Reporting on Behavioral Science: A Glimpse inside the Television News Business

Andrea Gitow. Handbook on Communicating and Disseminating Behavioral Science. Editor: Melissa K Welch-Ross & Lauren G Fasig. Sage Publications. 2007.

The television news business is an ever-changing institution that increasingly relies on experts both to provide ideas and to help viewers understand complex events and the world around them. This chapter will discuss television news format, the role of producers, the ways that behavioral science becomes part of television news, and, finally, some tips for working successfully in this venue. Though the formats of the shows discussed may be different, the points and illustrations highlighted throughout this chapter apply to all the formats. They represent the needs of the industry, as well as the current ways of thinking about news and about the presentation of behavioral research in today’s press environment.

The Shows

When thinking about network and cable news, it’s not a “one-size-fits” all category. There are the morning shows, the network nightly newscasts, the long-format news magazine shows, and the cable outlets, a venue that tends to combines all three of the other formats. Each broadcast venue has its own format and, for the most part, its own needs. The morning shows are traditionally a combination of a general topic—“softer” pieces that focus largely on women’s issues (e.g., what’s the best way to argue with your spouse)—and series (e.g., the five ways to live a happier life). Morning shows tend to use the more traditional format of introducing a topic and then having an expert discuss it. While morning shows will always stick to the bread-and-butter story choices, such as “how to have a good relationship with your husband,” the shows are also always looking both for fresh angles to the more urgent news stories and for more interesting ways to tell the softer stories beyond introducing a topic and including a question-and-answer session with an expert.

When it comes to the softer stories, shows are beginning to use what we call a “cut” piece, a 1- to 2-minute fully produced story that highlights a particular issue, such as how to be optimistic or how to beat depression. The newsmagazines do much longer, more in-depth pieces that are usually driven by a person’s story that exemplifies a certain phenomenon, such as a story in which a patient with dissociative identity disorder (DID) commits a crime. The story then revolves around the question, Is the perpetrator guilty of the crime or not since his alter ego committed the crime? Or the story becomes about one victim of crime in a particular news event—for example, the shootings at Columbine. This one person, such as the man with DID or the victim at Columbine, is called a character. The character is used to illustrate a larger point, such as issues that arise in applying psychology to law or to a problem of violence and teens.

Newsmagazine reports now vary greatly in length. It used to be that they would be composed of three 12- to 14-minute spots, as in the 60 Minutes format. Today, they can range from multiparters to full-hour specials on one topic. The nightly news broadcasts are also now doing more in-depth reports, moving to character-driven stories, often producing a 1- to 2-minute story that involves one person’s tale. Still, they may do the “headline” that is a quick reading of a new finding in medical news, for example, although this practice is becoming increasingly rare.

What is becoming increasingly common, however, across all the shows is the creation of the sidebar story. This story is not about the facts, events, and timeline of the news story but about the issues that relate to them. The name sidebar comes from the newspaper in which you’ll see the main story front and center and then related stories surrounding it. Research from psychology and other sciences now tend to be sidebar stories. It is very rare in today’s news climate to find behavioral science as the news. Instead, you’ll find behavioral science used as a tool to help the audience understand a news event, explain a social phenomenon, and provide context to what’s happening in the world and what’s being reported on. As a result, those who seek to successfully pitch behavioral science should most often view the research as relevant to the news and events in our lives as opposed to being the news story itself and try to “sell” it as such.

So what are some examples of sidebar stories? Let’s take 9/11, for example. Mixed with the breaking news events of the day, network news, newsmagazine morning shows, and cable outlets did features that included “how to talk to your child about terrorism,” “what’s the psychology and science behind mass hysteria,” and “what is PTSD and are there ways to prevent it.” For Hurricane Katrina, sidebar stories included “how to make your child feel safe” and the “science of modern racism.” Likewise, main news stories about Columbine were done on the shooting itself. Sidebar reports featured behavioral research on conformity, obedience to authority, and forensic psychology. A victim of the infamous school shootings in Stockton, California, in 1989 was also interviewed to examine the long-term effects of witnessing such events. Sidebar stories are now a staple of the broadcast news shows. They are as likely to appear as the main features. Simply put, sidebar stories are here to stay.

The Producers

The job of a producer at each of these shows is tense and hectic, and he or she often has limited time to make decisions around stories. So what exactly does a producer do? Producers in the television news industry have different responsibilities than those in the movie industry, whose job focuses on money and the logistics of production. In broadcast journalism, think of the producer like a print reporter. He or she is responsible for getting the story, reporting on it, and, in many cases, writing or cowriting it. Broadcast is, however, a visual medium. As such, the producer has additional responsibilities such as envisioning what elements need to be shot, directing the camera crews in the field, screening all the footage, and sitting in on the edit. Whereas in newspaper reporting, the writer tends to work alone, in broadcast journalism, the producer works hand in hand with the correspondent or “on-air talent” whose face you see and who brings you the report.

Producers are also largely responsible for pitching stories to the show’s executives. Typically, a short pitch of no more than a few paragraphs is written up and submitted by a producer to the executive producers and senior producers, who decide what is a “go” and what is rejected outright. In some cases, they may send back the pitch asking for more details or asking the producer to rethink the format of the proposed piece. The producer has very little time and space to catch the attention of the executives, so pitches must always be concise and compelling. The pitch always needs a “hook,” something that ties it to current events, news of the day, an answer to a compelling question, or meaningful events in people’s everyday lives.

The producers generate story ideas through a number of sources. They may look through newspapers and magazine articles as the source of story ideas. They may call on contacts they have in the field and ask what new research is out there. They may also go back over previous research and think of how it relates to the world around them. Finally, producers may also ask themselves what is of interest out in the world—are there new social or cultural trends, does something seem to be a hot topic, what’s being discussed at the dinner tables and being seen on the streets? In other words, journalists work in two ways. They may either develop a story idea first and then look for relevant background and context that may lead them to behavioral science, or they may generate topics from research-based information they receive.

After a pitch is accepted, a producer typically jumps on the story right away. In a nightly newscast or morning show, he or she often has a day turnaround. He or she may pitch the story in the morning and have it on the broadcast that night or, in the case of a show such as NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America, or CBS’s The Early Show, the next morning. In-depth stories that often run 2½ minutes may take up to 1 week to produce. In a newsmagazine show, stories usually are produced within 3 months of the pitch, although the deadlines are getting more and more compressed as networks slash production budgets. Other times, however, a full hour is “crashed” in a day or two in response to breaking news, as with Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia, and Columbine. In this case, almost all of the staff and up to 10 producers and associate producers may crash an hour at the same time. Some producers are responsible for writing the piece, others for getting interviews, and others for sitting in the edit room “cutting” the story.

A common thread across all reporting is that producers must have good contacts with science experts to both pitch stories and to get good interviews. He or she works hard to cultivate these relationships and is always on the lookout for new contacts. Many producers also have specific “beats” and so specialize in particular areas of news coverage. Whereas a few shows do have general medical correspondents and producers (which, by the way, is always a good place for you to start making contacts), many shows have producers work on certain “types” of stories. Usually, producers will report on breaking news, though others tend to do “softer,” longer format stories. Producers develop an expertise—for example, in medical stories or in mental health spots—and then typically stick to doing the kinds of stories they know and do best.

Many shows also have story editors. Their job is to chart out the editorial flow of the broadcasts. They also have a lot to do with story selection, story choice, future directions of the show, and so on. They typically think of the big picture regarding their shows, including multipart shows that air over a number of nights or hour-long documentaries. Story editors rely on the pitches of the producers and also are responsible for generating story ideas themselves.

You should feel free to contact producers and story editors directly. Don’t be shy about it. Call a show and ask for the name of a producer who may cover psychology stories or who may have a medical beat. See if you can get a phone number or e-mail address and contact them directly to introduce yourself and explain what the science has to offer. Producers are always looking for new material and new content. So, for example, if you are watching a newsmagazine show and you like a story in particular, get the name of that producer. Newsmagazines always put the name of the producer at the start and end of the show. Present your ideas and your work and why you believe it should be of interest to the show. If you’re having a hard time reaching a producer directly, you should also feel free to contact the show’s story editor. You may also want to call both and tell the story editor you’ve been speaking with a specific producer and ask if you should speak with anyone else.

Angles That Can Make Behavioral Science Useful to Longer Format Television News
As you’ll recall, it’s the exception rather than the rule to have behavioral science findings reported as the news story. It used to be that traditional broadcast news would report on actual findings. It’s the old standby where we see the television anchor behind the desk saying, “Today, a report in blank blank journal found that….” But in today’s ever competitive marketplace, news divisions are racing to create new and highly stylized reports that come across as stories, more than findings per se. So what exactly does this kind of news story look like? Here are some examples of how behavioral science findings were turned into big news stories.

Case Study 1

A number of years ago, a 27-year-old mother of two named Deletha Word was beaten on a bridge in Detroit in full view of more than 50 stopped motorists. No one, not one person, stopped to help her or even to call 911. Horrific, yes, but a national news story, no. That was until the team at Dateline and I decided to try to understand what exactly happened on that bridge that day. How could it be that not one single person did anything to help? What social dynamic was at play? Did other examples of such a phenomenon exist in the news historically (in this case, there was the famous Kitty Genovese story)? Was there a way we could reach out to the audience and help them answer the question, “How could this have happened, and would I have done the same thing if I was on that bridge today?” In no time, we found John Darley and Bib Latané’s (1968) famous work on the bystander effect. It was a perfect example of how behavioral science could help us to understand what’s happening in the news. We knew instantly that reporting on this research would help us provide context to this tragic news event and, in the process, help people better understand themselves. We knew we could get a thought-provoking piece that would extend beyond the news details and into the realm of deconstructing a social phenomenon that affected all our viewers. In this instance, everyone could put themselves in the place of both Deletha Word and the bystanders. Everyone could ask himself or herself, “What would I do?”

Case Study 2

Who can forget the horrific images—Iraqi prisoners being threatened by guard dogs and forced to wear black hoods over their heads and stand on boxes for hours on end. Events in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shamed the nation and raised the question, How could have such brutality have happened? There were countless solid news stories on the U.S. network and on cable stations, but the reports rarely went beyond the details of events. That’s where behavioral science came in. Again, the question became, How do you explain such events, and how can people understand them? Dateline’s executive producer and I decided to do a special report answering such questions. To find help, we turned to a groundbreaking study conducted more than 25 years ago by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973; Zimbardo, 1975), which shows what happens when some people are given great power and others are deemed powerless; this went a long way toward explaining the horrible events at Abu Ghraib prison.

Case Study 3

I remember reading a story about a young 13-year-old honor student in Florida who followed two friends into someone’s house and watched as they committed a heinous murder. Under the felony murder rule, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. I couldn’t help but wonder, How could a relatively good kid blindly follow others, what kind of peer pressure existed, how strong are those forces, and just how far would people go? We had the noted social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis replicate the famous Asch conformity experiment (Asch, 1955, 1956), and with the consent of Stanley Milgram’s wife, Dateline was able to air the famous footage of the Milgram obedience study (Milgram, 1963). Again, the broadcast report went beyond the news events and into the realm of behavioral science to answer such questions.

Case Study 4

More recently, a news story reported that a politician had undermined a colleague of his for no apparent reason. It turns out the person wasn’t just a colleague but his best friend for more than 30 years. The NBC news team wanted to help viewers understand how a friend could betray a friend for little personal gain. We joined together with a researcher who spent his career studying envy.

Case Study 5

Twenty years ago, a man confessed to a crime he did not commit. He said he was coerced into confessing. The jury did not believe him and sentenced him to life in prison. Through years of diligent work and with the help of the Innocence project, he was finally released from jail after the real murderer was discovered with the help of DNA. ABC News Primetime Live wondered how this could have happened and sought scientific experts on false confessions.

How Behavioral Science Expertise Gets Used

So now that we had the stories, we needed to think about format. And this is where the experts play an enormous role. The expert is an essential partner to the producer in a number of ways. The first and most important is that, if at all possible, the expert helps the producers replicate the experiment and demonstrate the phenomena so that viewers can see the results as they’re happening. Nothing, no words or fancy explanation, will have more impact on a viewer than seeing a phenomenon unfold in front of his or her eyes. When no footage of the experiment exists, the producer and expert work hand in hand to set up a sample of the expert’s experiment. It must be run according to the rules of the experiment, not reenacted to get the desired results or even the results that existed in the original experiments. That means that a smaller sample of participants completes the procedure, this time with the broadcaster’s hidden cameras rolling. (By the way, informed consent to broadcast the footage is always obtained from participants after the experiment.)

The behavioral scientist is also a critical partner in setting the context for the piece. Here’s where the interview comes in. Producers will have the expert do a sit-down interview with the correspondent that helps viewers understand how the experiment works, what the findings are, and what they mean. Throughout the piece, the interview will be woven together with the visuals that include video of the experiment, interviews with the “characters,” and the correspondent’s narration, which helps to give essential facts about the research and put the findings into context.

Now, let’s go back to our case studies to see how the stories unfolded and how Dateline and other news outlets worked with the psychology experts.

Case Study 1

For this story, we began with reporting on the news event. We outlined the terrible events that happened on the bridge that day, interviewed Deletha’s family, and even spoke with many of those bystanders who stood by and did nothing. We then had our hidden cameras rolling as John Darley replicated his famous experiment. In this case, individual Yale students believed they were participating in a study on learning in which they had to “focus” on a tape that would be playing. Half of the subjects were alone in the room, and the other half had two other students in the room with them. On their way into the room, they passed a workman on a ladder. Unbeknownst to them, he was instructed to fall off the ladder about 2 minutes into the experiment and moan and scream for help. Also unbeknownst to the subjects, the two other students in the room were confederates who were instructed to look up when the workman fell off the ladder but not to react. What happened? When a student was alone in the room, he or she reacted 85% of the time, getting up and running out to find the “stricken” workman. But when the confederates were in the room, only 20% helped. We then interviewed John Darley, who explained about “diffusion of responsibility” and helped the viewer understand what just happened. We also interviewed the students who had participated in the study.

Case Study 2

This story, like the Deletha Word report, began with the news events. We then asked, How can something like this happen? In this instance, Dr. Zimbardo had actually filmed his study 25 years ago, and so we were able to show clips from the study, together with his current commentary. He walked us through the study in an interview and related it to a number of present-day events.

Case Study 3

As with the other stories, we began our report with details of the crime and backed into the science of the story. We replicated the Asch conformity experiment with new subjects and got surprisingly similar results all these years later. Students, to this day, will give an answer they know to be wrong just to go along with the group consensus. What’s more, we aired the Milgram shock machine experiment to show the forces behind obedience. An interview with noted social psychologist Dr. Pratkanis was used throughout the story, and once again, science and psychology led to a greater understanding of the world around us.

Case Study 4

The NBC news team profiled the political events in the news and interviewed the victim of the sabotage, as always beginning our story with the details of the case. We then asked the researcher to replicate a behavioral experiment in which students who knew each other would play the game password. A student had the opportunity to give his or her partner (usually a friend) hard clues or easy clues to help him or her guess the word in play. The researcher found that when a friend was doing well, his or her partner would choose to give him or her a hard word, making it more difficult to guess. The better a person did, the harder the clue he or she was given by the friend. The conclusion was that envy was at play and, when given the choice, led to sabotage.

Case Study 5

ABC News found Dr. Kassan and asked him to help illustrate how people could confess to a crime they didn’t commit. They presented the case of the man jailed, and they interviewed him and asked him why he confessed when he knew he didn’t commit the crime. They then included in the segment an example of how everyday people can make false confessions. They did so with students in a university lab setting. Students were told by the researcher that they were going to perform a typing test. Each student did so and afterwards was told that he or she had broken the keyboard. The researcher then exerted pressure on the student by saying it would be easier if the student just told the truth. What happened? A majority of the students ended up confessing to the crime and saying they indeed broke the keyboard, when they knew full well that they had not.


Now that you know how behavioral science tends to get used, let’s turn to tips for thinking about how to present your own research to producers and how to choose among television formats.

Decide how your work relates to the news and to current issues and events. In other words, what are the potential real-life applications of your work? To help when pitching, try to find a news story that connects to it and even search news outlets such as cable, newspapers, and magazines to stimulate your thinking. It is ultimately the job of the producer to find the right “real-life” story to match the behavioral science, but providing your own examples may help “sell” your pitch. Also, don’t be afraid to try pitching to morning shows as well. Remember, even though their reports are usually topic driven, they are interested in stories that are told in “outside-the-box” ways, for example, creating mini-experiments that showcase honesty as a topic.

Don’t worry if your study is not a “classic” psychology experiment such as Asch’s conformity experiment or Milgram’s obedience study. Today’s behavioral work helps explain the world around us and so is of interest to broadcasters. Also, don’t assume that shows are only looking for the research to be done within the “classic” experimental paradigm. Frankly, they just want to showcase an interesting study that helps explain a phenomenon. If your work is a more modern twist on these experiments, using a more nuanced approach to the research question and more up-to-date methodology, perhaps even enhancing the applicability of the results, so much the better.

Film your studies, film your work. If you’re running experiments, try to film them with hidden cameras if needed. It’s critical to be able to give footage to producers either so they can use it “as is” in the piece or so that they can get a sense of what the visuals will look like. I know it’s difficult if not impossible to get the quality of footage a broadcaster may get, but allowing a producer to get a “glimpse” of the work you do will go a long way toward getting your work on the air.

When it comes to choosing among the television formats, think about what kind of news story can be attached. If a long news story is feasible, you’ll want to think about a newsmagazine show. Think back to the case studies cited earlier. All of them involve cases that are complex and can sustain a good 10 minutes of television. If your research is more topic driven, such as emotional spending (spending money on items to lessen anxiety or cope with depression, for example), the importance of honesty in a marriage, five ways to control anger, or the 10 keys to happiness, you should consider a morning television format. These types of stories could not sustain a long format segment but are ideal ideas and concepts for a morning program.

The Attitudes, Knowledge, and Skills That Make Researchers Helpful Resources

For the most part, a behavioral scientist appears on the news in one of two ways. As mentioned earlier, one classic example is what we call the “old school interview”—the news anchor, whether live or taped, reports on a certain story, and then he or she comes back and the expert sits in the studio for an “on-air” interview. A few questions are tossed back and forth, and the segment ends. Though these interviews are often informative, they are beginning to represent a bygone era of TV news and style.

Today, journalists, especially from morning and newsmagazine shows, are beginning to look for experts who can help generate story ideas as well as pitch and craft a story. An expert is often encouraged to come up with what would make a good story and suggestions for story content. They’re also, when relevant, often asked to replicate their studies and provide a client or study subject that may be dealing or involved with the topic being covered.

Whether you are tapped for a short interview or whether your work becomes the focus of a piece, producers are always looking for experts who can speak clearly and concisely about a topic. You’ll want to define your audience, decide what about the research is important to communicate and why, and then select an approach for communicating your message to them. There is no question that news is a reductionist medium. There just isn’t enough time in a single broadcast to get into the complexities of the findings, no matter how much a journalist and researcher may want to do so. A good journalist will work hard to understand the science, but the findings still must be summarized and the main points hit. Journalists, for the most part, do want to understand the nuances of the research, and giving them background information can help inform their reporting.

But the bottom line is that you will need to make crisp, quick points that, among other things, requires presenting statistics and facts in ways that people can understand. Always, always remember, for example, that abstract talk of participants who score above the mean on factors of aggression or depression is meaningless to most people. They simply won’t understand what you are saying. Say instead: those who are more depressed or aggressive than most people. I always remind experts that giving a talk at a conference or presenting a paper differs enormously from talking about your research on television and, believe it or not, can even be more difficult. The tip I always give is to explain the research in the interview as if you were at a dinner party. Assume your audience has no knowledge of science and statistics. Would you explain your research to your colleague the same way you would to your grandmother? Not unless your grandmother was also a researcher.

It also helps to think about the “story” of your research and your expertise and to generate a headline about it in 10 words or less. Also think of the four main points you want to get across and craft them in accessible language. These are always good starting points. And, as I mentioned earlier, a researcher is most helpful when he or she thinks about ways to frame the science in terms of real people and daily life. People viewing these programs want to know, “What does this mean for me?” “How does it affect my daily life?” “What examples from my own experience does this research relate to?” Helping audiences explore these questions is crucial. Many researchers are not able to answer, “What does your work mean and why?” or “What are the real-life applications of your work?” So, when speaking on air and when speaking with producers, always prepare by thinking about these questions. It is possible to give this perspective without overreaching and going beyond the actual research findings, which is almost always a concern of scientists. For example, statements such as “my work helps people understand why someone when given power may act in ways they may never ordinarily,” “my work helps us understand why so many people feel unhappy with everyday life despite having all the material goods they want,” or “my work helps people understand how they may act when under pressure from others to conform” clearly communicate the scope of the research.

You must also be firm in your answers. Don’t equivocate. You want to make declarative statements. Though the tendency in science is to offer every possible qualification to an answer, this approach backfires on you in television. It leaves the viewer feeling confused and, in a worst case, can lead to misunderstandings. You can, of course, say things such as, “There are always exceptions but in most cases…” or “For the most part you’ll find. …” But you have to be very careful not to backpedal or overqualify an answer. It muddies the water too much, and the equivocation will most likely undermine your message. You have to trust that the journalist will put your words in a context and will help viewers better understand the topic at hand. Of course, you can help ensure this outcome by taking it upon yourself to help the journalist understand the topic and the context.

A good journalist will also be looking for specialists. Gone largely are the days in television when one expert would speak on all topics related to psychology and science. Now we seek experts who can speak about one issue such as violence, relationships, trauma, or even happiness. We care about credentials showing that the expert has the specialized background needed to speak on a subject with credibility and authority. Introductions of researchers now include their backgrounds: “Dr. X has spent the past 15 years studying …” or “Dr. Y is a noted expert on forensic psychology and has published over 15 papers on the topic.” Please don’t misunderstand the meaning of the word specialist, however. Scientists need to be able to integrate lines of research inquiry. They’ll be asked to situate not only their latest findings but also their entire body of work and the accumulated knowledge relevant to it into a broader context in order for the science to be useful to the public.

When speaking with producers, always make clear the subjects you feel comfortable discussing and provide a list of topics you can address. And remember, no good journalist will ask you to speak outside your comfort zone. Also, as you recall, producers have their list of contacts and tend to go back to the same experts over and over again. In addition to relying on these experts themselves, producers also want viewers to become familiar with certain experts and begin to trust them. We have found that viewers form relationships with experts as much as they do with on-air talent. If you can make contact with the producer and share your expertise using a style that proves you can “talk” about the topic in a clear and useful way, chances are you will become one of the “go-to” people on the roster.

Though it may be frustrating at times to have the work boiled down to its essentials, it can be better for the public to get some critical information rather than no information at all. You can always ask producers to put links on their broadcast’s Web sites that will allow viewers to get more information.


It can be difficult to think about how to develop new skills and become comfortable engaging with journalists. I suggest that anyone with this interest try creating a panel discussion in which a group of researchers gets together and invites a journalist whose work they respect. The panel can include a role-playing element and hands-on experience in which a researcher gets 5 minutes to “pitch” a story to the journalist. The journalist can provide feedback during the session. What about the pitch worked? What did not? Researchers can learn through their own experience and through watching others. When creating the panels, think about approaching the American Psychological Association and requesting such a panel. I was invited to such a discussion a number of years back. The panel had guests from broadcast, newspaper, and radio. It was a comprehensive training that benefited both the psychologists and the journalists.

Fellowships are also available in psychology and the media from scientific organizations. I hosted a psychologist through one program that connected a psychologist with a journalist for training. I suggest looking into this type of fellowship and then contacting a story editor or a journalist who produces psychology-oriented shows for sponsorship. The networks likely will be interested because it provides them with an “idea” person for no cost, and it benefits the researcher because it gives an “inside” look at the workings of the media.

Science coverage in TV news is only going to grow and become more relevant to the public. People are trying to understand their own motivations, to discover ways to cope with an ever-changing environment, and to know what to expect in the future. Building relationships between the behavioral scientist and the television journalist will go a long way toward improving public access to science-based information to help answer these questions.