Interview with Ferris Jabr
Ferris Jabr is a student in New York University’s prestigious Science, Health, and Environment Reporting program. He writes for the program’s webzine Scienceline, and his blog about the wonderful world of plants - Savvy Saplings.
We talked about a whole whack of stuff; The ins-and-outs of a niche journalism program, the dreaded news hook, current affairs science journalism, and fears about a science communication bubble.
It’s a long interview, but there’s a lot in it. It definitely gets heavier as it goes along.
Colin: What I’m hoping to find out is a little bit about you and your program and sort of what you guys do there. And so that’s sort of what I’m trying to get at. The first question I had for you is – how did you find yourself in the SHERP program?
Ferris: My junior year of college I was going to Tufts University which is just outside of Boston. I was actually studying abroad at the time – in London – and I didn’t want to just go back to California, where I’m from, for the summer. I really wanted to go to New York City and get an internship there. So I applied to a bunch of internships for that summer and I ended up going with Psychology Today. It seemed like a good fit because I was studying psychology and English.
So I interned at Psychology Today in the summer of 2008 and I met one of my fellow interns Rachel Mahan was currently in New York University’s science writing program. I’d always known about people who wrote about science but I never knew it was something you could actually study and get a degree in. So I sort of found out about that through her.
When I went back to Tufts for my senior year I was thinking a lot more seriously about, “What do I actually want to do post-graduation?” And, I obviously want writing or communication to be the centre of my career if possible, but I also don’t want to abandon the psychology and biology that I am interested in and have spent some time studying. So when I looked more into the different science writing programs in the country and internationally it seemed like a legit thing to do, and it seemed like a really good way to combine those interests.
So my senior year I applied to a few science writing programs, and NYU was my top choice. When I got in in the spring of 2009 I accepted. So that’s how I got there.
C: Were you ever interested in applying maybe to a journalism program or other sorts of writing programs?
F: I did, I sort of went through this intense period in senior year where I just made charts and graphs of every single possibility for what I could do post-graduation. So I was thinking about just regular journalism school, maybe at like Northwestern or Columbia. Or, specializing in a particular kind of medium. And I was thinking about PhD programs in either psychology or english.
But in the end I was still far more attracted to science writing or science journalism.
C: Have you always been a science person? It’s always been a big thing for you?
F: Science has always been a presence in my life. Especially because my father is a physicist and he very much liked to sit me and my brothers down and explain things about how the world works. And we just happened to be particularly receptive to that. And also there were other circumstances like we didn’t have cable or a lot of entertainment outlets when we were younger and we would spend a lot of time watching PBS or the Nature channel – or just very education programs on TV.
Different personalities are attracted to different things and I was sort of the kid who would sit down with the encyclopedia about animals and just pour through that for hours. The things I would ask for for Christmas were like – a gemstone collection, or something I can use to collect insects. I was just really interested in the natural world and I was attracted to science as a way of explaining how things work.
C: Would you say that that’s sort of a commonality of the people in your program? That they’re science people?
F: Yeah it’s interesting. We have – there’s definitely a diversity. Not everybody was quite like that from so young. What’s definitely common is that so, so many of us thought that we were going to go down the research scientist path. And thought that we were going to get our PhD’s in science and just do research – and that’s what we wanted to do. And then after working in laboratories in undergrad or through various experiences realized we didn’t quite want that particular lifestyle, or, simultaneously or alternatively, that we much preferred communicating or writing about science than actually doing it.
In my case I did not feel that my mind was particularly suited to experimental design. And I didn’t think I was ever going to be that person who would think to themselves, “Oh I know exactly how to test this in a really good way.” But I knew that I really enjoyed learning about science and synthesizing the things I learned. And I like talking about it, I just didn’t feel I was particularly suited to the lab, or to designing experiments.
For example we have people in my class who are interested in – much more interested in where and science and policy or politics or society intersect. Rather than somebody like me who is maybe interested in just, why is the world so cool and how does science help us explain that?
So there’s definitely a range within out class.
C: I was just wondering if – I’m trying to get a sense of what your program is like in comparison to mine – could you walk me through the process of finding, pitching, and then eventually writing a story?
F: We go through that in a couple different ways. So first of all we have our student webzine which is called Scienceline. For that – so there’s 13 of us right now in the program and we all just run the site together. We all have different editorial positions and every week we have a Scienceline meeting. If you have an idea for a story you pitch it at the meeting, and we – our editor-in-chief is Ariel Bleicher and she has to accept it, and if it gets accepted it goes down on the schedule with a publication date and a date to turn it in to the copy editor before that. And so we sort of maintain this dynamic schedule that lets us publish things and keep things in order for Scienceline.
And usually those stories are things that we’ve written previously as class assignments – unless they’re blogs. If they’re blogs then they’re something that we’re just doing on our own and they’re not really for class. Because blogs require a bit less editing and go up a lot quicker – often because they’re tied to really recent events. And because we’re trying to keep the site fresher using blogs.
For class assignments the way that pitching and writing goes is that – usually we have a formal pitch-slam where we are given an assignment, for example an 800 word environmental news story. So everybody comes to class with two or three ideas for what that could be. And we go around the room and we pitch each other ideas, and we critique the pitches, and we choose the strongest one. And we go off and work that into a story. If we feel that none of our pitches are good enough then we go off and come back with a new idea. So basically that’s how pitching works for class assignments.
As some of us have been experimenting with freelancing so that’s a more formal pitching process where we email editors at publications and very concisely but hopefully intriguingly explain what our story is.
And then in terms of the writing we have to meet the deadlines. After our pitches have been approved we do our reporting and writing and come back with a first draft that is heavily edited by a professor and perhaps given a preliminary grade. Then we come back with a second draft within a week or a week-and-a-half. That second draft will receive a final grade.
C: So for the pitching sessions, where do those story ideas come from?
F: In our first term one of the things we asked was, “Where do you get story ideas?” And we spent a few classes brainstorming all of the places you can look.
We go online and scour the internet for what’s going on in science journalism first of all. So we’re looking at everything from press releases to blogs to news sites to laboratory pages and university homepages. We’re trying to build up Rolodexes of researchers that we’ve already spoken with that we feel comfortable just calling back and asking, “What’s going on with your research now? Is there anything new?” And that is something that a lot of experienced science journalists do, but it does take a bit of time to build up.
Also, some of us are big believers in just going out – since we are in New York City – just going out into the city and basically going to the labs or going around to different science events and finding out what’s going on out there, and then reporting on that. We notice that a lot of times there have been tiny, tiny blurbs in New Scientist or the BBC or something where there is something really interesting mentioned but it wasn’t covered well or comprehensively at all. And just taking that little thing and exploring it more can turn into a story idea.
Also, we have a section for Scienceline called “Ever Wondered?” where we simply try to answer interesting questions. So for example my classmate Mara just answered “How do barnacles attach to whales?” That came from a conversation that she and I were having because she is really interested in ocean research and marine life, and we were talking about barnacles and we were literally just sitting there wondering, well how on earth do barnacles actually find whales to cling on to? So that became her quest to solve that.
So we try to look in a lot of different places – online and in real life and in our own thoughts for story ideas.
C: I was wondering what sorts of things – when it comes to a good story, what separates a good story from an okay story – what are the things that the teachers push or reinforce?
F: Pretty much all of our teachers are really, really big on having the news hook, or having a really good reason for why you’re writing the story now. And that’s something that’s created a bit of tension between us – the students and the teachers. Sometimes because there’s a number of us who feel that if something is interesting and if it’s new to the reader, then we don’t really understand why there has to be a recent event or something that roots it in time right now, you know within the last week or whatever.
We just feel that if you’re answering an interesting question – or just talking about something interesting, that’s perfectly sufficient. But that’s definitely something the professors stress, is having a news hook.
And then we – as we’ve progressed through the program we’ve learned more about the importance of things like narrative, characters, dialogue, getting quotes that aren’t just explanation or facts, but convey some sort of emotion or something that you can’t really – you know some sort of articulate authoritative opinion you can’t really say yourself, that you need from an expert.
If it’s something that is not very well known at all, and that you do a lot of new reporting on, that makes it really interesting. Or if it’s something that’s been over-hashed but you come to with a completely new angle. So yeah, angle, I would say, is the big one after news hook. You have to have something interesting to say especially if it’s something that everyone else is talking about.
Other things that make a good story… News hook, angle, being interesting. Those are the big ones that we’ve talked about.
C: Going back to that idea of the news hook. That’s interesting because when I was talking with other people, like Ed Yong was talking about “this is cool” science journalism. Do you think you’d sort of fall under that blanket? Where that’s what you want to do?
F: Yeah I mean I think of science as a way to ask questions about how the world works and then explore those questions and try to answer them. So I think of science as trying to explain the world around us. And I think of writing or communication as basically a really, really clever and interesting way to get information across to other people.
So for me writing isn’t just this thing that you have to do, or this thing that exists. It’s a human invention, and there are ways to do it well and ways to do it not so well. And it requires a lot of thought and practice. So I’m interested in combining those in that I want to use writing or other means, or other mediums, as a really effective way of communicating science. So I want to talk to people about how the world works using science. And that’s how I think of it.
I agree with about 90% of Ed Yong, and also Carl Zimmer‘s sort of philosophies about science journalism and writing. I very much associate them together and feel that they often agree with each other. And I agree with a lot of what they say. And Carl has visited us a few times and he’s really built this platform for himself where he is able to say, “This is interesting to me, and I know it will be interesting to other people, and I want to write about this. Or I want to blog about this. Or I want to make a video about this.” That’s amazing to me, and I think a lot of us would love to be able to do that.
It’s a bit difficult because we’re not Carl Zimmer, and we don’t have a Discover blog or this brand-name yet or this big platform where we have more of the freedom to say, “This interests me, and I know it’s going to be cool for other people, so I’m going to do that.” But definitely I love “this is cool” science stories, and I really like both Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong and the kind of writing they do and their philosophies about it.
C: In terms of your program is there an emphasis on always getting across new science? Like covering the newest breakthroughs or the newest developments?
F: When we’re writing about – when we’re writing what they call a “news story” there is that emphasis. The idea for a news story in our program is that is should be something that is new. It should be either a new piece of research, or a recent science event of some kind – and that you should write a concise but comprehensive piece on this novelty.
But there are other kinds of stories that have much less to do with what is new. For example we wrote profile pieces where we go out and do a profile on a scientist or somebody science related in the city. It’s helpful to have a news hook for that, but that’s not really the focus of the piece.
For example right now we’re writing a column piece which has been one of the most difficult to define. Our professor insists that the news hook – even for the column piece – is absolutely essential. But we’ve all seen columns from famous columnists where they don’t really rely on, they don’t always rely on some kind of news hook.
Olivia Judson will often times just write about whatever takes her fancy, really. If you look at her archive of columns in the New York Times she often ties it to something that’s happened but not always. So there’s always been this tension about does there have to be something now in the piece. And I think in general all the professors agree there needs to be, and not all of the students agree there needs to be.
And yet all of us recognize of course how beneficial that is, and why that’s effective, and why that engages the reader, we’re just not 100% convinced that it has to be there every single time.
C: How would it reach the reader having that news hook?
F: I think it’s because if a reader has heard of something already that’s just happened, and that’s how the piece begins, then it just sort of roots them there a little more strongly. But it’s also because – the argument that I’ve heard is that people need to know why they want to read this, and why they want to read this now. Why is this piece of news in today’s paper or today’s website or whatever. You know, why are you telling me about this now. And if there’s something to tie is to what is happening right now then that’s a really good explanation for why we’re talking about it now. So that’s sort of the argument that I’ve heard the most.
C: It sounds like there’s a bit of a general consensus within the students that it’s not always necessary.
F: Yeah, and I think a lot of us would agree that it’s not always necessary, but all of us certainly see that benefit. The reason that we think it’s not always necessary is because a lot of us are very content to simply have a question that we have ourselves answered by somebody who is really good at synthesizing information.
For example we just had Joshua Foer, the science writer, come speak to us and I think he wrote an article about “why do humans kiss?” And so the only news hook he had for that is that he deliberately waited for Valentine’s Day. And that article could really run any time. There isn’t necessarily any brand new research on kissing in humans. And there doesn’t have to be for me.
You know that is something that everybody thinks about, and everybody wonders, and there’s always going to be a new generation of people wondering the things that older people have already answered for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be wondering.
So I feel like for me newness is important in terms of the reader’s own mind or perspective. Like if I’m telling the reader something new that they don’t know, then that’s what real novelty is for me. And I feel like readers are capable of sifting through what they are interested in reading and what they aren’t interested in reading. And so I think there’s definitely always going to be room for stories that are explaining the world, or explaining things to you and aren’t so fundamentally connected to events or newness.
However I also firmly believe that that alone, that just explaining alone without ever talking about what is happening today is not enough by itself. I don’t think there could be a publication necessarily that consists solely of explaining without talking about events or what’s happening now. I think people definitely need both.
Sometimes I fight the news hook argument a little bit, but not completely because I still want to use it and I still see it’s benefit, I just don’t want people to think that every single thing they write has to have this brilliant news hook right up there in the lead.
C: So the way that you would look at it is – You find the story that you want to write, and then you look for the news hook to tie it in so the audience can have a better sense of it?
F: Yeah, and I think that it could work both ways. I definitely think that your priority should be – like the number one question for me is “Is this interesting?” And not just interesting to you, but you think it’s going to be interesting to people. And if the answer to that is yes, then you probably are looking at something that would be a good story. And then if you want to find the news hook for that topic that’s great, and that can work really well, and I’ve certainly done that many times.
But sometimes you’re reading something and the news hook in whatever you’re reading becomes the thing that you want to explore. Or you somehow start with the news hook rather than the actual substance of the article, because you’re like, “oh the LHC is going through problems right now. That’s a current event.” And that gives birth to some sort of thought like, “maybe I could do a piece on big historical inventions that have gone wrong.” Or, “maybe I could do a piece on the public’s perception of science and how they feel like they’ve been let down.” Or I don’t know, but you know what I mean. I can see it working both ways.
What I’m trying to figure out is – Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and you’ve said it yourself, that the “this is cool story.” – The “science is just interesting and that’s a good reason to write about it.” There’s sort of that camp.
And then on the other side of the field there’s the other journalists, where if it’s not happening today it’s not going in, no matter how cool it is. It’s almost like a different way of looking at it. And I was wondering if there’s a way of doing science journalism where it’s the news of the day, but using science to explain it. Rather than, the new science. It’s the news, with science.
I was wondering if there’s any sort of mention of that kind of way of doing it.
F: I mean I’m not sure that’s something that we have, that is built in to the structure of our program, or our classes per se. But that is something that I’ve definitely talked about with my classmates, and that some of us have tried to do. Like some things that are tangentially related to that is that a lot of us in the program are interested in sort of – How can we use science, particularly data and data visualization to make more sense of the news of the day. So there’s some of us who are interested in data visualization, infographics, as explanatory visual representations of whatever is going on in the world today.
And Mike Orcutt and I really respect Jonah Lehrer‘s ability to tie genuine science to current or popular events. And that is a model that I am also really in love with because – like if you look at Jonah’s blog The Frontal Cortex he often begins with some sort of popular or cultural event. Whether it’s the Super Bowl, or Tiger Woods, or just even an observation from daily life that’s common to people living in the city or suburbs or whatever. And then he’ll weave that really seamlessly into actual research that’s going on it psychology or neuroscience.
And it’s immediately relevant, it all sounds quite new, even if it’s not always necessarily the newest research. But it’s relevant, it seems fresh, and I feel like that model really works. I’ve tried to experiment with that a bit, but I find it’s a really difficult skill to cultivate and I don’t think it’s the easiest thing to do, but I think it works really well if you can find something in the news or in popular culture or in society. Find an event or an observation or something concrete and tie that to science.
Or, what you were talking about is using science to give that better context or better – yeah I think that’s really a strong way of doing science journalism, and I don’t think that’s really built into the structure of our program and what we’re taught, and I think it should be there more. Because certainly some of us students are recognizing that model and we’re definitely interested in it.
C: What I’m sort of trying to get at, which is perfect what you just said. That in the niche science programs, what it might actually be doing is reinforcing the “this is cool” science journalism. Whereas in standard journalism programs it’s all the news all the time. And I have to fight to get science in sometimes.
My example is, I wanted to do – when the LCROSS mission happened, and they had preliminary data of water on the moon. I was wondering – What does this mean for the quest for life? The search for water has always been the quest for life. What does this mean to that search?
And it got shot down by the editors, they were like, “It’s not news, it’s not important, people don’t care.” But at your school I’m sure that sort of story would have flown a little better.
F: Well yeah. But I should be clear that I’ve seen a lot of the time me, or my classmates, will pitch a story which is more in the “this is cool” camp. We have had our stories shot down because there wasn’t a news hook, or our professors didn’t really understand why we wanted to write about it now. And that has happened a lot. And I think that has created some of that tension about “why does there have to be a news hook in every single thing we write?” So that has happened in our program.
But at the same time, I’ve also seen, as we go on, the professors become a little more lenient about what is news. And that’s something they’ve said themselves. You know, “We’re going to be a little more open about our definitions about what news actually is.” But certainly in the first term if you didn’t have a strong news hook, or a reason to be writing about it now, you probably weren’t going to get to write that story.
It’s just that as we go on to longer-form articles we’re allowed to maybe not have as strong a news hook as we might have with the 600 word or 800 word concise news story about something that just happened, or about a new piece of research. But yeah that’s sort of how it is in our program.
C: But it’s really an emphasis on science news, not news using science. Which is what you and some of your colleagues are becoming interested in?
F: Yeah I would say that’s a fair statement. It’s definitely an emphasis on, “What is happening in the science world?” Everything you write about has to be connected to science somehow.
And I don’t want to be too narrow when I’m saying that because certainly some of us have tried that other model that we’re talking about, and Mike for example is really, really, really into connecting science and policy. He’s done a lot of research about energy, and he loves to weave together politics and science. That really is bringing science in, and using science to better explain what’s going on in politics, or what’s going on in society. And he has done some writing about that on Scienceline.
And then certainly our professors would never be opposed to that, or inherently repulsed by that. It’s just that I don’t think there’s as much of that as other kinds of stories. There probably is a bit more of a focus on actual science news, rather than using science to explain news. And I would definitely say that the using science to explain news is not explicitly built into our curriculum.
C: What I’m really chasing at with this entire thing is, how do we get science to a public who maybe isn’t inherently interested in science. And I was just wondering what you think would be the best way of doing that?
F: So I have experienced a lot of – talking to peers either in undergraduate or before, about things that got me super excited. And these are usually kind of geeky, nerdy things about science or literature or whatever. And I’ve experienced sort of the glazed-over eyes and they’re clearly not interested. And I’m not the kind of person who will sit next to somebody and push my own interests onto them. And I’m not interested in that kind of interaction with people. I want to find common interests.
I sort of have come to – over the years I’ve realized that there are people with whom I share a lot more interests than other people. And that is something that all people experience and it’s perfectly natural. Like being in this program now I have never been surrounded by so many people with whom I can so easily talk about these geeky, nerdy things. And we all take great pleasure in it. Like it’s not just some intellectual posh party for us, we actually really enjoy talking about these things.
And we can’t help ourselves – like when we get together, even at a bar or after class, we are always talking about not only science but science journalism and what we think the best way to go about that is.
So what I was saying with that is that I definitely feel that there are inherent differences between individuals, different personalities. And that certainly some individuals will be more naturally excited about science than others. However I’ve also experienced – me and my classmates talking about science together, and people around us who aren’t necessarily invested in science will get excited because of the excitement. Not necessarily because of the science, but because they see us really excited about something.
Like sometimes I’ll come to class – we take electives which mix together the different programs at NYU. So I’ll come to class and be like, “You know guys, I just found this most amazing plant that swivels it’s leaves to detect where light is coming from in it’s environment.” And I’ll show them the YouTube video, and we’ll all get really excited together. And the people in that class who are from different programs will say, “Wow, I’m getting really excited about plants just hearing you guys so excited about them.”
That’s where I feel – If you can bring in excitement, if you can show people why it’s so cool. Or not even why it’s so cool. We already know it’s cool, so make that really evident to people. And I always think about people like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Jonah Lehrer, David Attenborough, who are so good at this. Like when you read their stuff, and when you look at their blogs, you get so excited about the science itself.
And you just feel this opening in your mind where you’re like, “I can’t believe I never took the time to think about this part of the natural world, or that animal, or the fact that plants can do this or that.” And suddenly that opening makes you want more. And it is definitely an emotional visceral reaction, and I think it creates some kind of biochemical or physiological addiction of some kind, because you want more, and you want to get back to that high or that excitement.
To get people interested in science who aren’t already, who don’t already have a natural interest – You have to engage with them emotionally and you have to get them excited. That requires somebody who is already super excited themselves, which is pretty much – you know every science journalist has some of that. That requires tapping into that excitement and really making it as plain to reader or the viewer as possible. I really think that’s one of the best ways.
C: Perfect. I think that’s pretty much all I had. Is there anything you want to add?
F: So is this for a huge project that you’re doing?
C: What I’m doing is – well I did a big literature search trying to figure out the psychology and sociology of how people learn science from the media. Then I was talking to science journalists, which were the interviews that I did about what they think their role is. How they try to reach people who maybe aren’t sciencey – you know reaching sciencey people with science journalism is not hard, how do you reach the rest of them.
And then I’m trying to put together a two- or three-thousand word feature right now, and it just popped into my head – What’s the bigger trend going on here? And it really breaks down to the “this is cool” versus “current affairs-y” versus “this smells funny.” And it seems like the current affairs-y one is the one that always is forgotten. There’s the this is cool, and the this is funny, but it’s always the science news.
So I’m trying to figure out, is it something in the science journalism programs that maybe reinforces that enthusiasm. Like where does that reinforcing cycle come from – where the people who are interested in science write that way, and then people who are interested read it, and then maybe start writing. But it never reaches out, to the rest of society.
So what’s the cause of that cycle?
F: Yeah that’s a good point. Like just being on Twitter I’ve sort of discovered this whole online community of science communicators. And it’s amazing – they’re always talking to each other, and they’re always producing great work, and I love being a part of that community online, or trying to be.
But yeah sometimes I do wonder if – I wonder about the other spheres. Are they intersecting with this science communication sphere at all? Or is it just sort of it’s own bubble. And I hope it’s not, and I don’t think that it entirely is, but at the same time there isn’t a huge effort to reach out to overlap with the other spheres on there.
Or to even ask the question you’re asking, which is – How do we not just interest each other and keep our own little community alive, but how do we get people who aren’t inherently interested in what we’re doing, how do we get them excited about what we’re doing. And I’m not sure that’s really asked enough.
We see so many meta questions on Bora’s blog, and other places about, you know – What are the flaws of science journalism? Or what’s the best way to communicate science news? What’s going on with embargoes? And all these questions that are very much specific to science journalism and how best to do it.
But not necessarily so much about making it appeal to even more people than before. It’s just sort of like – how do we sustain it? How do we improve it? But not really how do we make it bigger? Like how do we make it something that everyone wants in on?
That seems particularly pertinent now considering so many newspapers in recent years have folded their science sections, which is basically a way of saying, well, there isn’t enough interest, or this isn’t a priority for us. And that’s a huge problem, and that’s something that isn’t going to be solved by the iPad, or by changing mediums, or whatever.
That lack, that basic lack of interest is much more deeply rooted than anything about how you write or how you communicate is going to solve. And I think that definitely needs to be addressed a lot more than it is.
C: Thanks so much.