Science journalists – time to set the record straight

I didn’t expect to start the New Year with a rant. Right now I’m supposed to be writing about the NHS but I am feeling the need to vent.

Once again, science journalists are being told off for being stupid.

I long ago accepted that part of being a journalist is to deal with criticism, complaints and comments along the line of ‘anyone could do your job, it’s really easy, so why are you doing it all wrong’.crumpledpaper

There will always be someone you are upsetting/offending. It’s the nature of the job.

You will never please everyone and actually if you were setting out trying to please people, you may have missed the point about what a journalist does.

But I have now officially had my fill of people (and by people, I mean scientists), slapping our wrists and telling us we must do better.

Over the past (ahem) decade (and some) I have received plenty of criticism.

In fact just over Christmas I received a complaint for a story I did on vaccination in which I used the word ‘outsmart’ in relation to a bacteria which can’t ‘think’ so the entire piece is therefore inaccurate and I should be ashamed (I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist).

That point is potentially fair had I been writing a paper for publication in a science journal.

But I am writing for a general audience, trying to find engaging ways to talk about technical topics. I am not trying to impress experts with my detailed knowledge of microbiology.

As such I stand by my intro, which was carefully crafted, and did its job perfectly.

Valid point?

I was once called a ‘fuckwit’ and ‘self-styled health journalist’ by an anonymous GP blogger who did not like the way I presented some minor detail in a health story at the BBC.

Bit harsh, considering the BBC decided my job title, not me.

I did not cover the latest story to receive the outrage of the science statisticians, so I cannot comment on its validity.

From a quick search, it does seem like the usual case of ‘shoot the messenger’ when the Science press release, original paper and the scientists themselves, were claiming the very things that seem to have caused the upset.

There are many factors which hamper the ability of science journalists to do their job which include time, irrational demands from news editors, and the increasing dominance of the embargo system.

But trust me when I say that any highly specific issue you may have with the reporting of a story can not be just explained away by the journalist not having a clue.

So to all future complainants, here are a few stock responses which may help:

– Yes I do have a science degree, thank you for asking

– I’m not writing for scientists or doctors, I have to take everyone into account

– Yes, I have read the paper in question, I always do


– I made the choices I did after I speaking at length to the scientists involved and other experts

– A news story is not doing the same job as a scientific paper in a journal

– Peer review is not necessarily indicative of good science

– Anything published in a journal is in the public domain

– Your opinion is just that. Others will have different ones

– If you swear at me or call me names, you immediately undermine any point you may have had

– No you cannot see my piece before publication. Can I see your results before publication?

– And no I will not rewrite my intro or any other bit of my article because you think it would sound better that way

Phew, that feels like a weight off, and might save us all a bit of time.



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.


Is a freelance life a lonely life?

Today is my first full day back working after nine months maternity leave and one of the first items to catch my attention this morning was this article on the loneliness and social isolation faced by homeworkers.

More and more of us are switching the grind of the daily commute for home comforts.

No tiny cubicle in an open plan soulless office for me

No tiny cubicle in an open plan soulless office for me

But is it a case of the ‘grass is greener’ and the reality not measuring up to the fantasy?

Not as far as I’m concerned.

Maybe I’m unusual but I really don’t think I could go back to office politics, sad sandwiches and strip lighting.

Last night I got about three hours sleep thanks to nocturnal children and I’m not sure I could have faced making myself presentable, travelling in hot sweaty weather, and joining the office hamster wheel.

I am by no means slacking off, in fact after some breakfast and three cups of tea I feel almost human and was at my desk by 8.30am.

My list of tasks is getting ticked off pretty quickly and efficiently.

The window is open, sun streaming in alongside a gentle breeze and the radio playing quietly in the background.

I am sat in a pleasant, comfortable, calm environment. Admittedly I am still in pyjamas but this is by no means altering my ability to do my job.

I have spoken to colleagues by phone and email so do not feel I am lacking human interaction but it has been on my terms.


Perhaps if I was sat at this desk five days a week, eight hours a day I would start to get worn down by it.

But surely that’s the point of freelancing, that you are master of your own destiny.

I can arrange meetings and take on different types of work which enable me to have human contact.

When term starts again, the teaching sessions I run will provide some interesting variety.

The Guardian article points out that your personality type may determine how well you adjust to home working.

I am sure this is true to some extent but I would never describe myself as an introvert, quite the opposite in fact, I am a pretty social creature.

Yet I am also a harried mum who looks forward to the nursery days when I can work in peace and quiet with no distraction, organising my time to suit and finishing tasks one at a time.

This blog post has taken about 20 minutes to write and I do not have to explain my productivity to anyone or why I took time out from other tasks.

I get paid for the work I do and the more I choose to take on the more I earn.

Alternatively if I want to take a break or day off that is my choice.

That freedom, for me, outweighs any occasional feelings of loneliness.

Top ten tips for freelance success


Is freelancing the right path for you?

Giving up a salaried  job on a magazine to take the leap into freelancing was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done so I know its not an easy decision to make.

There will also be those who through redundancy or battles with an increasingly frustrating job market, are considering freelancing due to a lack of other options.

It’s not all been plain sailing but I have certainly never regretted taking the plunge.

So here’s my top tips for making it work.

1. Get organised

Let’s start with an obvious one. You need to be organised to be successful. Not least because you are effectively a one-man band, acting as secretary, accountant, editor, IT helpdesk, all on top of the day job.

Get a diary, contacts book, invoice and accounts system from the word go.

Make sure you know what you need to complete every day. You can’t beat a good old fashioned hand-written list. I have them everywhere, and often end up with subcategory lists. But there’s nothing like getting it all ticked off.

Remember if you get sloppy, it will show and you will look unprofessional.

2. Be flexible

It may have always been your dream to write for the New Yorker but when you’re starting out you can’t afford to be picky.

At the beginning is the time to say yes to anything. Bit of copywriting – yes. Free blogpost – yes. You will find that work leads to more work and it keeps you busy and keeps the ideas flowing.

Also be flexible in when and where you are willing to work. Is there a shift with odd hours that no one else wants to do? A conference that needs covering but the office can’t spare the staff?

3. Find a niche

The world of science and health writing is a pretty small one. Word of mouth is important and I know the area well.

If you sit down every morning twiddling your thumbs thinking I need an idea for a story you will be overwhelmed.

So what do you excel in? Do you prefer real-life stories or do you have an interest you know a lot about. Music? Politics? If you have already worked at one or several publications, did you have a specialty?

Having a niche will help you target your ideas and focus your energies as well as gaining the in-depth knowledge to quickly build contacts and develop story ideas.

3. Sell yourself

The only way people will know about you and what you offer is if you tell them. Ask editors what they want from a freelancer and if you can be added to their database. Send ideas and be proactive.

Also in these days of social media, Twitter and Facebook are your friends. Have an online presence and make it easy for people to find you and get in touch.

Join Linked in and any associated groups relevant to your work. Search online forums for job offers or to share experiences.

4. Deliver the goods

It should go without saying but you would be amazed how many freelancers let you down. I’ve been on the other side of the fence and it is incredibly frustrating when you have a big gap thanks to a freelancer not filing their copy on time, or at all.

There has to be a level of trust and the minute you don’t deliver on a commission you give up any chance of working for them again.

If problems come up as you’re working on an article, give plenty of warning and offer solutions. Burying your head will not work in your favour. Of equal importance is sticking to the brief. If an exciting development comes up, keep your editor in the loop.

Of course you as the freelancer can be let down by editors not running with stuff they commissioned but that’s what kill fees are for and you can always offer it elsewhere.

5. Broaden your offering

Copyright John Schultz

Lists are your friend

I began by offering my skills as a writer who did a little bit of sub-editing. These days I’m a writer, editor, lecturer, conference organiser, and much more.

I’ve rewritten official reports, commissioned talks, set up degree courses, developed websites, advised scientists on research papers. And all under the general umbrella of ‘journalist’.

A freelance career can take you in many directions, don’t be afraid to explore them.

6. Have dedicated workspace

When I started out we were living in a one bedroom flat and the only space for my desk was in the corner of the living room. All well and good until the other half came home early and turned the telly on full blast.

You may not have space for a separate office but you do need a space that is just for working and is peaceful. Working in bed on a laptop may seem like the dream but it’s not going to be productive.

Better still to be able to shut the door on it at the end of the day. It is all too easy to let home and work life merge into one big blur.

7. Do some research

Who are you going to write for? Are there any agencies or organisations in your field to help you get work?

Ask other freelancers, find out what publications or organisations you could contact.

And come up with ideas and develop them. You can’t just sit and wait for work to fall into your lap, at least not at the start.

I started by sending a quick email to all the relevant magazines, journals and websites I could find to introduce myself, offer a short CV and ask if they used freelancers and how they used them.

This approach did lead to work – albeit not immediately – and I found out who likes to be sent tips and how, when they commission and other useful bits of information.

Also make sure you’re signed up to all relevant email alerts and RSS feeds to keep you in the loop.

8. Be available

It may be tempting to sleep all day and work into the night but what happens if an editor or potential employer emails or calls expecting a quick response. To a certain extent you are going to have to keep office hours.

There are plenty of last minute commissions that need to be turned round yesterday. If you’re at my desk and can answer an email immediately you will gain a reputation for being dependable and they’ll  think of you first next time.

Likewise if you’re working on something and a new commission comes your way don’t immediately say no. Think if you can rejig something or compromise on that early finish you had promised yourself.

I only work two to three days a week but I am contactable at all other times. Many of those I work for won’t even realise what my hours are.

9. Think like a business

A successful business would have systems in place to deal with and maximise workflow, manage accounts, and promote itself.

You need to get yourself in this mindset – even if in reality you work on your own from the back bedroom.

Be on top of payments and expenses.

Make sure you are professional in all your communications.

If you’re out and about meeting a lot of contacts, have business cards printed. Think about getting a website – this doesn’t have to cost anything.

While you may not need to go as far as having a ‘brand’ you do need to consider PR and how you are perceived.

10. Make connections

To a certain extent, making connections does happen organically over time. But you can push this process along.

I’ve already mentioned social media but staying in touch with old contacts as well as making new ones is vital.

If editorial staff move on, make sure you introduce yourself to their replacements.

Go along to industry events to network (and yes I know you would probably be elsewhere).

As a staff journalist you would be doing this and it is even more vital when you work for yourself.

Five reasons to give freelancing a go

Pic ollesvensson

For a calm life, move out of the office.

Working as a freelancer was always part of my master plan, mainly because of geography.

When your specialty is health, medicine and sciencey stuff, job opportunities are largely restricted to London, yet I could not envisage living there long term.

The solution, I convinced myself, was simply to enjoy the London lifestyle for a few years (tube-office-pub-tube), get some experience under my belt then move back t’North and work for myself.

There were those that raised a sceptical eyebrow but this is exactly what I did and I can now tell you not only is it possible to earn a good living as a freelancer, it brings with it a whole host of benefits I did not expect. That is if you can cope with a little uncertainty in your life.

For any of you considering working for yourself, here’s my top five reasons to take the plunge.

1. You don’t have to get dressed

Most working days my commute is a walk up a flight of stairs. No one cares if you are in your PJs because they have no idea.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get dressed. There is something to be said for looking presentable as a way of getting into the right mindset.

But working in slobby clothes is a treat everyone should have once in a while.

2. The more you do the more you earn

If you’re doing it right and don’t fall into the trap of working for free, your earnings will be linked to productivity.

If you take on more work, sit at your computer til the wee hours to meet deadlines then you should at least be rewarded handsomely.

Pretty much the opposite to the average staffer experience of working harder and harder doing five people’s jobs thanks to necessary cutbacks yet year on year yet earning the same measly wage.

The most common question I am asked is how do I motivate myself to actually work (subtext am I secretly watching trashy daytime TV?)

Well its fairly easy – if I don’t work I don’t get paid.

It is not at all hard to get stuff done when there is a specific financial incentive attached.

3. No office politics

Before going freelance, I wouldn’t have even considered this one but after rounds and rounds of job cuts and efficiency savings at all three of my pre-freelance gigs, I would say this is now the thing I love the most.

I don’t have to get involved in petty niggles brought on by the slow chipping away of staff morale.

I don’t have to play mind games and second guess what people are up to.

I don’t have to deal with management consultants coming in to tell me how to do my job or non-sensical restructurings that leave all the best members of staff running for the hills.

All I have to do is take the commission, do the work, meet the deadline and move on to the next job.

I mostly work from home, but when I do have to go into an office I turn into a bemused observer watching the natives act out their bizarre rituals.

4. Flexible working

When I started out, flexible working meant travelling to London two days a week to work part-time for the BBC (in a job I was offered just as I planned to move 150 miles north) and building up my freelance career from home on the other three days.

These days flexible working is all about fitting in childcare and it is a HUGE benefit to the entire family.

The youngsters among you who don’t have nippers won’t care about this yet but those who do will be looking on with envy.

I can’t stress enough how easy I have it compared with those who have to work set hours with unbending bosses watching their every move.

It also means we pay for two days childcare but I work on average three days a week, building up time in evenings and weekends.

You can’t work with children around (pre-school children anyway) but you can work unusual hours and have start and finish times that fit in with the nursery day.

Flexible working means you can have that long weekend away, that you don’t have to worry if your holidays clash, that you can take more than four weeks a year should you wish. Of course if you’re not working you’re not earning but it’s surprisingly easy to make up the time.

5. Being the boss 

Of course someone else is paying you so effectively they are in control but for all the bits that matter you are the boss.

You choose when and how you work and when you have a break.

If you’re sick or tired you can go have a nap and catch up later without anyone breathing down your neck (or even knowing).

And depending on who you are working for and the relationship you have with them, you are quite often left to your own devices in terms of the work.

There is definitely no micro-managing. Out of sight, out of mind. All anyone cares about, is that you deliver the goods on time.

And in my yearly appraisal, I always do excellently.

Next time… The downsides and how to manage them