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Scientists Sharpen Journalism Skills in Newsrooms During Summer Fellowship

Reporter taking notes
AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows and Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Interns will spend the summer working as journalists. | wellphoto/Adobe Stock

The science students and postdoctoral researchers who embark on a AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship arrive with a wide range of skills and expertise, like an analytical eye, a keen curiosity, an interest in communicating science more broadly and a deep knowledge of a scientific subject such as evolutionary biology or molecular engineering.

The 2021 fellows will apply these skills – and learn many more – as they spend the summer working as journalists in newsrooms around the country.

Since 1975, the fellowship has strengthened scientists’ ability to communicate complex topics to new audiences and bring well-informed science news to members of the public. The program is complemented by the Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Internship, which places undergraduate journalism students from underrepresented backgrounds on the news team at Science magazine for the summer.

“Journalism, writing, communicating about science: these are all critical to shaping public understanding of the world around us,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, at the June 2-4 virtual orientation that kicked off the fellowship and internships.

During the orientation, fellows and interns took part in sessions and workshops led by AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology staff, professional reporters, editors and public information officers, and fellowship alumni to learn and hone the skills needed to succeed as science journalists.

Fellows and interns learned from experts about writing for new audiences, especially those readers, listeners and viewers who may have no scientific background.

David Grimm, online news editor for Science and an alumnus of the fellowship, advised fellows and interns to choose their words carefully, avoiding jargon and thorny, needlessly complex language. He also urged them to include the bigger picture as they strive to “inform, translate and entertain.” Part of their jobs as science journalists is to let audiences know why a piece of science news might be significant or impact their own lives.

“A lot of these discoveries are going to be really important for people’s lives personally or maybe the lives of people they care about, and so getting that information across so it doesn’t just stay in the lab and in locked-up scientific papers is really important,” said Grimm.

This goal also informs the reporting process as journalists decide which new scientific papers should become vital, compelling news coverage. Yet science journalists should also draw upon their training to cast a critical eye on potential coverage, Grimm noted. A paper, for instance, about advances in treatments for Alzheimer’s disease would be of broad interest to many members of the public, but journalists should examine the limitations of the study and incorporate perspectives beyond the research team to avoid overhyping the science, he said.

The lessons learned at the orientation will benefit the participants throughout the summer and beyond, regardless of their future career paths, organizers and speakers emphasized. Incorporating those lessons also benefits science journalism as an enterprise, they noted.

“The Mass Media Fellowship is designed to strengthen the connections between journalists and scientists,” said Kristin Lewis, a project director with the AAAS Center for Public Engagement and leader of the Mass Media Fellowship. “Whether you leave here as a media-trained scientist or a science-trained journalist, those connections are stronger.”

Learn more about AAAS programs that support and promote science journalism by preparing scientists to work in newsrooms as reporters, connecting journalists with scientific experts and recognizing and rewarding the best work in the field.