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 DID NOT COPY AND PASTE THE PRESS RELEASE

– 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.

 

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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.

 

Wading through the waffle

When thinking about how to introduce the concept of putting together clean, crisp, readable copy to my blogging students, it occurred to me (flash of inspiration if you will) that several news articles I had done this week were notable for one reason.

They all came from source material that was lengthy or dry or incredibly technical.Bill Burris

Not perhaps unusual for a journalist specialising in medicine and science.

But there did seem to be more chopping and simplifying than usual.

Which brings me to my tip of the week – be ruthless.

Deciding what to leave out can be just as vital as the text that ends up in your final copy.

It is tempting to be precious about every clever metaphor/explanation/quote.

But the readers will not thank you for waffling on.

This week’s haul started  with a bit of molecular biology from a team of US scientists who had worked out the nitty gritty of how zinc can help the immune system fight infection.

Crafted from a 1,200-word press release going into some pretty high-level scientific detail and a 25-page Cell Reports article with the snappy title ZIP8 Regulates Host Defense through Zinc-Mediated Inhibition of NF-kB, this was not straightforward.

In fact very little of the scientific detail even included in the press release made it to the final version.

This was all about a novel concept with a little bit of context.

Then there were the results of a trial comparing treatments for stroke where the main problem was trying to explain the concept of intra-arterial device-based approach for clot removal to the non-vascular surgeons in the audience.

And a sigh of relief as a slightly more simple paper crossed my desk showing that GPs are pretty quick at picking up cancers – unless you have a hard to spot type of cancer.

Chop, chop, chop

Yet complex science papers are not the only time I get to practice cutting out reams of text.

The next day started with a survey from a cancer charity who were launching a report on patients who lack support from families and friends.

I had a well written press release and report to work from.

But piles of statistics.

No one wants to read a long long list of survey results and so there I go again, choosing which is most important, finding new ways to present figures, and chopping through the bits that can be excluded.

Last but not least was an exclusive story on doctors missing signs of being underweight in children – one I found in a medical journal.

Researchers do not write for the general public and use lots of strange phrases that would not spring to mind when chatting about study results down the pub (as I have been known to do).

It means coming at the information in front of you from a completely different point of view, with the reader always at the front of your mind.

All this shows one thing, whatever source material you are working from, always look for better, snappier, shorter, clearer ways to say what you need to say.

Whether it is news or views, the rule remains the same – be ruthless, tell the story, and above all, keep it simple.