Introduction to Science Journalism
Back to Topic:Science journalism
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Get out there and talk to people
- 3 Science and news values
- 4 Sources
- 5 Structuring a story
- 6 Perfecting your pitch
- 7 Interviewing and profiles
- 8 Techniques for simplifying and explaining
- 9 Covering controversies
- 10 Reflecting the research process
- 11 Understanding: control groups, sample size, risk and probability
- 12 Science journalism networks
- 13 Working fast, writing well
- 14 Science and industry
- 15 Reading list
- 16 Course convenors and contributors
- 17 Practice your skills
- 18 References
The emphasis on this course is practice:
"The most important thing is to make sure that students [know] how to craft a news story, write a feature, pitch an idea, figure out what will interest an audience. We have so many students from courses who don't have this basic knowledge but are stuffed full of subjects like History and Philosophy of Science Journalism Through the Ages" Features Editor, UK Science Magazine.
Exercise 1: Are you a science journalist? If you want to be a science journalist, and you are willing to work in a very competitive field, there is nothing stopping you making the decision to become a freelancer today. The sooner you do this, the faster you will learn, because we learn journalism not only through books or wikis such as this, but through practice. Find out what science journalism organisations exist in your country. [Please do add them to the list if they are not already here]. Why not join your local group? Don't forget the national journalism organisation(s) as well.
Exercise 2: Read the National Association of Science Writers' advice for getting started as a science writer.
Exercise 3: Consider the following characteristics of good science journalism. Which do you think are most important? Make a note of these. At the end of this course, try this exercise again. Have your views changed?
This course was initially developed by Jenny Gristock, Science Journalism Lecturer at the Department of Journalism at City University in London, UK [see below for list of contributors].
Get out there and talk to people
This resource has lots of information about sources that can help you find science news. But whilst no science journalists' day is complete without a visit to Science Daily, AlphaGalileo and EurekaAlert, there is no substitute for attending conferences, other events and visiting laboratories. So pick up that phone, attend that open day and start building up contacts in your little black book/Blackberry right now. The sources page has links to calendars of science events around the world.
Exercise 5: Consult the science events calendars in the sources page and identify a conference or other event that you think might offer some interesting science news. Don't forget you can ask for a programme and contact speakers before the conference itself. The speakers, or press officers, may be able to provide background material beforehand that helps you identify your questions in advance. You may want to work through Exercise 6 [Science and News Values] before you go.
Science and news values
If you want to be a journalist, you need to be interested in things that are new. But remember, these things need to be new, not just to you, but to the general population (or the readership/viewers/users of your chosen media channel), as this science journalist explains:
Twelve years ago, as a second year engineering student, I decided I wanted to try my hand at science writing, and attempted to get a Science Editor interested in a chirpy piece about the thermal conductivity of potatoes. Can you imagine..? [laughs] All was not lost, however, as the Science Editor very kindly took me aside and said, "But what is new about this?". And then I realised: the fact that food scientists used concepts from physics and materials science in their laboratories was new to just one person: me. To everyone else, it was either old hat, or uninteresting gobbledeegook. So I went back to the drawing board, and wrote an award-winning piece about new fingerprint technologies instead. From that point onwards, I always asked myself: 'What is new about this? Why is this newsworthy?'
The best science stories contain something that is new to (some) scientists and the general public. Perhaps a new scientific development has just been published in a journal, at a conference, or at a press conference. Maybe a new device has been tested for the first time. Or perhaps a new product has just been launched. If there is something new about it, or it is timely for another reason (an anniversary, or it ties with, say, a big political event, then it is news. It is your job, as a science journalist, to find out who is likely to be most interested in devoting precious space to this news, and to craft a piece of journalism in the best way you can to entertain, inform and delight your readers/viewers.
Here is some more information on news values from the media studies literature. The situation is slightly different in science.
Exercise 6: Buy a copy of your favourite newspaper (or listen to your favourite radio show) and print out a copy of this news values handout. Identify 3 science news stories. Answer the questions in the handout, and tick the box you each time you think a story exhibits a particular characteristic. In your [very small and therefore unrepresentative] sample, which news values dominate science reporting? When you attend your conference event, or talk to scientists about their work, ask yourself, 'If I asked the handout questions with respect to this new work, would any of the answers be yes?' If so, you may be on your way to a good story. Of course. the questions in the handout have been contructed using an academic study, from long ago. They don't hold all the answers. So dont worry too much about the criteria - just reflect on each one, and then follow your nose.
Remember that your story will have elements of science, politics and everyday life. Scientists can tell you about the science, but few will be experts on a new development’s social implications, political significance, nor what it means for the average person on the street. You may need to talk to scientists, policymakers, social scientists or science policy experts (for the social implications) charities or other pressure groups and of course, your average Jo(e) Bloggs to find out more about what the news means for a lay person, patient or consumer, and how citizens perceive it.
Exercise 7: Create a contacts book. It should be your most precious possession. Keep it up to date and safe, and back it up if it is in an electronic form. Remember that good contacts are not only expert in their field; they are also willing and able to supply a good quote fast. This requires you to develop a good working relationship with these people, over time. Thank each person for their help and send them a copy, or a link, to your finished piece.
Exercise 8: Put all the contacts you made in your conference visit during Exercise 5 into your contacts book.
Structuring a story
Presentation: Story types
Presentation: Structures that work well.
Afterword: We often develop a new understanding of how something works through comedy and satire. Take a look at this spoof science journalism article by Charles Petit, Science Journalist at the US News and World Report and Head Tracker of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker Service. What does this piece tell us about the form and structure of [tired] science journalism in print?
Perfecting your pitch
Interviewing and profiles
Techniques for simplifying and explaining
Reflecting the research process
Understanding: control groups, sample size, risk and probability
Science journalism networks
Working fast, writing well
Orwell puts forward six rules to be followed in everyday language:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print;
- Never use a long word when a short one will do;
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out;
- Never use the passive when you can use the active;
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent;
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Science and industry
 Orwell, G. (1946) 'Why I write', Essay 1 in The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, London, Penguin Books. Also 1968.
 Campbell, P, (2001) Declaration of financial interests Nature 412, 751, Introducing a new policy for authors of research papers in Nature and Nature journals
 Galtung, J. & Ruge, M. (1965) The structure of foreign news: The presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus crises in four foreign newspapers. Journal of International Peace Research, 1, 64- 90.
 Tony Harcup, Deirdre O'Neill (2001) What Is News? Galtung and Ruge revisited Journalism Studies, Volume 2, Number 2 / May 1, 2001, 261 - 280
 Knudson, M (1997) Telling a Good Tale Ch 7 in D. Blum and M. Knudson, (eds.) A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
 Greenberg, J (1997) Using Sources, Ch 9 in D. Blum and M. Knudson, (eds.) A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
 Brighton, P. and Foy, D  News values, Sage Publications, UK.
 Sissons, H. (2006) How to write news, Sage Publications, London, UK.
Course convenors and contributors
Introduction to Science Journalism was begun by Dr Jenny Gristock.
The following journalists and lecturers have also contributed to its development:
[names of other contributors here].
Practice your skills
Develop articles at Wikinews.