Each spring, I teach a science and environmental journalism course in the graduate journalism program at Stanford. I try to balance the group between master’s journalism students and science graduate students. If I can teach the journalists science, and the scientists journalism, I figure, they’ll all come out of it stronger, particularly if they manage to teach each other.
I’ve become convinced that it’s easier to teach science students how to write and think like a journalist than it is to teach journalism students how to cover the science beat. I’ve got some theories – and no, it isn’t that science is inherently harder, or science students inherently smarter.
But it does raise a question: Can non-scientists make first-rate science journalists and writers?
“I caught the science-writing bug at Sierra magazine,” recalls Liza Gross (bio), who studied political science, not the real kind. “I started editing a column on environmental health risks and realized that so much amazing information was ‘hidden away’ from public view in the scientific literature.” “Hidden” in quotes, she says, not because the information is physically locked away, but because it’s inaccessible to most in its raw form. “I was already drawn to journalism by a strong right-to-know ethic, the desire to hold the powerful accountable and tell people what’s happening in the world and their communities. So it was a natural extension for me to apply that desire to science-based issues.”
Liza kick-started her science writing career with three years at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum. And then she jumped in deeper still, as a science writer at the open-access journal PLOS Biology. “There’s no doubt that there was a steep learning curve when I started reading the primary literature,” she says. “But, like anything, it gets easier with practice.”
Her advice for would-be science writers who are stumped by the linguistic and contextual barriers of original research papers?
- First, search for stories about relevant terms and researchers in trusted outlets that write about research for non-specialist audiences. For Liza, the HHMI Bulletin is a first stop. Scientific American, American Scientist and the front sections of Science, Nature and PNAS can all offer similar side-door access to current science.
- Then, as you start to learn the terms and concepts, go to reviews and ancillary papers that describe the research in more detail
- Then talk to experts in the field, especially people who work at places that have an educational function, like HHMI, because they’re well aware of the remit to communicate their science to the public.
Emily Gertz (bio) who took a few science classes along with her studies in history, political science, and photography, says she was drawn to environmental journalism by her passions for politics, justice, and “a love for nature, animals, the outdoors, and all that tree-huggy stuff.” But she has been drawn into writing about pure science, too. Here’s her advice for building up your science chops:
- Seek out training. Science and environmental journalism meetings typically offer science-themed sessions, with experts on hand to help you get up to speed with the latest research. And quite a few universities, research institutes and other organizations host workshops and fellowships that help working journalists learn more about science. Robin Mejia (bio) covers workshops, fellowships and other training opportunities in Chapter 22 of The Science Writers’ Handbook.
- Judiciously, asking questions of colleagues and sources. “I don’t like to waste people’s time by asking really basic questions (“What’s pH?”), but certainly none of us can be experts at every topic we’re likely to write about during our careers,” Emily says. “I’ve found that confessing to a little ignorance leads to learning a lot more, than acting as if I already know the answer.”
If you’re really dedicated, you might even consider heading back to school. “I didn’t have a science background, but then I went back to get one,” says Hillary Rosner (bio), who added a master’s in environmental studies to her degree collection more than a decade into her journalism career. “I wanted to cover the environment and I was so frustrated by the shitty coverage I was seeing,” she says. “I felt like the only way to do it right was to immerse myself in the science.” She learned a lot of new things in the process. But she didn’t lose her journalist’s impulse to question authority in the process. “Be skeptical of everything,” she reminds all would-be science journalists. “Just because something fits with your world view doesn’t mean the science makes any sense.”
She makes an important point – certainly, science writers have to understand the science. But there’s more to being a science writer than just that. And ultimately, there’s no substitute for just diving in and giving science writing a try, using the skill set you already have. That’s how Richard Panek, a colleague of mine at The Last Word on Nothing, got his start writing about science. I’ll let him tell the story in his own words:
One Sunday evening maybe 17 or 18 years ago, my wife and I took our kids for an evening stroll. She asked me what I would be working on the next day. I said I would be starting the research for my next book–the first science writing I would be doing, ever. She asked if I was nervous. I said that one day I had thought about the project as if I were working for The New Yorker in the old days, and an editor gave me two years to research and write one of those 60,000-word, serialized-in-four-issues articles they used to run. And I realized: It’s just another assignment. I’ll be able to write about it because I’ll immerse myself in the subject until I understand it well enough to communicate it, and then I’ll use that learning process as a guide to help me communicate the concepts to the reader.
Nearly two decades – and not a single science class – later, that approach is still working wonders.
Some of my favorite science writers are indeed trained scientists, whether still working as such or not. But many others are not. It’s strangely easy to forget that science, for all its peculiarities and particularities, is still a human endeavor. Sure, you have to understand its standards, its culture and a great deal of its content to hack your way deep into the tangled banks of uncertainty, incrementalism and specialized practice and still come back out with something resembling a story. But sometimes, courageous venturers into the unknown can discover things that the insiders never do, or having grown used to them, never think to mention. Either that or they fall off a cliff, get eaten by a tiger or, you know, see a cure for cancer in every minor advance in cell biology.
It’s up to you to determine which kind you’ll be.
Photo by Sarah Webb