7 March 2011

Media fellow journeys to the “other side”

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Wrap-up post of a series on soil ecologist Marissa Weiss’ experience as a radio reporter in Colorado. This post also ran as a printed story in Eos.

As I blogged in the fall, on the heels of defending my Ph.D. in soil ecology, I headed off to northern Colorado last September for the next step in my scientific journey: working at a radio station. AGU was sponsoring me as a mass media fellow, a scientist-reporter temporarily working at a news media outlet.

In graduate school I had pursued some science writing training, but I had never been employed as a journalist. I hoped the experience would help me understand why it can be hard for scientists and journalists to communicate with each other and what the barriers are to providing accurate and comprehensive coverage of science in the media. That’s the kind of understanding that the fellowship program, run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was meant to promote. It helps scientists learn from experience about how science reporting is done, and in an age when science desks have been eliminated by most major news outlets, it puts an eye on science back in the newsroom.

I wanted to know why it can be hard for journalists to talk with scientists. During my stint at radio station KUNC, in Greeley, Colo., I was surprised to find that scientists spoke with me willingly and enthusiastically; no one refused my request for an interview. Many volunteered that they were public radio listeners. Some scientists sounded as though they had some prior communication training. They avoided jargon and were prepared with analogies for complex ideas. Other scientists volunteered that they had not been interviewed before, and a few admitted to feeling nervous, but everyone was able to provide informative context and a quote for the story. The positive reception I experienced defies the stereotype that scientists avoid journalists altogether and (with the exception of a few who seek the limelight) only get interviewed under duress.

I found that my biggest challenge as a journalist looking for science news was learning where to look for science to cover. I began each morning at KUNC by combing press releases from regional universities, research centers, and government agencies. I also tried to find stories by word of mouth; I reached out to some scientists I knew were working on local issues, and a couple of researchers contacted me with ideas. While finding stories by word of mouth was rewarding because it could lead to providing a unique angle on topics other local news outlets were not pursuing, it is hit-or-miss and certainly not comprehensive. For scientists with news to report, the best way to have caught my eye at KUNC was by issuing a press release.

I also wondered what some challenges are to accurate and comprehensive science coverage in the media, and my journey to the “other side” helped me see a clear role for scientists to improve science journalism. As a reporter, I was most likely to use a quote from a scientist that included the words “surprising,” “interesting,” “unexpected,” “important,” or “new.” All of these key words make listeners perk up and focus on the point of the story. As scientists, we can all be prepared for interviews with a one- or two-sentence statement about what is important, new, or surprising about our work. Have this on hand for every interview! It is deceptively simple, yet effective, a sure-fire way to avoid cringing over what quote a journalist picked and to ensure that the science will be clearly conveyed. This way of speaking is not automatic to those of us trained to focus on uncertainty. But it is insurance against being misinterpreted by journalists and the public.

One challenge I faced at KUNC was explaining complicated ideas very briefly. I first learned to make 1-minute spot news stories. A whole scientific paper had to be summed up in nine sentences on air. The benefit of these short spots is that science news gets reported daily, in the same lineup with politics, economics, and the rest of the news of the day. The drawback is that nine sentences don’t allow for much detail—just a focus on the most important message. The format also doesn’t allow for nuance or uncertainty, which is why scientists who are able to clearly hone in on a new or surprising finding get their message to the public most effectively. [Read more: One-minute science]

The other format for communicating science at KUNC is a 4-minute news “feature,” which does allow for a deeper look at an issue. The first feature I reported was on environmental recovery following fall wildfires in the Boulder, Colo., area. For the longer story I visited the site of the fire, rather than relying on a phone interview as I did for news spots. The hillsides buzzed with chainsaws as hazardous charred trees were removed, and the roads hummed with trucks bringing supplies for rebuilding; all of those sounds were part of the report. More minutes on the air meant more details and color for the listeners. Still, the strongest features were built around a clear quote from a scientist about what is surprising, new, or interesting.

My experience at KUNC highlighted the benefit of training to help scientists and journalists collaborate to produce a report in which both can take pride. AGU offers communications training to scientists at conferences such as the Fall Meeting. But there’s no need to wait until December. Visit a local newsroom and talk with local journalists, or media officers if you are at an institution with a press office. Above all, practice. I’ll be practicing, too.

– Marissa Weiss, 2010 AGU Mass Media Fellow