16 July 2014

Adventures in the (other) field: Mass Media Fellow Julia Rosen reports from the Los Angeles Times

Posted by mcadams

Julia at LA Times

Julia Rosen, AGU’s 2014 Mass Media Fellow, stands outside the Los Angeles Times building. Rosen is spending her summer working as a science reporter for the Times. Photo courtesy of Julia Rosen.

By Julia Rosen

“Buzz! Buzz! We want you to have time to speak with the Los Angeles Times,” a woman named Christina interjected in the middle of what was turning out to be an impressively long speech. Buzz was none other than Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, and the LA Times — at least in this moment — was me.

I was standing, clutching my notepad and recorder, in Buzz’s office in West Los Angeles on probably the most challenging assignment of my summer (so far) as a scientist-turned-reporter. My editor sent me to sit in on a rendezvous between the legendary moonwalker and some young actors promoting their new movie, Earth to Echo, about extra-terrestrial life.

I was there to write a Talk of the Town-style piece about whatever I witnessed, which promised to be interesting. Though I’d written more than a dozen science news stories already, here, I felt completely out of my league.

In early June, I arrived at the LA Times as this year’s AGU-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow. During my first few weeks in the newsroom, my limited experience freelancing while in graduate school gave me the confidence to tackle a few basic tasks: reading science journal articles, interviewing the scientists who wrote them, and trying to put down on the page what I learned.

But writing crisp, snappy prose for a general audience in a matter of hours challenged me tremendously, albeit in ways I had anticipated.

What had not occurred to me before I began was that I would also have to go out into the world and report on things. I could not remain cloistered in my familiar world of academic literature.

My first excursion mercifully took me to the La Brea Tar Pits, nestled between the skyscrapers of central Los Angeles, to cover a press conference about reopening two old excavation pits. La Brea is a place I have long wanted to visit and as a geologist, a place I felt relatively at home. (When I mentioned my geology background, the curator snuck me into the archives to behold row upon row of Pleistocene fossils).

But after the press conference, as I wandered around the manicured grounds, I felt acutely unprepared to extract a coherent story from the succession of prepared speeches, my one-on-one chats with scientists working on the pits, and the treasure trove of sensory details I recorded.

Because of my press badge, the people I met assumed I knew something about how to do my job; they had no idea I was making it up as I went. In the end, I wrote a feature story about Los Angeles’ hidden Ice Age gem, where more than a million fossils have been extracted from the tar, and hopefully turned a few more readers on to the wonders of geology. Most importantly, though, I successfully survived my first field assignment.

After that, I was dispatched to the leafy hills of Pasadena, Calif., to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where again NASA press officers assumed I was the real deal. I just crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t blow it as I chatted with rocket scientists and aeronautical engineers, many of whom played crucial roles in orchestrating almost every Mars mission since I’ve been alive.

I interviewed them about their new project — a saucer-shaped device for ferrying heavy loads to Mars called the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) — and reveled in their unbridled enthusiasm and determination. Here, at least, I knew my subject, but I did not know the story. That only emerged after hours and hours of interviews, of revisiting my notes and scouring them for the glue that holds a set of interesting facts together. This, I learned, was what real reporting feels like.

Julia Page One Story Printing Plate

A printing plate from Julia’s front page story about “Simulating a Martian landing in the sky above Hawaii.” The plate was a gift from her editor. Photo courtesy of Julia Rosen

By a stroke of dumb luck, my article about the LDSD made the front page of the LA Times on the very day NASA tested it in the stratosphere over Hawaii. I still doubted it was true but I couldn’t help feeling like a real journalist reporting on a real news event just as it happened.

None of this prepared me, though, for meeting Buzz. He sat before me self-assured, full of knowledge and overflowing with character. I observed him and the movie stars like a fly on the wall and then faced the task of writing something that, if I succeeded, would be witty and understated and compelling, like the vignettes that grace the opening pages of The New Yorker magazine.

But when I sat down to draft the story, I found myself agonizing over what to say.

That’s when I realized something else about writing — something I had heard before but failed to fully grasp until now: sometimes writing is about conveying the nuts and bolts of science, and sometimes it’s simply about painting a picture. Audiences want to learn what you’ve learned, but, just as importantly, they also want to see what you’ve seen. In other words, sometimes it’s better to show than to tell.

So I wrote a story about what Buzz looked like, what he said and how he said it. It wasn’t jam packed with complicated concepts or ground-breaking science. It was just a slice of the personalities that make science so interesting.

For these realizations, I can thank AAAS and AGU, and of course, science, for being such tremendously good fun to write about.

Julia Rosen is AGU’s 2014 Mass Media Fellow. She is spending her 10-week fellowship at the Los Angeles Times. Rosen earned her Ph.D. in geology from Oregon State University earlier this year. Click here to read Julia’s stories from the Times’ newsroom.