Every day science is yielding new and exciting findings – creating a whirlwind of science news that can be challenging for journalists to manage. Besides the sheer volume of information that they must sift through, journalists need to ensure they are picking the right stories to cover, talking to the proper experts, and communicating scientific evidence accurately. This can be particularly difficult for a general assignment reporter who may not be familiar with science and how the scientific process works.
Recognizing the need to better support such journalists, AAAS’s SciLine service has launched a new Science Essentials “crash course” that provides participants with a baseline understanding about science and how to incorporate it in their reporting.
The Science Essentials course was carefully designed, piloted and implemented by two members of the SciLine team: Tori Fosheim, who has a doctorate in neuroscience and brings her expertise as a scientist, and SciLine director Rick Weiss, a former Washington Post science reporter who offers insights from his years in journalism.
After presenting the course to several journalism school classes and some small groups of reporters, they launched the first free, online version of the course earlier this month--an offering they plan to host quarterly. “It went really well,” says Fosheim. “It has been wonderful to see the response and that people really want this. I think there’s a niche that we showed up just in time to fill.”
Lisa Palmer is a journalist, author and professor of science communication at George Washington University whose science writing class was among the first to benefit from the SciLine crash course and who sees a lot of value in this type of training for journalists. “When we learn the strategies of science and science communication from professionals, we can accurately inform public audiences and decision makers about science and why it is important in our lives,” she says.
In the fall of 2020, Weiss and Fosheim began crafting the course curriculum, which covers a comprehensive range of topics, including an overview of the different kinds of scientific studies (e.g, observational, experimental and meta-analysis) and what kinds of conclusions can be drawn from each; how to scan a science paper and determine what questions to ask experts; how to find the right experts to serve as sources; and what information journalists should provide to researchers when they request an interview.
“By describing how the scientific process works and the provisional nature of most findings, the course de-emphasizes reporting on a single finding, discovery, or paper,” explains Fosheim. “It really focuses on what you can do as a journalist to elevate public trust in the scientific process as a whole.”
Recently, Weiss and Fosheim have been adapting the basic course for specific groups of journalists, including a pair of sessions in May for 170 Associated Press reporters and another session for reporters in 22 print, radio, and television newsrooms across the country affiliated with Local Media Association’s Covering Climate Collaborative.
Feedback from the course participants has been very appreciative so far, says Weiss. “The advice we give is pretty practical,” he explains, emphasizing that the course isn’t an academic lecture on theories of science.
At the end of each session, some time is dedicated to a Q&A period where Weiss and Fosheim share their respective expertise. Fosheim notes that there’s a big advantage to this approach. “The tag teaming between a scientist and a journalist is what really makes this program unique and valuable, and makes it stand out in a sea of other professional development opportunities,” she says.
The SciLine team’s work with these courses is just the beginning. They are in the midst of developing a “Science Essentials 201” course, which will provide journalists with a more in-depth understanding of how to report on science. For example, it will highlight ways to find and access science papers, evaluate the papers critically, and better understand statistics. And a separate course targeted for editors is in the works. Notably, editors are in charge of writing headlines, assigning stories, and editing the written content –responsibilities that could all benefit from a basic understanding of science as well.
Weiss notes that the Science Essentials course is part of a larger effort on behalf of SciLine’s mission to bridge the gap between scientists and journalists. Reflecting that larger mission, SciLine also offers separate trainings for scientists to help them work better with journalists.
“Science journalism is a two-way street,” Weiss emphasizes. “If journalists and scientists understand each other’s roles and needs, the interview process and product can be better for both of them in the end.”