Tag Archives: journalism

Science Communication Without Borders: reflections on ScienceOnline 2012

 I’m hardly a newbie to science communication. But last week was my first trip to ScienceOnline. The energy buzzing around that conference for 72 hours made me flash back a decade to when I was still in a chemistry Ph.D. program but desperate to reboot my career without leaving science behind.

At that point, I knew I wanted to think about broader science questions and communicate science to more audiences. So I spent time working in a hands-on science museum, took a science journalism course, and eventually launched my science writing career. But even though science writing has fewer defined boundaries than the research world does, I still run into cultural norms that don’t always fit with how I view myself. For example, many journalists will tell you that their core responsibility is to inform, but not to educate, the public. I can see where the idea comes from, but I firmly believe that education is an important part of what I do. As a result, I’ve continued to keep my hand in museum or exhibit work, or I try to keep writing for children in my mix of projects. I’m not a professional educator, but if I’m doing my job well, I’m a stealth educator.

ScienceOnline 2012 provided a Science-Communication-Without-Borders experience: scientists, journalists, bloggers, educators, and many people who hyphenate those categories, all coming together to discuss issues questions and how we think about all the issues of taking the ideas we’re passionate about and bringing them to broader audiences. It’s not just that people are friendly, but by virtue of being at an Unconference and knowing the diversity of perspectives, people are set up to look at their work and assumptions from a new perspective. I’m still a journalist, but I’ve always benefited from my past and seeing the scientist side of the equation. Because I’m still an educator at heart, Science Online brings me into a fold of people who make that their life’s work.

So other than coming back to my home office with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, what did I take away from Science Online?

Nuggets of writing craft:

  • In a session about assembling book research, David Dobbs (Twitter: @David_Dobbs) offered an incredibly low-tech tip for a high-tech meeting: keep a journal. At the end of each day, sum up what you’ve learned and what you found intriguing in that day’s work. Trust nothing to memory, he says, and those summaries will help you find key thematic connections.
  • He and Deborah Blum (Twitter: @deborahblum) also led an amazing session about writing structure with both visual and audio analogies for crafting stories. Structure is visual, musical, and a bit like a chess game. That mix of beauty and strategy keeps me coming back every day. (If I find a link to audio or video from that session, I’ll follow up and post it).

Nuggets of Tech and Traffic:

  • For techie tips from the book research session: check out Maryn McKenna‘s tumblr post here. (Twitter: @marynmck)
  • Explainers, articles that offer background, are great tools for providing more context on your site. Not surprising. They’re also great tools for driving traffic. If you point out an explainer, those links get more hits. If you point out an explainer and directly encourage your reader to click on it, even better. I believe that nugget emerged from a back and forth between Maggie Koerth-Baker (Twitter: @maggiekb1) and Bora Zivkovic (also known as the Blogfather, Twitter: @BoraZ).
  • The e-book world is exploding, and I love reading on my Kindle (I don’t mean that as a product endorsement. I had fun playing with my dad’s iPad over the holidays, too.). The ways for writers to publish their own work for these devices are expanding. There’s Apple’s iBooks Author, but read the fine print about being locked into their store. The Atavist, publisher of long form e-journalism, is also beta-testing software that would allow people to publish their work in any of the current e-formats. See more on that here, and learn more from this blog post by Christopher Mims over at Technology Review. (Christopher is on Twitter at @mims). The conference wiki also has an incredible list of links and information on e-book publishing.

My post conference thoughts are still simmering, but I’ll continue to use those 3 days as motivation NOT  to box myself in. And I also just solidified my connections with people I can call on when I want to think outside my comfort zone.

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Treating a reporter well: a case study

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?

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Science, Journalism and Inform-vs-Educate

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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