News: News Archives
Notebooks, Microphones in Hand,
Scientists Become Journalists
Bethany Halford followed a balloonist on his trip around the worldfrom her desk at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A summer internship at the mid-western newspaper gave the young chemist a chance to interview Steve Fossett, and to write about him in stories that appeared on the front page three days in a row in early July.
"The whole thing was just surreal and fabulous," says Halford. "I really think that the editors at the paper deserve a lot of credit for letting me keep the story when they could have easily passed it off to one of the more experienced writers."
Halford was one of 23 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows who spent 10 weeks this summer working at such places as Newsweek, Good Morning America, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times. Editors and other writers helped them to write clearly, and to communicate complex scientific information to the public. The purpose of the internship program, started more than 20 years ago, is to increase public understanding of science and technology and to strengthen relations between scientists and the press.
For some, the chance to work for newsrooms across the country is an eye-opening experience. Marcia Hill Gossard's work at Newsweek gave her access to interviewees that most journalists only dream of. "When someone finds out that Newsweek's calling, they'll take your call," she said. "They may not take anyone else's call, but they'll take yours."
Other fellows' experiences taught them how important it is to choose words carefully and to check their facts. "It really showed the importance of communicating science correctly and concisely," says Rob Barnett, who worked with Popular Science. "You would be amazed at how often writers and editors change one little word, completely invalidating the science behind which they are describing."
The mission of presenting science to the public was something that concerned many of the fellows. "Often people do not know about scientific issues or how (they) apply to their lives," says Gossard. "One of the most important things I think science writers can do is to bring these issues into people's lives and explain how they are relevant, important, or simply interesting."
At Good Morning America, Cathy Taylor found surprising similarities between the worlds of media and academia. "A good producer generally lets the story unfold as they gather the details and the facts," she says. "This is very similar to the researcher's goal to let the data tell the tale, rather than trying to squeeze a particular result out of the data."
Susan Burke, a graduate student in physics at the University of Arizona, learned about radio journalism from soup to nuts at WOSU-AM in Columbus, Ohio. She pitched stories, interviewed people, and wrote and produced segments ranging from sound-bites to five-minute news stories. She even accompanied a research boat on a three-day mission into Lake Erie. Upon disembarking, she learned a painful lesson about timeliness; she was scooped by another reporter before she had left the boat, making her series outdated. And back in the studio, she learned the pitfalls of gathering too much information: her nine hours of tape had to be distilled down to three five-minute pieces.
The fellows say that they came away with a better understanding about the symbiotic relationship between science and the media. Those who want to pursue journalism as a career saw the fellowship as an important first step. Those returning to their labs say that they take with them the invaluable knowledge of how to interact with the public and the media more effectively.
The deadline for applications to the program in 2003 is 15 January, and between 20 and 30 fellows will be chosen. Transportation to and from the internship site is provided by the program, as well as a stipend of $450 a week. More information on the program is available at www.fellowships.aaas.org.
5 September 2002
For a short list of tips for scientists in communicating with reporters, read Bethany Halford's suggestions.