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AAAS Program Gives Scientists a Nose for News
"Get it right. Get it first. Get the reader."
Washington Post Editor Nils Bruzelius offered the AAAS Mass Media Fellows these words to live by this summer, as they try their hands as science journalists.
During a three-day orientation in early June, Bruzelius and several other veterans of print, radio, and television science journalism gave a roomful of young scientists their first taste of the work they'd be doing for 10 weeks at news outlets across the country.
"I was very excited....I felt like the adrenalin was really there, and that I was really able to absorb a lot," said Lisa Lucio Gough, a cell and developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, who will be working at the Richmond Times Dispatch this fall.
Each year, AAAS places 20 to 30 university science students or post-doctoral researchers in mass media organizations nationwide. Now in its 28th year, this highly competitive program helps high-quality science news reach the public, while strengthening connections between scientists and journalists.
"This group is learning to communicate to a different audience, which is a skill they'll use no matter whether they go back to academia or continue in mass media," said Judy Kass, Project Director for Education and Human Resources at AAAS.
While prior experience as a scientist can be an asset for a science writer (around half of the Fellows typically continue working in journalism), it can also offer some challenges.
"Having the background knowledge certainly works for you, as a writer. The danger is the more you know, the harder it is to translate," Bruzelius told News & Notes.
Both Gough and Angela Vierling, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics who is working at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, agreed that they'll probably need a different working style than they use in the lab.
"I find myself always wanting to be perfect, and a little bit obsessive, and I think those are traits that run across scientists...." said Gough. "When I write I'm always wondering if there's a better way to write that, but at a newspaper, you may not be able to work that way when you're under deadline."
"I think one challenge will be to roll with the punches," said Vierling. "I feel like when you're in science, you're in a pretty controlled environment. You know what you're looking for, what you want, and there are set procedures for getting that."
"I don't think it works that way in the media. Anything can happen at any time, and you have to be flexible enough to take the opportunities as they come," she added.
In their workshops, Bruzelius and his colleagues covered topics such as how to structure a news story, how to interview sources, and how to pitch a story to an editor.
"What they really need to hear is some nuts and bolts. That makes them feel more comfortable going into these new environments," said Kass.
Bruzelius also noted that the Fellows will need to navigate in unfamiliar territory. "Never be afraid to ask dumb questions...." he said. "I've found that dumb questions can in fact be the important ones. And I've never had anyone say, 'Now, that's a dumb question.' "
22 July 2003