What makes a science story?

Science journalists are bombarded with many potential news stories everyday.

The press releases coming out of universities, scientific journals and funding bodies would be enough to keep them hectically busy in any given shift.

Add in conferences, reports, government announcements, statistics and the research that slips through the press release net and it is easy to get quickly overwhelmed.4257968097_0c619748cf_m

There is never a lack of science news so what makes one story stand out above the rest.

First it has to hold its own as an interesting story. No story ever made it into print or onto television or radio simply because the editor wanted a ‘science’ story. It has to hold its own against all other stories of the day.

It must be new, first and foremost. No one is publishing an old story.

Under the embargo system, science journalists are often working on stories behind the scenes based on that week’s offering from say Nature ahead of its publication.

Once that embargo lifts, the story is made public at the same time as the scientific literature.

Makes for a pretty homogenous news offering but it has its upsides.

Weird science

After that journalists are looking for something unique, quirky, something that perhaps impacts a large proportion of your readership (one reason why research about cancer is never out of the news).

You either want the weird science fiction that changes our view of what man can achieve or our understanding of the universe – think Higgs Boson.

Or the medical breakthrough which could provide that missing and oh-so-needed treatment or boosts our knowledge of a disease process.

If there’s something controversial about it then all the better – cloning would be a perfect example.

And then there’s the human story. The scientist who put his or her head above the parapet or went the extra mile. Drinking a solution containing helicobacter pylori to see if you got a stomach ulcer would pretty much fall into this category.

It is not always about a cure for cancer or pushing the boundaries of space travel but just stories that get us talking. A magical weight loss cure, high heels giving you better orgasms (it was an actual scientific study I promise), a gene that makes you better at exams, laptops affecting male fertility and so on.

Good science

Perhaps surprisingly to those outside the newsroom, who did the science and how actually counts for a lot. The peer review process, while far from perfect, offers a level of prior checking.

There are journals that are trusted to publish ‘good science’ and the same goes for some institutions. A name such as Harvard University, rightly or wrongly can automatically give added gravitas.

Less common but no less important in science reporting are the stories that help us hold those in power to account. Helps the reader be engaged in key debates, such as use of stem cells in science.

International reports on climate change, how governments are dealing with epidemic preparedness, whether pharmaceutical companies are disclosing all they know.

As news moves more online and we can track what our readers want, is there a danger that those ‘worthy’ stories will be replaced by the titillating that can quickly go viral.

Maybe for some media outlets but I don’t think so.

Science is fascinating full stop. There’s so much to potentially write about that the main problem for today’s science journalist is not what to write about but how to avoid getting sucked into churning out the same PR-managed stuff as everyone else and find something really unique to offer your reader.

It is a challenge I will be setting my students as we get together the next issue of Steel Science.