Tag Archives: journalism

Treating a reporter well: a case study

9 Dec

Scientists wear many hats, and taking the time to talk to a reporter adds one more task to their day or week. So I’m especially grateful when scientists make it easier to do my job and get the facts right.

Here’s the backstory from earlier this week: I had some particularly thorny questions and wasn’t quite sure who my best source might be for a story I was working on. I’ll fictionalize the topic– I needed to know whether pixie dust might be a good alternative for fueling rocket ships. Although one scientist didn’t respond by either phone or email, several others provided me with what I needed by doing a few simple things, ones that didn’t take a lot of time or effort– at least they didn’t seem to.

  • Point 1: Speak with authority on what you know but admit what you don’t.  When Scientist A called me back (promptly– serious bonus points), he said, “Look I’m an expert on pixie dust but not rocket ships, so I can’t really comment on the paper as a whole. But when you consider the pixie dust, you have to consider several issues.” Although a partial answer, it helped me look for what I really needed, a rocket ship expert.
  • Point 2: A response that says you don’t have time is better than no response. A couple of researchers got back to me and said, “Sorry, I’m swamped. I really can’t help you.” If you do that promptly, that helps me: I know that I need to find someone else right away rather than waiting and hoping that you will get back to me. A couple others got back to me with answers after mentioning that they were traveling or out of the office. I don’t expect that scientists will check in with me while they’re on vacation, but it’s great when they’re willing to take the time to do it.
  • Point 3: When you can’t answer my question but you know someone who can, I’m grateful for a name I can stick into Google. Another scientist– who wasn’t a full expert on alternate rocket ship fuels– forwarded my email to a colleague on another continent. I’m grateful when a scientist, particularly one I’ve never talked to before, is willing to go out of her way and do that. But even if you’d rather not stay involved in my question, if you know of someone off the top of your head, I appreciate learning about someone whom I can chase down on my own.

Fellow science journalists, what would you add to my list?

Science, Journalism and Inform-vs-Educate

2 Jun

Almost 6 years ago, I attended a conference of scientists and communicators about issues of communicating global warming to the general public.  At that point I was still wearing my graduate student hat and was still learning the ropes of science writing. The issues related to global warming and the public were different– this was before An Inconvenient Truth, and folks were genuinely worried that no one was believing the growing body of science showing that the Earth’s climate was indeed changing, and probably not for the better.

Though I learned a lot that week, the discussion that sticks most vividly in my mind doesn’t specifically relate to climate, but the role that journalists play in that process. When it came down to the question of whose job it was to educate the public about climate change, many of the experienced journalists in the room had a violent, seemingly knee-jerk reaction: “My job isn’t to educate. My job is to inform.”

My scientist-turning-journalist brain did a 180. Huh? I hadn’t come across this cultural tidbit before. I listened for a while and even chimed in at a couple of points. At the time– even though I disagreed– I thought maybe I was just naive and, perhaps, I might come to the same conclusion as these veterans once I had been a working science journalist for a while. But, no, I still disagree, but my understanding of the issues is now more nuanced.

In part, I think the problem is boiling it down to the words inform and educate. In many cases, part of the friction that can sometimes come when a scientist-educator talks to a journalist-informer. A couple of years ago, A Blog Around the Clock described that divide:

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance. As long as both parties are aware of the existence of two disparate goals, there is a possibility of conversation that can lead to an article that satisfies both goals, thus both participants.

That defines the divide. Journalists have to find relevance and a connection that convinces their audience to read what they’ve written. Scientists sometimes want us to write about information that, while important to their grand vision, may not be relevant to the individual story that we’re trying to tell.

But the problem is that science journalists rarely ever have the opportunity to simply inform, even if that is their stated goal. Even if we have an easy news hook of extending human life, possible life on Mars, or the newest iPhone-type gadget strapped to your thumb, we constantly have to define, explain and educate the public about the nuts and bolts of what we’re writing about. Does a sports reporter have to explain a free throw, a home run, or an ace? Do political reporters have to give a two sentence description of how the Supreme Court works every time we have a new nominee? Generally not– but I can’t write a general news story and use the word protein, DNA or cell without somehow explaining what those words mean and why they’re important.

So, I’ve always considered that part of my role is to educate. Part of that is  my scientific training. Part of that is that I worked in a hands-on science museum and watched kids explore the joy of science. The reason that I do what I do is to make science fun, interesting, useful and relevant to broader society. But to do that, I provide context and connections, the education within the relevant plot points that justify “why now?”

So, I will always embrace education in my work. But I also recognize that I’ve often done my job best when the educator is wearing an invisibility cloak.

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