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Interview with Nicola Jones

March 7, 2010

Nicola Jones is an editor at Nature, a frequent contributor to New Scientist, and an affiliate of the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism. She had some really interesting points about critical thinking in science journalism, how scientists are no more trustworthy than anyone else, and the plight of the shrinking newsroom.

The full interview is after the jump.

Colin: You work at Nature, you work at New Scientist, and now you’re at UBC. I was just wondering… What do you think your role is as a science journalist?

Nicola: Mine specifically? Or what do I think of the role of science journalists, plural.

C: Let’s go with both.

N: I think sometimes there’s a false distinction drawn between science journalism and journalism, as if they’re totally separate beasts. So I would say the role of the science journalist, like any journalist, is to provide critical analysis of developments that are important and interesting to their readership.

So I can answer that negatively, by saying what it’s not. It’s not to teach science, which I think some people think it is – news isn’t a textbook, it’s different. And it’s not to glorify science. Some newspapers, particularly the lighter ones, will treat science like some sort of cool but irrelevant toy that they like to report on every day. So for me the real gist of science journalism is not that – it’s to inform the citizens about the information they need to know in order to be responsible citizens in their daily life.

C: So how do you go about personifying that in your own work?

N: For a long time I was the commissioner for the online news site for Nature, and the thing to do is to try to make sure – even if you are running a story that’s a “gee-whiz, here’s a cool discovery in science” story – you need to make sure that there is a lot of context in that piece  to explain to the reader why it’s important. Or why it’s not important, it’s just interesting. Or, how it’s going to affect their lives. And that’s different probably for Nature’s readership than it would be for most other people because our readers are mostly scientists themselves.

But mainly it’s that injection of context into the pieces to make sure that they’re really hitting the right note.

C: You mentioned that at Nature your readers are mostly scientists. And now you’re working with students, or maybe your writing is for a general audience. What was it like to transition from having scientists as an audience to students.

N: Well we have a fond saying at Nature which is that “Scientists are people too.” So they’re subject to the same kind of whims as ordinary people.

And I should clarify that, I do still work for Nature, so currently my job description is to work five days a week for Nature, helping to edit their opinion section. In addition to that I’m also a freelance journalist. My role teaching at UBC was primarily for one term, but I’m still affiliated with the university, and will probably help with their teaching next year as well.

C: So you’re not currently teaching, but you have.

N: Not currently teaching, no. I taught the science journalism course in the Autumn of 2009.

C: What would you tell your students to do with their writing to keep the general audience in mind.

N: Most of the students that I had were very good at keeping the general audience in mind. They were less good at understanding or critically evaluating science. So a lot more of it was focused on that. Most of the students in that class were people who were already getting training in general journalistic writing and reporting practices from their other classes. So it was more focusing on what they needed to maybe do a bit differently, or what knowledge they needed to have in order to critically evaluate science.

When we were talking about writing for a general audience it was mostly things like; learning to use analogies in the most powerful way to try and explain things that needed explaining. But I spent most of the time trying to teach them how not to get hoodwinked or bullied by scientists. Because scientists, more than other people – maybe not other people, politicians are the same – but there are certain classes of people who try to shape stories to their own advantage and they try to tell you what is interesting, they try to tell you what’s true. And it’s your job as a journalist to critically evaluate those statements.

And I guess maybe journalists’ little antennae are aware when they’re talking to politicians that they’re probably being spun, and sometimes those defenses drop entirely when people are talking to scientists, because they think, “Oh it’s a scientist, they’re just telling the truth.” So a lot of it was teaching them to remember to keep those critical faculties awake when talking to scientists.

C: Do you think that’s something that is often not done by the media?

N: Yeah. Definitely. We had a class which was quite hilarious, where we just went through pieces of science journalism that had been horrifically, badly written – and try and evaluate how that happened.

One of them, it was this amazing clip, it’s hilarious. I think it was on CNN, it was on some very reputable, very “reputable”, news channel. And there was this reporter reporting on a car that ran on water. And they’d obviously received a press release from some company saying “Here’s a car that runs on water, it’s fantastic.” And maybe they had some sort of vague notion about fuel cells, so they knew that water was potentially some sort of kind of fuel, maybe. So they run this story and it was just clearly bollocks.

There was no evaluation of, you know, you put water in the tank and then what happens? Presumably it’s split into hydrogen and oxygen, and then the hydrogen is used for a fuel cell, fine, but that’s going to run out eventually. And where is the power coming from that turns the water into the hydrogen for the fuel cell? Oh look, the car has a battery in it.

None of those details were explored in the story, and I think the reporter was just slightly overwhelmed by it all and didn’t know what questions to ask. So I guess in that regard my job was just to teach students, same as with anything else, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The best thing you can do is just pick up the phone and call someone who can know, and say “is this too good to be true?” Because anyone who had qualifications in that area would have said “Yes.”

C: Stemming from that, there seems to be a bit of a split in the science journalism community about whether you need a science background, whether you don’t need a science background, whether it matters. In your experience, have you noticed a marked difference in students or in people you’ve worked with drawn along that line?

N: No, not along that line. The qualities you require in a good science journalist are someone who is keenly intelligent, keenly curious, and keenly critical. And those faculties are not dependent upon having a science degree. It’s not really about your expert knowledge in a field. It is true I think that if you work in a particular area of science reporting for a long time you get to know a lot of the background and science facts in an area. It does help, it doesn’t hinder, but it’s not the most critical thing.

Even at Nature one of our [writers] doesn’t have a science degree. And that’s at Nature. So that goes a long way to answering that question.

C: A degree will teach you facts, but it’s more about knowing how to think, and ask questions.

N: Although I can say that there have been a couple of people coming through Nature’s doors who have PhD’s, and they were very good journalists. And the reason they were very good journalists is because they were applying the same critical faculties that they used as a PhD candidate towards their journalism. I guess this is the same thing that makes a good scientist as opposed to a poor scientist – someone who is willing to ask a lot of questions, question things when they don’t look right, try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Those people were previously doing that in their science research careers, and now they are doing it in their journalism careers. But they were just all-around generally brilliant people who probably would have excelled at anything they did.

C: The one thing I’ve been looking at, and has been drawing my interest a lot more, is the science of current affairs, or deconstructing political issues. And that doesn’t seem to be particularly prevalent in science journalism. It’s more about discoveries or advances or press releases. I was wondering if you had any opinions on that type of science journalism.

N: There is a lot of “churnalism” in science journalism. This idea of just sort of being on the treadmill and running through Science and Nature and PNAS and all the major journals and making sure that you’re covering the advances in the field. And that is in some ways necessary for a publication like Nature or New Scientist to cover that stuff, but it’s not usually the most fulfilling kinds of stories. So a really good journalist will take a press release like that and make it really good by adding context, by saying how it relates to policy developments, by saying how it relates to things that are going on in the real world.

Or just by adding the context of what previous studies have shown and how this study adds to that rather than just treating something in isolation. The really fulfilling stories are the ones that come, I think, spinning out of real world events.

So for example, I did a news feature a little while ago for Nature about technologies that are being developed to try and suck carbon dioxide directly out of the air as a kind of geo-engineering scheme to help mitigate against climate change in the future. And that’s not something that was spurred by some specific press release or technology advance, it was something that was spurred by knowing that someone who was very big in that field is starting a company. So if they’re starting a company then maybe that means theres enough money behind it to actually make it fly. And what’s happening in the economic world, or what’s changing in the world of economics to make those kinds of things financially viable now when they weren’t before? Or what’s happening in terms of climate change that’s making things financially viable?

So that stuff does go on, but it’s harder to do. A reporter requires more time to do that kind of story. And I guess you’re probably getting into the whole issue about journalism and the financial model behind journalism, and whether we’re going to be able to support in the future; having these journalists, like they have at the New York Times, who can afford to spend long periods of time, and staff dollars and staff hours, just investigating something to see what they find.

C: So you’re saying that the best stories do tend to come from the ground up. Like they spin out of current affairs?

N: I guess I would put it slightly differently. I would say the best stories are the ones that take a global approach. So whether they start from a press release, or whether they start from something that’s happened in the real world makes less difference I think. But they’re the stories that show you how the latest research developments are interacting with the real world, wherever that story came from.

C: I was just wondering what you think is the biggest issue in science journalism right now.

N: I think it is the financial model. By which I just mean that at so many newspapers, if you’re a specialty journalist, you’re the first to be fired when times get tough. Science journalism suffers from that. There is this perception that science journalism can be covered by printing press releases from Nature or Science rather than having a journalist investigate things.

And at the same time you have a blogosphere world of people who are doing really interesting stuff – writing about science and developments and getting really to the core of what those developments mean and how the research community is responding to them. And they’re doing that for free. So on the one hand you have these very intelligent, very insider views being written about science by people who are just so passionate that they’ll do it for free. And they’re online and you can read it for free.

And on the other side of the coin you’ve got some professionals who are incredibly good at what they do, and if they had the time to investigate things, would be producing really fascinating and important stories. But they’re working for news organizations whose bottom lines are getting increasingly tighter, and they’re just being asked to produce five stories a day, “thank you very much.”

So there is a disparity there, and I don’t know how we can get to a place where the good professional people who have the passion and the ideas and the skills can be paid for what they have.

C: Do you think the bloggers are picking up where the conventional science journalists are being left – with the economic problems? Like with the critical thinking and the investigative type stories?

N: I think there’s good and bad examples all around. Some bloggers are just rehashing stuff, and some journalists are just rehashing stuff. And some bloggers and some journalists are doing fantastic, innovative stuff. So I don’t think there’s a really strict line that can be drawn there. But I do think it’s true that in general, the vast majority of journalists are probably working for newspapers where financial pressures are such that they don’t have the leisure to do these more investigative pieces.

And the problem with the bloggers is they may have the time and the leisure to do that, and the passion to do it. But maybe they don’t have the skillset to know quite what to do with quotes, or to be prepared for libel battles, or to be doing a professional job of making sure that they’re covering all different aspects of a story. And then the reader is left, maybe also not knowing how to read these things.

I don’t know what that means is going to happen in the future.

C: I was just wanting to go back. I’ve been talking to a lot of different people and I’m trying to figure out the whole idea of getting the science to the general audience, and the best way of doing that. And, I was just looking for your input.

N: You mean like on a very specific story by story level?

C: Yeah. What are the tools you can use to make a new research finding into something that anyone would want to read, and could take some science away from.

N: I guess it’s just all the classics. Making it about people, people are fascinating to us. You can write a profile about Craig Venter that anyone would want to read, because he’s just such a fascinating rockstar of a scientist. Highlighting the issues of conflict, or battles, or trials that happen in science. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff that goes on in science between research groups literally racing to get papers out ahead of each other that doesn’t get covered very much in the newspapers that would be fun to highlight, and would make it much more real and alive I think for people to read.

And then when you’re just writing the thing… relying on analogies to try and make difficult science more realistic, and always making sure that you put in your story how and why something relates to someone’s own personal life. So if it’s about climate change, is there some regional aspect of climate change that is applicable to your particular audience? So all those usual or general tricks of journalism.

Some people who do this really well are the RadioLab podcast people from NPR.

I think they’re fantastically good at thinking outside the box, and thinking slightly sideways, and saying “I heard this research finding, how fascinating. It reminds of me of something that I read in a fictional novel.” Or, “It sheds light on this thing that happened to me last week with my own baby.” And they really bring the world of science to bear on their own personal lives. And they take it to the street and find out how it relates to other people’s personal lives. And they do that really well.

C: Let’s say you were writing a story, and there was all the facts, all the scientific facts. One of the problems that scientists often complain about is that they [the reader] often don’t interpret the facts the way they should. They’re not looking at them like scientists do. How do you think people look at the facts that are presented to them?

N: I think it’s definitely true that readers ignore the clauses. There’s this hilarious cartoon from PHD comics, and it’s about the news cycle [She describes the comic, but it’s easier just to look for yourself]… So there’s this kind of cycle where things do get simplified. I’m not sure exactly what the way out of that is, except I think headlines play a really major role in that. Editors have this tendency to simplify things in headlines, really to the point where they’re not true anymore. Or, the classic example of putting a question mark in a headline.

The New Scientist trick of ‘Question Mark cover lines’. And the question mark is like a stand-in meaning the answer to the question is “No.” So they have things like “Is Elvis Alive in Another Universe?”

C: But it lets them put their fun, jazzy headline?

N: Yeah, it lets you say something which you know is strictly not true. That’s a bit of a silly example, but it lets you say something you know is not strictly true, not even according to the study that you were reporting. But if you stick a question mark on it then that’s supposed to convey to the audience that that’s not strictly true. Or these sorts of tricks; you know you say “, says so and so.” Which means it’s just one person’s opinion. Or you put in the caveats like “sometimes,” or “95% of the time.”

And I think it is true that readers don’t absorb all that. They absorb the top line, which does inevitably sound more solid and true than probably the researchers would like to present it as.

I think there are ways around that. Usually the way around that is to get to the core of what the research is really showing. And if it’s not really showing anything… I mean if the level of uncertainty is so high that you can’t actually conclude anything from it yet, then maybe you should think twice about whether you ought to be reporting it in the first place.

Or, maybe you can recast it as a story about the quest to answer the question. Or the people who are involved in that quest. So just sort of change the framing of the story, rather than just taking the easy way out, and having the headline be “A causes B, scientist says!”

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