Tips from Science Journalists

Learn what top science reporters and editors have to say about the relationship between science and journalism:

Reporters Chris Joyce of NPR, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, and Alan Boyle then of NBC News, discussed effective science communication during a panel on “Working with Print, Broadcast, and Online Media” at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting Communicating Science seminar. Hear their tips:

 

Flora Lichtman, The Adaptors

 

Flora has been covering science and the environment for the last decade. Her reporting has appeared on NPR, in The New York Times, Popular Science, The Atlantic and in a number of film festivals. She is the co-director of the New York Times Op-Docs series "Animated Life" and host of the public radio podcast The Adaptors. Prior to that, Flora was the managing editor of video and substitute host for Science Friday. Before getting into journalism, she worked at a NATO lab, studying marine mammals in the Mediterranean. (A good gig.)

What kinds of science stories do you create and who is your audience?

I like stories about people. I’m interested in the passion scientists have for their research, and what drives their interest. I also have to admit that I really love gee-wiz-ish science stories. It’s a guilty pleasure.

I mainly work in audio and video, both documentary and animation. For animation, I like making physical objects and filming them. I’ve done a lot of this work with Sweet Fern Productions. We have a series called Animated Life that appears on the The New York Times.

My goal is to reach people who don’t think science is for them. I try to do that through unusual stories and unconventional visuals.

What are you looking for from scientist sources?

I love it when sources speak casually. Being informal is not mutually exclusive with being an expert either. My favorite sources are extremely knowledgeable, but also happy to throw in a reference to The Wizard of Oz, or call her study subject “weird and awesome.”

It’s always fun to talk to scientists who are unabashedly enthusiastic about their research. It can sometimes be difficult to sell science without someone getting excited about the research and I would prefer it to be the person who knows about it and spends her life doing it.

What can scientists do to ensure an interview is successful for both you and them?

Scientists can always ask to repeat something if they’re not satisfied with their answer. Most journalists and scientists have the same goal: to communicate the research clearly and accurately.

Scientists can also ask about the intended audience for the piece. The language and emphasis may be different for a story running in the front of the journal Science than a story on the same subject that appears in TIME. The journalist should be able to give you a sense of the tone and thrust of the piece.

Journalists often like to employ metaphors. If you’re worried about how a journalist might translate your research, you could come to the interview with some lively analogies and metaphors of your own. Journalists love zingers.

How much of a given interview typically makes it into your final story?

The ratio is disturbing. If I’m shooting a short video, it’s usually an hour of shooting for about a minute of edited video. I’ve found it difficult to produce a short video with less than a half-day of shooting – usually that’s a mix of interview, and filming in the lab or field.

How do you handle the balance between scientific accuracy and making information accessible to your audience?

There’s a difference between accuracy and precision. A layperson doesn’t need the same level of precision as a colleague, or a reviewer. The general public needs to understand the big picture. I think that’s the trick: to hit the level of precision that’s meaningful to the public without sacrificing accuracy. It’s negotiation, but I don’t think the two have to be at odds.

Do you have any general advice for scientists working with journalists?

Journalists don’t often let people look at the final piece before publication but you can always ask to check quotes. If you’re concerned about accuracy, it’s always helpful to make yourself available for checking facts. I’m very grateful when scientists are available for a follow-up.

Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American

Mariette DiChristina is editor-in-chief of Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, which has covered developments in science and technology for more than 150 years. It includes coverage by professional journalists as well as articles written by scientists. DiChristina teaches science writing in the graduate program at New York University and is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), a professional organization of science journalists and communicators. Her 20-year career in journalism includes local newspaper coverage as well as serving as executive editor of Popular Science magazine.

Do you have a background in science? Does that matter?

No, I don’t have one and I’m not sure if it matters. Science writers the world over have different backgrounds: Some are PhDs, some are journalists, and some have an engineering degree. Any kind of science training is helpful, but in the field it’s not the be all and end all. Today, the younger reporters seem to have at least a bachelor’s degree in a science discipline and often a master’s degree in science writing. But we come at science journalism from all sorts of backgrounds. Scientists devote huge chunks of their lives to knowing something in great depth and detail, and the journalist will know nothing so well, so I can see how we keep scratching our heads at each other. At the end of the day, however, we’re all – both scientist and journalist – seeking knowledge.

What suggestions would you give scientists for how to successfully communicate to journalists and the general public? What should they keep in mind?

Be very afraid, because no one has any obligation to listen to you. So what you say has to be relevant – it could be wondrous, or beautiful to look at, or full of meaning. But what has to come across is what the new research or finding would mean to the average person. Talk to friends about it. Talk to someone out of your immediate field, in everyday conversation, and listen to what are the stories you tell them, that you bring back from the lab, that catch people’s imagination. There is something so formal about the act of sitting down and writing that we often seize up; but in everyday conversation we naturally pick out what’s most interesting to focus on.

Talk about some ways scientists have been useful to you in covering a story.

One thing every reporter loves is when something happens in a scientist’s lab and they tell you about it directly, or they at least make themselves available. That sounds really simple, but if someone’s not willing to speak with you, that’s not useful. And if they can say, “I can talk to you” and when, or even “I can’t talk to you,” that’s also really helpful. One thing that’s usually hard for anyone outside of journalism to understand is that sometimes the story has to go to the printer or on the website right now. We can’t always wait.

What would you like to see scientists do differently in interviews with you?

Even before an interview, they could tell a reporter to look specifically at certain journal articles or background information. I’m sure they’re tired of basic questions and journalists can do the legwork before the interview. Scientists need to realize that they’re also in control of the process. Both of us – scientist and journalist – want to get a good story that’s clear and pleasing to our readers, so I think being understanding about each other’s limitations is most helpful of all.

Ira Flatow, National Public Radio

Ira Flatow is the host of National Public Radio’s Science Friday, an in-depth talk show that reaches radio and Internet listeners with discussions on science, technology, health, space, and the environment. He also is president of Science Friday, Inc. and founder and president of The Science Friday Initiative, a non-profit company dedicated to creating radio, TV, and Internet projects that make science “user friendly.” A 35-year veteran of public radio and television, Flatow has served as host and writer for the Emmy-award-winning Newton’s Apple on PBS and science reporter for CBS This Morning.

What are you looking for from scientist sources?

We’re looking for them to be able to speak plain English to the public in common, everyday language, and it’s rare to find someone who can do that. We’re also looking for the prime source of the research. If we can’t reach them or they can’t speak very well, we go to someone else. Sometimes the scientist will do very well in the pre-interview, but put them in front of a microphone and they don’t do well – one launched into an eight-minute PowerPoint presentation. We reverted to ‘let me summarize and you say yes or no.’ I asked one scientist about why one alternative energy source is better than another, and he launched back into the history of civilization and how cavemen used fire. When we got to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, I stopped him.

Are scientists worried about how they sound?

Everybody hates the sound of their voice, even professionals. I would say practice what you’re going to say in advance. I don’t mean you have to come up with sound bites, but write down the points you have to make and take them to the interview if you want to. I have lots of scientists who go off on tangents, but if they want to sound authoritative, they should take the time. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth

Andrew Revkin is the author of The New York Times blog, "Dot Earth", about “efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits.” He reported on the environment for The New York Times from 1995 to 2009, covering subjects that included Hurricane Katrina, climate change, the Asian tsunami, science policy and politics, and the North Pole. He also has worked as a senior editor of Discover, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, and a senior writer at Science Digest. Revkin has a biology degree from Brown University and a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia, and has served an adjunct professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, teaching environmental reporting.

What are you looking for from scientist sources?

I’m looking for accurate information in comprehensible language, ideally. The scientist’s main role is to come up with ideas about how the world works and test them, but another equally important role for them is to communicate those findings well. That’s not always easy to do because scientists didn’t go to graduate school to learn how to communicate. To help with that, I fish around to find experts I know who can help me to unravel something, often not even to quote them but to help me understand the significance of a finding or the context for writing a story.

Talk about some ways scientists have been useful to you in covering a story.

Being willing to look at a paper, even if it’s not by them, to give a sense of where it fits in this ongoing saga, whether it’s climate change or environmental policy. Being accessible to help me gauge what’s a big advance, what’s a little step forward, what’s a side-step in the research process.

What would you like to see scientists do differently in interviews with you?

For the scientist’s sake, end the interview with the journalist by saying “Let’s review,” just as you would with a class of graduate students. These conversations with reporters are a two-way street and one way to avoid errors is to ask, at the end, “What are you taking away from this?” and “Let’s review what I said one more time.” It’s helpful to the scientist and helpful to the journalist.

What's a story you'd love to do, but haven't been able to? What's missing that a scientist could provide?

Some of the best stories I’ve done have been when I’ve been able to go along with scientists into the field and watch how the process works—whether that’s at the North Pole or in Greenland or for burning season in the Amazon, with the botanists who couldn’t tell me what tree they were standing next to after having studied trees in the Amazon for 20 years, and that, to them, was unremarkable. That helped me absorb the context and the process enormously. Of course, it’s not possible with things like string theory. If I can get into the field, it helps me absorb the essence and helps me explain it.

Carl Zimmer, Matter

Blogger and science writer Carl Zimmer is author of the New York Times weekly column “Matter.” Before joining the Times in 2013, Zimmer authored “The Loom,” a blog about new scientific research on life, which received awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies of Science, and Scientific American. He is the author of 10 books about science, the most recent of which are A Planet of Viruses and Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. In addition, Zimmer contributes articles to National Geographic, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He previously was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor. A frequent lecturer, Zimmer also teaches science writing workshops at Yale University.

What are you looking for from scientist sources?

I guess I’m generally driven by the research. If I read an interesting paper or hear an interesting talk, that’s what will motivate me to get in touch. I hope the scientists will be articulate and work with me to make a story that will tell people what they’re doing. Then there are other scientists I go back to for comments on other people’s research or to get a view of what’s going on in the field; they’re people who have a sense of where the field is going and what I, as a science writer, can write about effectively in my articles.

What suggestions would you give scientists for how to successfully communicate to journalists and the general public? What should they keep in mind?

They need to keep in mind that other people don’t use their terminology in everyday conversation. Scientists need to realize that they talk very differently about science than other people do, right down to the most basic words they use. If a scientist says something is a “trivial” problem, it has a peculiar meaning to them. Others might think it’s a dismissive term, but what the scientist means is that the problem doesn’t require much brainpower to figure out – it’s straightforward. So when scientists are doing interviews with journalists, they have to think of that audience, strip out all terminology, use vivid language, use metaphors, and be unafraid to talk about things personally.

They also need to think ahead about the format the reporter is working with – a television reporter might have one minute to get across the results of your scientific research, so the scientist needs to think, “If I had less than one minute to describe my research, what would I say?” They need to consider how much detail the reporter is going to have to describe this.

What would you like to see scientists do differently in interviews with you?

I would like them to relax and to talk about their research in more expressive, even poetic ways. What they’re doing is often so marvelous and inspiring that I’d love to quote them talking passionately about science. If they’re reading off the abstract to their paper in a journal, they’re not helping me convey that passion.

Robert S. Boyd, McClatchy Newspapers

Science and technology reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert S. Boyd has worked in the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers – and its predecessor, Knight Ridder Newspapers, for more than 40 years, 20 of them as bureau chief. He has covered topics ranging from astronomy to zoology, serving as a source of science news in McClatchy newspapers across the U.S.

What suggestions would you give scientists for how to successfully communicate to journalists and the general public? What should they keep in mind?

To successfully communicate with journalists and the public, a scientist must first engage their interest, which is not always easy. He/she has to supply context and explain why this material is important. He cannot assume that his audience has a lot of background information. Scientists who appear on Public Television usually are very good at this.

What would you like to see scientists do differently in interviews with you?

I would like scientists, in interviews, to try very hard to explain their work in clear, vivid language that I can pass on to my readers. A punchy quote, colorful analogy or catchy sound-bite, is always welcome, but not at the expense of accuracy.

What's different about your medium/outlet/format that scientists should keep in mind?

My medium, McClatchy Newspapers, deals primarily in words. But we are always eager for pictures or graphics to illustrate the story. And now, like everybody else, we are on the web, and can use video and audio.