Science and Journalism – Opposites or Not So Much?

This blog was written in collaboration with our partners at Promega GmbH.

Scientists are comfortable speaking to people who know their field. Speaking to scientists outside of their field of expertise can become a little more challenging, and many find the greatest challenge of all is speaking to people who do not have a science background and are hearing about a scientific concept for the first time, such as journalists in the popular media. What can scientists and journalists do to make the most of the interface of science and journalism?

Digital image depicting the intersection of science and journalism.

The importance of the interface between science and journalism is increasingly visible with scientific topics appearing on the national news more frequently due to COVID-19, climate change, and diseases like cancer. So, where can journalists go to learn best practices for interviewing scientists and writing about scientific topics? Promega GmbH offers a platform in which scientists and journalists come together and learn from each other in a constructive exchange. In this workshop setting, scientists speak about a certain topic, and journalists from all kinds of backgrounds can ask questions. When the journalist authors an article about what they learned in that workshop, both sides benefit. The scientists’ work becomes visible, and society learns more about scientific research and discovery that can help all of us to better understand the world and contribute to a brighter future.

Here we describe several common themes that have emerged from these science journalism workshops that may help you the next time you find yourself trying to explain your research to someone unfamiliar with your field.

Strong stereotypes plague the interactions between journalists and scientists. Often journalists are portrayed as sensational writers looking for a big story or a click-bait headline. Scientists are said to be introverted and not necessarily good with words. To overcome these biases, whether conscious or not, both scientists and journalists benefit from looking at their commonalities. Most notably, an investigative nature and a desire to publish compelling stories that will be read (more on storytelling below).

Scientists and Journalists Ask Questions for a Living

Both scientists and journalists are inquisitive: the scientist asking questions about how the natural world works, and the journalist about what the scientist is doing and what the potential outcomes may be. Science and journalism benefit when both scientists and journalists think about these questions:

  1. What question is the scientist trying to answer?
  2. Why is the scientist interested in answering this question? Why should the average non-scientist care about the question? What problem does this work address? Are there any current challenges that affect the research?
  3. Who is involved in the research? Are there interesting or unexpected collaborations required for the project? Who will benefit from the knowledge gained from the work?
  4. How is the research being done? Are the researchers using a new methods or techniques? Are the scientists tackling a question that we have never been able to answer? Are they trying to confirm long-held assumptions?
  5. Where is the research happening: in the field, in a lab, in a subway? Where are the researchers located? Many projects are international collaborations—is there a global aspect to the work?
  6. When will the researchers expect to publish their findings? When can average people expect to see benefits from the work?
  7. What new questions is the project raising? Does the scientist know what the next steps will be?

While it is true that both scientists and journalists are at heart curious and investigative in their approach to the world, a list of factual answers to the questions above does not make a compelling story. Indeed one study that looked at over 700 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers in climate science found narrative can make a difference in how science messages are received. How does science communication move from a list of facts to a compeling narrative?

Science and Journalism: Moving From Q & A to Story Building

To build a story think about how your audience can relate to your work. Is there something in the audience world that can apply as an analogy to explain a scientific concept or idea? For instance, if you are writing for people living in a large city, can the internal cytoskeleton of a cell be compared to the structures of a tall building? Finding analogies that help the reader create a mental picture can bring a distant scientific topic to life.

Good writers often spend a great deal of time deleting—sometimes they kill a favorite passage or sentence to tell a better story. For the scientist, this means not showing every data-intensive slide you can in a 20-minute interview. Instead, think about the one or two main points you are trying to understand (or have uncovered) and focus on those. For the journalist, asking questions like: “What is the one thing you want someone to know about this work?” can help tease out the big themes or messages in the scientific research.

Think visually. Instead of data slides, could the results be represented in a relatable infographic? Is there a good video that might help illustrate a concept or principle or even a common lab technique like pipetting? Think about all the senses when talking about science—can you describe the smells and sounds in the laboratory or greenhouse?

Big concepts and main points can be the thread that recurs throughout the presentation several times to keep your audience “anchored.” Presentations do not need to be filled with slides drenched in text either. If a person is unfamiliar with a specific topic and they are trying to read text-filled slides and listen at the same time, they have more difficulty understanding. This is true for any audience and any presentation (Learn more about scientific poster presentations in this on-demand webinar). Rather than use lots of text, refer to the paragraph above and think visually. Is there a graph or image that will help your audience remember the main point you want to make with a particular slide?

While scientists and journalists do have much in common, scientists care deeply about nuance and conditions, and in science, small things make a significant difference. Journalists want to build a story on a few digestible facts. For a scientist, if a condition or nuance is important, let the journalist know. For the journalist asking questions such as “So could I summarize what you just said like…?” This helps build a concise story that respects the nuance and incremental nature of scientific research.

In the end, journalists take interest in unique and breathtaking topics that have an impact on society. Scientists want to gain more awareness for their area of research. When both parties engage in the conversation and look for the narrative, the relationship between science and journalism can be highly beneficial for scientists, journalists, and everyone else who loves reading, hearing, and learning about science.

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Michele Arduengo

Michele Arduengo

Supervisor, Digital Marketing Program Group at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA where she studied cell differentiation in the model system C. elegans. She taught on the faculty of Morningside University in Sioux City, IA, and continues to mentor science writers and teachers through volunteer activities. Michele supervises the digital marketing program group at Promega, leads the social media program and manages Promega Connections blog.

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