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Tips for young science journalists: A crash course on the major issues in the field

August 3, 2010

Erupting volcanoes! Distant galaxies! Endangered species! Particle Accelerators! Explore the wonders of the universe; join the ranks of the science journalists – Today!

Not only is science journalism exciting and fun, allowing you to explore amazing new ideas and interview some of the world’s most intelligent people, but 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, becoming a science journalist can be equivalent to wading into a battlefield.

“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 time, 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 any other beat. They’re interested in science, they think it’s important, and they want to share it with the world. But the problem faced by science writers is the same problem faced by journalists on any other beat. They know more about their story than most of the audience, and once they start typing it’s hard not to let that show.

The difference between science journalism and some other beats is that in science, everything is constantly in flux. The sports reporter can write freely about hat tricks and grand slams, knowing their readers are all familiar with the basics of their favourite sport.  Science journalists face a big problem with assumed knowledge. People don’t come from the same background, and they have different grasps of the fundamentals. 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.

Earlier this year the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator, started its research program. All around the world, science journalists were tasked with explaining the purpose of this monstrous machine – a marvel of high energy physics. But in order to properly dive into the details of the new research, science journalists needed to first explain the fundamentals. What is a hadron? Why are we smashing things together at nearly the speed of light? Without expanding on these basics, the public will be hopelessly lost reading any news coming out of the LHC.

Along with being careful about assumed knowledge in your readership, the science reporter has to guard against leaving out the context for any new discovery. Explaining “how it all goes together” is a key feature of great science writing.

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. Being presented with a new concept can either reinforce a person’s previously held belief or start to break one down. If the idea being presented is new enough, they will put it in a class all on its own, partitioned off to the side, not quite fitting with their existing knowledge.

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

The problem with trying to write for different people, each with their own unique schema, is that they don’t like to change their minds 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, this doesn’t present any problems. Their 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, a mega-feature about the world-changing role of a new tool for the bio-tech industry might leave the reader with little more than a sense of astonishment that this is even possible, (“We can do this?“) but no sense of how the discovery fits into a larger context.

Not everyone will understand the story the first time through, 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.

One solution to this problem is to try to surround a story in experiences familiar to the audience. Some science is highly theoretical, and completely esoteric, but finding an everyday example to explain it will help the audience fit it into an existing schema.

“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

Having an interest in science is what leads many science journalists to research, write and share science stories. But unfortunately, there is a bit of a problem reaching a wider 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.

Science journalists wouldn’t be in their job if they didn’t think it was interesting, and the tendency is to assume the audience feels the same way. But like anyone lamenting the decline in voter turn-out, don’t expect the uninterested to suddenly sit in on a meeting at city hall. Science journalists have to reach out to the audience, and that means making science stories feel like regular human stories.

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 a piece’s raison d’etre, it will quickly cap out the 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 science journalists abandon scientific accuracy, but, if the only point to the story breaks down to “This is new! Science, yeah!” it will 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. A frame is a systematic way of arranging a story, playing into a structure that people relate to, and are familiar with.

The most common frame by far in journalism is conflict. Here is a ‘good’ guy. Here is a ‘bad’ guy. The journalist might play up whatever opposition there is between them. Setting up some conflict gets the reader to associate with the people involved, bringing them into a debate to which they may otherwise pay no attention.

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.

Scientific institutions and industries are realizing what’s gone wrong for them in past controversies. Somewhere between nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, and nanotechnology, professional science communicators have 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 they hear your opinion first. 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. For example, 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; be a journalist, not a cheerleader for science. When science gets its 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, a prominent Korean biotechnologist, fell under the media’s spotlight as a rock star scientist. He followed the accepted norms to tell the world that he had successfully cloned human embryos and harvested stem cells from one of them. He published in the journal Science, and 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 or two knock on the door looking to chat. Maybe they don’t really need the press, but journalists sure need them. Let’s not confuse their renewed efforts to talk with a quest for stardom, and risk running them back to their labs.

Climb down from the tower

Since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and the public distribution of knowledge became more accessible, the process of learning turned into one person with an idea telling anyone who could read.

This system has persisted with the mainstream media and science education, but with the caveat that the means of production of new information is rather restricted. A scientific expert, or a science journalist, decides what they think is important. Then they tell people about it.

Then, they get to work on their next project.

It is a form of one-to-many broadcasting, and it places journalists in a privileged position. Unfortunately, it does little to help people understand science. Some journalists and organizations are starting to realise this problem. There is a shift in how they approach the public which seems to lead to increased audience interest and engagement with science.

I presume science journalists agree that reaching their audience is 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 it harness the power of discussion?

Setting up a blog, twitter account, or other venue where the audience can reach back and ask questions will help them feel connected to, and understand the story. People will always have questions, and being there to answer them will help everyone involved.

At conventional media outlets journalists could try to looking through the comment section of their 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 sources. These are all things today’s science journalist must do.

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.

If you want to learn more:

Media, scientific journals and science communication: examining the construction of scientific controversies by Dominique Brossard.

What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions by Matthew C. Nisbet and Dietram A. Scheufele

And, for examples of some good science writing:

A Depression Switch? by David Dobbs

A Simple Plan to ID Every Creature on Earth by Gary Wolf

The Science of Success by David Dobbs

To see why these articles were chosen, see here and here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Neuromancy permalink
    August 22, 2010 10:20 am

    Hi. I linked to this post from my own blog thinking it would be interesting reading for ‘journalists’, but I guess a lot of it applies to me as a science blogger as well.

    One thing I would take issue with the the advocacy of frames. I realise, when I actually think about it, that science articles will often need some sort of hook to encourage people to read them if they’re not already interested in science (I, unfortunately, tend to tell friends about something I’ve read in a “this is new, yay, go science!” kind of way), and how the story is told is half of its appeal. Nevertheless, I’d be cautious about ‘adding’ frames to make the science into a story, rather than bringing out a narrative that is already there. I’d be especially wary of the Pandora’s Box or conflict frames, as seem the most likely to lead to a misunderstanding of the science or its implications.

    Some science is just pretty cool on its own though, and ideally you’d be able to write articles along the lines of “science…woah…awesome”. I guess that’s just called New Scientist.


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