Science journalism

Tips for being a science journalist

An oldie but goodie from years ago for those who want the basics of how to be a science journalist.

So for those of you who didn’t know, I gave a talk on 6 August 2010, as part of UWA’s Science Communication Seminar series. I was asked to talk on how I manage to do so well as a science journalist. For anyone who feels they need it, here’s pretty much what I talked about:

1) Science communicators including journalists, PR people and the like, spend most of  their time dealing with two groups: the scientists and the public. The nature of news is changing fast: how we produce it, how we get it out and so on. Our job is to adapt so we can keep our responsibility to the scientists and to the public to report fairly and accurately.

Media stereotype: Orwell’s reporter Lady Goldstein by Boris from Vienna via Flickr

For this reason, we cannot afford to play a blame game or deal in stereotypes, along the lines of: “Scientists are loners.” or “The public lacks sufficient education to comprehend anything.” The stereotypes aren’t always true and don’t do you any good in doing your job.

And a journalist’s job in any niche or beat is to: inform, educate and report fairly and accurately with respect to their audience and their sources.

That’s it in a nutshell for the ethical reasons (all covered in some way in your journalistic code of ethics).

2) So what’s the best thing you can do to be a good science journalist?

Create, build and maintain relationships – these are what any journalist in any niche/beat should and will be doing. If you don’t do this, you will be out of a job quicksmart.

3) So how do you do this? At least while you are on the science beat? Well, it’s bound up in everything you do and in your reputation, really. So we’ll start with the process involved, listed here for your convenience:

First step: Sourcing stories and getting approval for them from your editor
Second step: Doing preliminary research and writing out interview questions
Third step: Calling contacts and setting up interviews
Fourth step: Doing the actual interview
Fifth step: Writing the article and sourcing photographs
Sixth step: Editing the article and submitting it for publication
Seventh step: Promoting the article once it is published and informing the contacts/sources that it has been published.

4) Every step listed above, if done well, contributes to your reputation as a fair, approachable and professional journalist and that just helps when you want to interview someone.

When you source stories, it helps to a) know what kind of stories are needed by your publication and b) build relationships with media contacts and PR people so that they are more likely to send you story ideas and press releases or give you information when you call them up.

Example: I know what stories are needed in what categories for the publications I write for. If I tell a media contact: “Send me anything you have in this category each week/month.” then the media contact finds it easy to do her job of getting the story out there and I find it easier to do mine and both our bosses end up being very happy.

Always get the story idea approved by the editor. After working for a publication for some time, you get to know what they want and don’t want in terms of stories. But you cannot make that decision on your own, so refer to your editor for final approval.

If you can, only take on stories in a scientific field that: a) you enjoy and are interested in and b) you have some background knowledge or experience in. You will do a better job that way. If you can’t pick a field in your particular position, learn everything you can.

5) Do the preliminary research. It will help you understand what’s going on and you will seem far more intelligent in the interview and that will help knock back any stereotypical ideas a scientist might have about the media. Be informed. It might get you another story.

Write out a list of questions. Your interview technique might not be that formal but a list of questions can help you figure out what else you need to know that hasn’t been answered.

6) Always call the media contact first. Always – they are gate keepers for a reason: scientists are busy. Scientists are busy teaching, doing research, working in labs, going to conferences, applying for funding and talking to the media – all sorts of media.

They usually won’t put any obstacles in your way to contacting the scientist. Not unless you give them a reason to. So just call them first. Introduce yourself, your publication and tell them what you want and if you have any deadlines. Then once they give you the go ahead, call the scientist. Introduce yourself etc (as above). It’s common sense stuff.

Remember that list of questions? You might have to interview the scientist right then and there over the phone. Because they need to catch a flight somewhere. Because they are going to go on leave. Because they are busy. There maybe tons of reasons but if you have to – then interview them. You won’t get another shot.

7) In terms of preference, an in person interview is better than a phone interview which is better than an email interview. Whenever possible do not give them a list of questions beforehand (unless it is an email interview). Not because you don’t trust them but you want their quotes to be natural – formal quotes can be an issue not necessarily because of jargon but because of length and structure. If they write out their answers to questions you have given them, chances are the answers will be very formal.

Introduce yourself, state the publication and thank them for their time. Then briefly explain your science background/knowledge, state how you interview people and that anytime they want to say something off the record, to just let you know. State issues of confidentiality (as in you won’t let them see the final piece prior to publication without direct approval from your editor) right at the start. Then if they don’t want to proceed, you haven’t wasted anyone’s time.

Use a tape or digital recorder. Even if you are awesome at shorthand, you will lose eye contact as you write and the interviewee can then become very robotic or might dictate their responses and you lose the potential for good quotes.

The only notes you should probably write would be anything to do with: 1) steps of a process; 2)spelling of names and terms; 3) important figures and group names. You can draw diagrams – there is no need to transcribe every sentence perfectly. The whole point of the interview is to get information – you won’t be quoting the entire thing verbatim.

Some people might be shy: always ask “Why did you decide to do ____?” or “How did you get interested in ____?” This is a personal question but people answer it and then once they have answered a personal question, it’s far easier for them to answer a professional one. Also, most scientists are passionate about what they specialise in. Getting them to talk about their passion for their work is the best thing you can do. You can tell that when someone is passionate about what they do when they have a maniacal Joker like grin on their face. Always smile when you see this, it makes them feel more comfortable about what they are saying.

Be nice, polite and genuinely interested. You might be quaking in your boots and you can fake the confidence but you cannot fake genuine interest in a topic that bores you. People pick up on it. If you can, get yourself moved to a section where you understand and are interested in the scientific field that you will cover.

Share something of yourself, particularly if the interview is informal. Say something about how you got the scientific knowledge you gained or your background. Show them that you aren’t just here to do your job and get the hell out of the room – you’re not there to use them, you’re there to tell their story to an interested audience.

Give them something: A useful piece of information, your business card, or even a piece of merchandise from the publication (one of the publications I write for hands out pens that light up and mugs that change colours when you pour hot liquids in them). Basically, thank them for their time, if not with a gift, then with words or a gesture.

If you don’t understand the story after the interview has ended – go back and ask more questions.

For more on interviewing sources about science journalism where I pontificate like crazy, you can read this blog post about the actual interview process in more detail

7) When you write, first answer the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Do it in a column form and get your facts straight: you might have several Whos and Whats – that’s fine.

The First Draft by mpclemens via Flickr

Write the lede. This is the first sentence that catches the reader’s eye after the headline. It’s called a precede if it is an online piece. It should have the Who, What and as many of the other 5W +H in it as possible and be short, sharp and in the active voice.

Example: “Researchers at University X have discovered that Chemical Y causes Side Effect B in Demographic group A.” The Whos: Researchers, Group A; the Whats: Chemical Y, Side Effect B; the Where: University X. The lede tells you what the story is about so that if you are skimming, you don’t need to read anything else to know what has basically occurred but also tells you enough that you want to know more. How did they discover it? When? How does it work? What will they do now?

Those questions are answered in the nut graf. Nut as in the centre of the story; graf as in an old term for paragraph. The nut graf usually comes after the lede/precede and tells you the entire story as succinctly and clearly as possible.

Example(continuing on from the lede example above): “The Dollar amount D study funded by Funding program C, looked at Characteristic E and F in relation to Variable G in Demographic Group A. ‘Really interesting quote’ said Scientist I from University X.

In this example of a nut graf, the remaining pertinent facts have been mentioned, clarified or expanded upon. Anything from here on in the piece should build on this information – quotes, what people will do next, consequences. Typically, if you need space, anything from here on might be cut by a copy editor.

No spin. Absolutely not. Because you can shock your readers for a little while and then after that they become immune and get turned off. And in science, your readers want the facts and nothing else. And the scientists want you to report the facts and nothing else because anything else lessens their chance of a) doing any good with what they are researching and b) getting any kind of funding to continue the research.

Photographs can be sourced from the media contacts or you can take your own. In which case, never position your subject in front of, or looking directly at, a white or reflective surface. Either they will be squinting in the photo or you will not be able to see their faces.


The invisible photographer by tibchris via Flickr

Listen to your interview on the tape recorder and write out the quotes you want to use. Only the quotes. Listen again to make sure you got the words right.

Be fair, objective and biased. There is no room for your opinion because you aren’t likely to be writing an editorial piece. News is factual – when it comes to science, even more so. Report just the facts and be accurate. Scientists hate it when you put a spin on something that exaggerates a fact and that makes it even harder for you to get them to talk to you again.

Write the headline: no spin, be alliterative and witty if you can, keep it short and relevant.

8) Edit your piece. Your editor is there to check the language and style, not to correct your grammar and spelling every single time. Do it yourself and present the best possible piece of work that you can. Please use the style guide that you get given by the publication, even if you don’t like it. And please get rid of your adjectives and adverbs unless you are writing a feature.

Submit on deadline. If you don’t do this, then everyone else from the editorial team to the publishing team to those marketing and distributing the publication, get delayed.

Clock Top by laffy4k via Flickr

Check your facts. If you muck it up, no scientist who finds out will want to talk to you.

9) Once published, drop the media contact, scientists etc a line. This is just part of you being nice. Thank them again for their time.

Then promote it on Facebook/Digg/Twitter/Reddit/Slashdot/the news aggregator or social network of your choice. DO NOT SPAM.

10) Other stuff:

Do not let scientists edit your work: you are writing for a target audience and the language and style you should use is dictated by that audience and the publication, not by you or the scientist. Even if the scientist is part of that audience, he or she, is less likely to have a grasp of the language and style than you do. Academic writing and journalism are equally difficult to master and both have different conventions and styles. I tell them that I have worked in labs before but I acknowledge that to do their job requires more than just a knowledge of lab procedures so I am not about to do their job, so they cannot do mine.

Lab work by Bein Stephenson via Flickr

Only let scientists correct you on factual information.

Do not let anyone see the work – you need to keep sources confidential. You might talk to more than one person for the same story – you are not that likely to be cognizant or aware of what’s happening in the scientific community in respect to people so to prevent potentially damaging gossip or news travelling before publication, do not show your work to anyone bar your editor.

Confidential by casey.marshall via Flickr

Keep in touch with people.

You won’t just be talking to scientists. You’ll be talking to community groups, members of the public, politicians and all sorts of people. Be prepared for this.

Demand respect. Don’t be an idiot about this but if someone disrespects you and continues to do so after you have politely asked them not to, then leave the situation. Stop the interview, stop writing the piece, whatever it takes to leave the situation and move on. The relationships you are trying to build with people to do your job well work both ways so don’t put up with anyone who doesn’t respect you.

Have a sense of humour.

I quit via anomalous4 via Flickr


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