One of the perils of speaking to the media about science is that occasionally, I’m misquoted in print. I get it — science is complex, and subtle changes in phrasing can have large consequences. Even a single, misheard word can mutate one’s meaning into something severe and unintended.
This happened to me a few days ago, when I opened up the Summer 2018 issue of BrainWorld magazine and nearly had a heart attack. Their genial journalist had interviewed me several months ago about my book, How Emotions are Made, and we’d discussed how two brains can perceive the same emotional situation completely differently. Take sexual consent, for example. Suppose two well-meaning people rely on each other’s “body language” to guess at consent or the lack of it, instead of using words to explicitly confirm consent. They can easily perceive the situation differently, misunderstand each other’s intentions, and end up in a sticky situation. (My article in Time magazine goes into the scientific details.)
Now obviously, felonies like rape and sexual harassment are not simple misunderstandings, so I made an important disclaimer to the BrainWorld journalist to this effect:
“I’m not saying that instances of sexual harassment, rape, or what have you [are mere misunderstandings]….”
But the final, published article in front of my eyes said:
“I’m not just saying that instances of sexual harassment, rape, or what have you [are mere misunderstandings]….”
AAAAAHHHHHH!!! That tiny, innocent mistake reversed my meaning, making me sound like I was trivializing #MeToo incidents and even blaming the victim. And this misquote was in a print magazine already sent to subscribers, so the article could not be corrected for those readers.
HOW did this HAPPEN?
Well, let me show you, just in case you ever desire to be misquoted in print. Try this foolproof method:
1. Speak to a friendly journalist about a contentious topic.
2. When the journalist thoughtfully emails you a draft of the interview in advance, so you can check it for accuracy, fail to notice his email buried among 350 others newly arrived in your inbox.
3. Wait for publication.
Then, on the day you finally see the published interview, follow this recommended schedule of events, based on my own experience.
7:00 am: Wake up. Drag your sleepy ass out of bed and over to the computer.
7:04 am: The PDF of the published magazine arrives in an email from the journalist.
7:05 am: Start reading your interview.
7:07 am: Say, “No, no, NO!” loudly.
7:08 am: Fume and agonize.
7:09 am: Swear. A lot.
7:12 am: Wake your spouse/partner/bedmate(s) and rant in his/her/their presence.
7:17 am: Email a (hopefully) polite note to the journalist, explaining the problem and asking what can be done, knowing full well that it’s impossible to fix an article in print.
7:25 am: Email the journalist again, this time with the word URGENT in the subject line.
7:33 am: You’re in luck. The journalist quickly replies that the editor will print a correction in the next issue and on their website.
7:34 am: Thank the journalist for his fast response.
7:35 – 10:48 am: Ruminate.
This schedule did the trick for me.
A correction in the next issue isn’t perfect, because the error will always be out there, but I was grateful for the magazine’s responsiveness. When there is no ideal solution, sometimes you can work to turn the terrible into the bearable.
Social media photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash