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So you want to be a science journalist? Here’s a crash course

March 23, 2010

The updated and (hopefully) much improved version of this story can now be found here.

Erupting volcanoes! Distant galaxies! Endangered species! Particle Accelerators! Explore the wonders of the universe, without ever being trapped behind the bench. Join the ranks of the science journalists – Today!

Science journalists play a pivotal role in society – they explain the how and why of important scientific advances. They help readers fit sometimes-esoteric knowledge into their lives. Unfortunately, by wanting to be a science journalist, you’re wading into a battlefield. A battlefield of vested interests, and low expectations.

“The fact that science stories in the media have been found to contain more errors and inaccuracies than general news reporting suggests that journalists’ abilities to deal with science stories are limited relative to their abilities to deal with other kinds of news.”(5)

Pretty harsh words from the science communication literature – but we can do better. Science journalists hold peer-review as the gold-standard for every other facet of their work, so let’s dig into the literature of our own field.

There is of course a science of science journalism. Unfortunately it’s probably some of 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 turn to the researchers who use us as their subjects. Since we’re all stressed for deadline, I thought I’d do the legwork.

To help us all be better science journalists – 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, 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 its own.

Psychologists think we have something called a schema, which is basically shorthand for this 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.

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. And, if you happen to be doing a TV or radio story, they may not even be able to.

“Analysis found that many adults were more capable of retaining and recalling information about practical health matters such as diet and exercise than they were about genetic factors in disease or the uses of nanoparticles. This pattern suggests that more common health and medical information can fit into existing schemas about personal health more easily than new constructs that may be largely unfamiliar to a viewer.

Even for newer constructs, the cumulative patterns observed suggest that repeated stories using these constructs may provide the basis for either integrating these ideas into existing schemas or for the creation of new schemas linked to existing ones.”(11)

That’s a whole lot of jargon to say; ‘Science journalists – 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

Your interest in science is likely what leads you to research, write and share science stories. But unfortunately, there is a bit of an echo-chamber effect going on. 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.

“There is little reason to expect that traditional popular science approaches if applied to informing a wider public about science will ever be effective. These initiatives instead tend to reach a small audience of already informed science enthusiasts.”(12)

If a new advancement is your piece’s raison d’etre, 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. 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.

“Effective communication will necessitate connecting a scientific topic to something the public already values or prioritizes, conveying personal relevance. And in people’s minds, these links are critical for making sense of scientific information.”(12)

There is 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(12) to be employed than just conflict, but here are 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. They’re all going to get more eyes than a straight news piece – and more eyes means more learning.

Call it framing, call it ‘creating points of entry’. Choose to use it, or leave it to the PR department. 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

Public relations staff 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 realizing 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.

“Research institutions and universities [use] the media to bring themselves to the attention of the public. Issuing press releases and holding press conferences on the publication of a ‘sexy’ paper are commonplace. The science that enters the public consciousness in this way does so without a thorough examination by the scientific community, and has earned the fitting nickname ‘science by press conference’…

The media have always been unashamedly interested in making money, but under increasing competition for funding, scientists are faced with similar ‘vices’ when seeking recognition for their work. Furthermore, although it is easy to blame sensationalism and scandal-mongering by the media, the scientific world, including scientific journals, are willing accomplices in many cases.”(10)

Science journalists, just like journalists on every other beat, need to keep an eye on the science communicators – and the scientists.

But this is where journalists sometimes find their own conflict of interest. Name a sports reporter who would let you mock the Superbowl, or the Stanley Cup. Or an arts reporter who would let you denounce Broadway.

The problem for serious science journalists is simple – they love science. That’s why they do what they do. When their beloved comes under attack, they can get a little defensive. In Sweden, they’re having a little problem covering climate change.

“In the process of constructing global warming as a ‘real’ and significant issue worthy of collective action, there seems to be no room for scientific uncertainties or conflicts about the existence, extent, and current effects of climate change. The phenomenon has become a naturalized common-sense concept implemented into everyday news discourse. As a case in point, the periodic articles about the weather of the season contain expressions like ‘a bit greenhouse-warmer than before’.”(3)

In a situation where reporters are afraid to show weakness in the scientific consensus, how can they point out legitimate criticisms? Maybe, just maybe, a reporter with a keen eye could have realized that they’d seen the claim that a certain Himalayan glacier would be gone by 2035 before. In a World Wildlife Fund report, rather than a peer-reviewed journal. And ‘Glaciergate’ could have been skipped over in the ever-growing list of ‘gates’.

The point is; you’re a journalist, not a cheerleader for science. When science gets it’s own estate, then we’ll talk.

Scientific Communicators

Maybe journalists had to defend science because scientists weren’t doing it themselves, at least not in a public forum. Scientists are, after all, timid creatures.

“In a recent survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers, carried out by the Royal Society (London, UK), only 2 out of 1,485 respondents thought that the main reason to engage with the non-specialist public was to “combat negative images” or “combat [a] bad job done by others.” Scientists generally do not like to do battle in public, despite the fact that, given the right support, most media will be interested in the other side of a story.”(10)

In order to really understand why scientists are so wary, we need to look to the past.

In a dramatic rise and fall between 2004 and 2007, Hwang Woo Suk fell under the media’s spotlight as a rock star scientist. He followed the accepted norms to tell the world that he successfully cloned human embryos and harvested stem cells from one of them. He published in Science, then he held a press conference.

“His claims fell on fertile ground because they had been so eagerly anticipated. The journal Science, for example, greeted the February 2004 achievement as “both remarkable and inevitable” and Hwang’s work also served as valuable proof of the potential of the field. It was mobilized to help justify the, often visionary, public statements and excited media coverage associated with stem cell research in the past, and reinforce the rationale for bold financial and legislative investment for the future.”(6)

The media got heavily invested in the story, and spent a lot of time convincing their audiences the findings were legitimate. But in late 2005, Hwang’s work was found to be nothing but fraud. In what can be reasonably seen as a desperate attempt for the media to cover their own behinds, they turned on Hwang – and his willingness to engage with the media.

“Commentators began to draw attention to Hwang’s science being displayed “in full view of the television cameras” and celebrated in front of a “breathless media.” The breakthroughs were retrospectively positioned using the language of popular journalism, public relations and film. They were “splashy” and “blockbuster claim[s]” performed for a “goggling press and general public.”

…In so far as science journalists were implicated in reporting fraud as breakthrough, they were  often presented as merely innocent dupes following correct and normal procedures. Hwang was made the guilty agent, the “attention-seeker” and “headline-grabber.”(6)

This is science journalism’s own little equivalent of libel chill. Yes, Hwang was a fraud. But seeing a scientist get attacked for being a media-darling doesn’t exactly encourage other scientists to stick their necks out there either.

Scientists, however, are learning they need to get out from behind the bench. There has been a call-to-arms for scientists to engage with the media and the public.

Science journalists still need to be wary of scientists who prefer press conferences to peer-review, but don’t be surprised if one of two knock on your door looking to chat. Maybe they don’t really need us, but we sure need them. Let’s not confuse their renewed efforts to talk with a quest for stardom, and risk running them back to their burrows.

Climb down from the tower

Since at least the time Gutenberg started bumming money off people, learning was one person with an idea telling anyone who could read. This system has persisted with the mainstream media, and with science education. A scientific expert, or a science journalist, decides what is important. Then they tell people about it.

Then, they get to work on their next project.

Newspapers and other traditional media are failing economically – I guess we can all take a minute to thank Al Gore for inventing the internet.

We could lament the fall of journalism – or – we can embrace the new opportunities the shift is offering. There is a trend taking place which is allowing for increased public understanding of science. Since we want to be science journalists, I presume we agree is this a good thing.

“‘Science cafés’ provide for the discussion of contemporary issues in science and technology in a relaxed and informal environment. Such cafés are held in non-academic contexts and are ‘committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.'”(8)

The gatherings change the style from ‘one expert explaining to the audience’ – to a discussion. The same change can be used in science journalism to reach bigger audiences, and help more people learn more science.

“Engagement with science in the context of society allows scientists and publics to explore ideas, to examine current societal issues, to challenge the claims of others, and to develop their own understandings… Education, in terms of teaching and learning, thus moves from filling an empty vessel to interacting with others in order to become more aware and capable people.”(8)

If we can agree that one of journalism’s roles is to educate and inform the public, then the big question is – how can we harness the power of discussion?

I heard blogs are big this season. Some of the WordPress themes even match your eyes.

If you happen to hold a job at a conventional media outlet, try to look through the comment section of your website, or find some other way to participate in the discussion.

Reaching out to the public. Shaping stories in ways that engage the audience. Keeping science honest, and not scaring off your sources. Being a science journalist isn’t easy, but maybe we’ll be able to avoid some of the pitfalls.

*References available upon request.* Nah I’m just kidding. Here.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 7:59 am

    Forgot earlier… Gregory and Miller, 1998 – Science in Public. Accessible, slightly out of date in terms of engagement with science policy (at least in “post-PUS” UK). But good.

    It has a lovely section applying ideas of news values to science journalism, which obviously has to be taken with a huge amount of salt (and is maybe out of date in electronic age), but useful for thinking about some of the ‘framing’ stuff you mention. Says things like ‘get out of the science section’ (or how the norm that news likes facts helps science, even if the norm that news likes big things doesn’t always fit with scientists playing claims down). Also it has a fair few historical examples and applies a rather sarcastic tone in places (both of which I enjoy).

    Also, their conclusion is basically don’t assume interest, hey discussion is good and you there, be honest. Which seems to be yours, so either you’ll really enjoy it, or there is no point in reading it at all :)

    • March 23, 2010 9:41 am

      I’ll definitely look into it. A little bit of echo-chamber confirmation never hurt anybody, right?

  2. March 23, 2010 1:23 pm

    This is very good. I like the last four, starting with “frames,” best. I hadn’t thought about context in terms of frames before–kind of like the “conflict” tropes we learn about in storytelling 101.

    Our #ESttP homework was to make a list of ten #ESttP guidelines, and here are mine:

    Homework: Top ten science writing guidelines

    1. Don’t explain it unless you understand it.
    2. Make it interesting…
    3. …but don’t make it falsely interesting.
    4. Always choose show over tell.
    5. If it will affect our lives, let us know how.
    6. Let the subject(s) speak.
    7. Consider design…
    8. …but don’t clutter it with cartoony crap.
    9. Cultivate your own written voice.
    10. Don’t talk down (or up) to your audience

    • March 23, 2010 2:52 pm

      Those are great tips for journalism in general, not just science journalism. The only question I have for you is; what do you mean by “Let the subjects speak.”

      Quotes are best used for opinion/emotion etc. The reporter should generally choose to handle any facts in the story themselves, as they can get them out more quickly and cleanly than any interviewee ever will.

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