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Tips for science journos – courtesy science communication academics

February 28, 2010

Howdy. As part of my independent study into science journalism, I was hoping to put together a short for-journalists article with a few tips and thought-provoking tidbits. If you could give me any feedback/critiques, anything at all, I would truly appreciate it.

The first draft is after the jump…

Interviews have been conducted, editors have chipped in, reporters have shared their stories – all in the attempt to answer the question, how do we make people learn science from the news?

But there is, of course, a science to science journalism. It’s up there with the mathematics of origami or the fundamentals of alligator hygiene as the least read science ever – because the people it concerns hardly have time for sleep, let alone academia. But if we want to learn to do it better, we need to stop sharing war stories and turn to those who know. Since we’re all stressed by deadlines, I thought I’d do the legwork.

Trawled from the dark corners of the world of academic science communication, here are some things to do, some things to avoid, and some things just to be aware of.

Assuming makes an….

People go into science journalism for the same reason they go into sports journalism. They’re interested, they think it’s important, and they want to share it with the world. But the problem faced by science writers is the same as any other beat; you know more about your story than most of your audience, and once you put ink to paper (or e-ink to e-reader), it’s hard not to let that show.

The difference is, the rules of hockey don’t change much. You can take a year off and come back to the same game you left. Unlike the sports reporter, who can write freely about hat tricks and grand slams, science journalists face a big problem with assumed knowledge. People don’t come from the same background, and they have different grasps of the basics. After years in the field it’s easy to forget where you came from, but answering the stupid questions is the most important thing you can do.

Explaining how it all goes together is up there, too.

Enter the schema

When people are confronted with a new idea, they never just take it as a stand-alone fact. They ask questions like, how does this fit in with the other things I know? Have I experienced that before? And, how do I feel about it?

They use the answers to these questions to decide how to handle the new idea. It can either reinforce a previously held belief, start to break one down, or be put in a class all on it’s own.

Psychologists think we have something called a schema, which is basically shorthand for this thought process. When confronted with a new fact, your audience will filter it through their schema. Some facts will get slotted in, and some will be ignored. If your idea is a big enough eye-opener, it might even start to change their mind.

Stop trying to change the world… all in one shot

The problem with trying to write for different schemas is that they don’t like to change very much, or very fast.

What makes science so great is that ground-breaking discoveries happen all the time. For people who keep up on the news, it doesn’t present any problems. Your schema is able to develop over time, slowly fitting in all the new ideas. The role of DNA. Transcription. Telomeres. Genetic engineering.

But for the audience who only drops in once in a while, your mega-feature about the world-changing role of a new tool for the bio-tech industry might leave the reader with little more than, “We can do this?!”

Not everyone will understand it the first time, and the odds of them re-reading it for full comprehension are pretty low. What this really means for science journalism is: expect to tell your story more than once, and in different ways. Pictures help, and video is even better. They both help to grab attention, and many people  learn better if they have something to look at.

But above all…

Get out of the science section

Just like you follow your interests to research, write and share science stories, the same is true of your natural audience. Science magazines, science TV shows, science sections of the newspaper; they’re all fighting for the same audience – people who already think science is worth paying attention to.

You wouldn’t be in this job if you didn’t think it was interesting, and the tendency is to assume your audience feels the same way. But like anyone lamenting the decline in voter turn-out, don’t expect them to come to you.

If you want to write the best science stories, don’t write scientific stories.

If a new advancement is your piece’s raison d’être, you’ll quickly cap out your audience with the limited supply of science keeners. Find another way to tell the tale, and sneak the science through the back door. High-brow writers may look down on popularizing, but it doesn’t matter how clever your phrase if no one is reading it.

By no means should you abandon scientific accuracy. But, if the only point to your story breaks down to “Science is cool! Look at this!”, you’ll never get beyond the enthusiasts. So find a policy initiative, a local hero, and break down the physics of the super bowl. These are all ways to get people involved and interested.

There’s another handy tool you can unleash to engage your audience. Call them cognitive short cuts, call them the tools of the enemy, but either way…

Mind your frames

Framing is a tricky issue in science journalism. To frame a story, the writer plays into the audience’s tendency to make logical jumps. Frames invoke values, emotions, and can trigger traditional responses.

The most common frame by far in journalism is conflict. Here’s a good guy. Here’s a bad guy. Some policy issue is under discussion, but man is it ever boring. Setting up some conflict gets the reader to associate with the people involved, bringing them into a debate they may otherwise pay no attention to.

There are way more frames to be employed than just conflict, but here’s a few:

Social progress – This new advance is going to make people’s lives better. It’s a good thing.

Pandora’s box – Sure the discovery is cool, but what about a chain reaction of evil science? We should be careful.

Governance – The science is cool, but who should be in charge of it; who should own it? Hey, whose interests are we serving here.

Pick any science issue, and I bet you can come up with different ways to tell the story to fit into each frame. And they’re all going to get more eyes than a straight news piece – and more eyes means more learning.

Call it framing, call it spin. Choose to use it, or leave it to the ghouls over in PR. One way or another framing is going be used, either on you or by you. In any event, it’s better to recognize it.

Be journalists, not cheerleaders

Along with framing, PR and other professional science communicators are getting savvy. The understanding of how people learn science has come a long way, and the tools of the trade are being turned on the public without having to worry about pesky issues – like balance, or truth.

Science, and the industries it spawns, are realising what’s gone wrong for them in past controversies. Somewhere between nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, and nanotechnology, they’ve started to figure out that engaging people at earlier stages of development helps make the public more comfortable and accepting of the new field.

It’s easier to make people see things your way if yours is the first opinion they hear. The science communicators are setting the building blocks for the public’s schema.

This means that science journalists, just like journalists on every other beat, need to keep an eye on the science communicators – and the scientists. But with the dramatic public controversies over evolution and climate change, many journalists got swept from watchdog to cheer leader. In an attempt to stand up for the science they love, they let their guard down.

Journalists had to defend the science, because scientists weren’t doing it themselves. At least not in a public forum. But luckily for us, they’re starting to get suited up to enter the fray.

Scientific communicators

Scientists are timid creatures. They never give answers without caveats. There is always a “…but only if”, or an “…under certain circumstances.” But they’ve also come to understand that they need us. And we need them.

A journalist is nothing without their sources.

But to really understand why they’re so shy, we need to look to the past.

Think of a standard predator-prey relationship curve. If you want to be a science journalist, you already know what this is.

Now, replace the prey curve with the scientists, and the predator line with the reporter. Look closely to see how the reporter and the scientist interact in their natural habitat.

We seem to think that any scientists plugging for extra media attention is up to something. Cold fusion. Stem cell cloning. Ardipithecus.

Scientists, however, know they need to get out there. There has been a call-to-arms for scientists to engage with the media and the public. You need to be wary of scientists who prefer press conferences to peer-review, but don’t be surprised if one or two knock on your door looking to chat.

Let’s not confuse their renewed efforts to talk with a quest for stardom, and risk running them back to their burrows.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010 9:59 pm

    I’m actually doing some linguistics research on this very issue, and I think one of my pet “findings” is a blend of your “Enter the schema” and “Scientific communicators.”

    When the public (I generalize horribly, here) hears/reads “science,” they think “facts.” Static.

    When scientists hear “science,” they think “process.” Dynamic.

    I think much of the reason for the rhetorical hedges used in academic science texts–the ones you mention in your last point, here–are because of the understanding of science as a process, not a product. The process constantly adjusts perceptions, behaviors, etc… it doesn’t deliver “facts” as product…

    I wonder if the *most important* thing to do when explaining science to the public is to honestly tell that story: we never arrive. Here is the next step (this fits with “enter the schema”).

    • March 10, 2010 10:06 pm

      I definitely agree with you.

      One of major problems with mainstream media science coverage is the presentation of findings in isolation. I think you can usually turn out a better story if you show how the finding fits into the world, and into science progress. It helps the reader get a sense of how science works, and it helps them integrate it more easily into their own lives.

      Now if scientists would just give a nice summary once in a while, that would be helpful too ;)

  2. March 17, 2010 4:27 pm

    I think this is an amazing post and that you’ve covered so many of the bases.

    It’s important, however, to distinguish between different kinds of media. PR folk are usually so pleasantly surprised when they first deal with ‘trade’ media rather than general interest reporters. Subject matter experts who can write and with a vested interest in reporting on/following their industry/news – that’s a PR person’s dream.

    When dealing with your local TV reporter, however, you’re not going to get that level of expertise, and relationships and information sharing with these folks is a process. Adapting the message to suit the medium is key. That’s not quite framing, but almost. In other words, if you’re talking to the Toronto Sun, you need to phrase things differently than if you’re doing an interview with Nature magazine, or Scientific American.

    Scientists also need to acknowledge that they are not all necessarily the best spokespeople, and sometimes it’s better to let the best spokesperson take the lead with media relations. Egos need to be set aside sometimes, regardless of the scientific or corporate hierarchy. A media interview is not the Oxford Debating Society of one’s youth. If you don’t have a talent for synthesizing information, if you become impatient rephrasing things you’ve already made clear, if you think all journalists are stupid – you’re not a suitable spokesperson, and your engagement with the media should be limited to attributed quotes in media releases or email interviews vetted by a communications person.

    As for getting out there sooner – absolutely. It’s been really exciting to see the way scientists have risen (and social media has enabled) them to take science to the streets. Which reminds me, have you seen this wonderful series? http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/streetscience.shtml

    I’d love to see this model at work in North America.

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