitty gritty research. It’s an incredibly complex disease that’s seen a lot of research progress in recent years, but I hadn’t followed any of it. I knew nothing about who the big players were in the many, many, many subfields associated with this disease or even what those various subfields were. But I had a plan, and I turned it into a step-by-step tip sheet any other reporter could apply to any other study. The truncated version is below, but check out the full tip sheet on the AHCJ site.
1. Read the study Discussion section to find all references of studies they compare their research or findings to.
2. Copy and paste all those references into a list.
3. Go through the list of references to find papers whose titles suggest they’re closely related to what the study you’re covering is about. Especially look for reviews of the evidence.
5. Narrow the papers down to the most recent ones (ideally the last three years).
6. Go to PubMed to get the full list of authors for each of these papers.
7. While looking up the references on PubMed, keep an eye out for other studies (“Recent Studies” on the right side of the page) relevant to the one you’re covering.
8. Compare the authors of the paper you’re covering to the authors of each study from your list. Eliminate the references whose authors overlap your study too much, or who share senior or lead authors. (Otherwise, they’re not independent enough.)
9. Note where the authors are located in case you have to consider time zone differences, your publication’s audience needs, or potential language barriers. If you’re on a tight deadline, consider that people at the NIH or CDC might take longer to reach. Create a list of possible outside experts.
10. Read the institutional bios of each of these outside expert contenders to confirm their expertise is relevant. (People may have a small role in a study on a topic they have limited expertise in.)
11. Reach out to the people most underrepresented in the media on this topic (nearly always women and people of color).
12. If you need one or two outside opinions and are on a short deadline, reach out to three people first.
13. During interviews, ask if there is someone you should especially talk to about the research for an outside opinion.
After filing the story, I add all these new sources to my massive spreadsheet that includes keywords for each possible source for future stories.