20 Science Journalism Tips, Myths, Rules, Tools & Sources of Inspiration

By Leigh Anne TiffanyCMM correspondent

During a session at the 2014 ACP/CMA National College Media Convention, Henriette Löwisch dispelled, upended and beat back a few of the sillier and more serious stigmas surrounding science journalism. She also offered aspiring science journalists some sound advice.

Löwisch’s perspectives and words of wisdom are backed by years of related reporting and research and from the vantage point of her current well-respected post — journalism professor and director of the Environmental and Natural Resource Journalism graduate program at the University of Montana.

As her ACP/CMA conference session description stated, “Science stories should be an integral part of your college publication, and they don’t have to be boring. Discover the human side of scientific research and take away tricks on how to translate jargon into plain English.”

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Henriette Löwisch is a journalism professor at the University of Montana, where she directs the Environmental and Natural Resource Journalism graduate program and oversees the Montana Journalism Review.

Below is a brief sampling of the advice and observations she shared.

Write about science which applies to people’s lives. Löwisch said presenting a direct human application for a particular scientific finding can help you sell the science in a story. In her words, “I would think harder about how to incorporate science into stories that affect your readers directly, whether it’s their health, sports, outdoor activities and so on. … It’s the most obvious way of getting people interested in science. What does this mean to my health? Is this going to cure cancer? Is this going to help create a car with much less energy?”

Explain something trending. From climate change to Ebola, science and health topics are almost always in the news in some form. Löwisch advised journalists to seek out the trending science-related topics in the public conversation and political debate — and to bring the science to the forefront of those discussions. “When there is a trend story,” she said, “it is great to find some research that backs up and provides evidence for that trend.”

Combine fun and serious learning. Löwisch stressed that to be successful with science journalism you need to “put a fun spin on science.” Two examples she cited: The Brain Scoop and SciShow. According to Löwisch, these YouTube-based science shows “have hundreds of thousands of views because they’re funny, but they’re serious at the same time. So the storytellers are funny, but the information they convey is serious. People get to smile as they watch the videos, but they also come away from them having learned something.”

Look to popular culture for science stories. According to Löwisch, “There’s a part of science that is purely about discovery, adventure, and that’s the kind of science you’ll see in the movies — the ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of science and the ‘Jurassic Park’ kind of science.” Use those types of pop culture references as the foundation for related science stories, showing readers the real-world research or actual advancements that films, shows, songs and books fictionally depict.

Revamp you evergreen stories. Take some of your classic go-to article topics — like midterm and final exam anxiety — and introduce new science angles into the mix, like discussing how the human body reacts to stress.

Embrace the embargo. In science publications, there is traditionally an embargo system in which scientists agree to not say a word about their research until it is published. However, according to Löwisch, there are special embargoed early copies of many pubs which journalists can access to begin working on related stories in order to have them ready and fully vetted by the time the research is released. Löwisch advised student journalists to contact their campus press office to be put on this embargo early copy list — enabling you to be right on the edge of breaking science news.

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Students in UM’s Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism graduate program “learn how to better communicate science news; scientists also learn how to interact with the media to better tell their stories.”

Start a science beat. Reading scientific writing and doing science journalism gets easier with practice and hands-on experience. By allocating a specific person or team to work a focused science beat, you can help students gain that experience and also develop more interesting, informative and comprehensive science stories for your news outlet.

Don’t let the titles scare you. Titles for scientific papers — such as “A Remotely-Sensed Global-Terrestrial Drought Severity Index” — can easily be intimidating. As Löwisch confirmed, “I mean that makes any journalist go run and hide.” Yet, she said that once you work to grasp their related meaning or real-world connections, the research they are describing is often more accessible than the titles might indicate. The research paper with the drought title, for example, led to a fun show-and-tell news feature about predicting drought — explained by a scientist from atop a mountain.

Get out of the office. Do not interview scientists in their offices. Instead, take them to their labs or places of research so you can observe them in their natural habitats and see some real action.

Strike out the student journalist stereotype. While science journalism has a stigma, so do student journalists — which can make scientists wary about whether an undergrad newshound can report on their research accurately. Löwisch suggested putting together a portfolio of your publication’s science articles to help show prospective scientist interviewees the depth, breadth and veracity they can expect in the story you’re hoping to write about them.

Air the scientist voice. Many scientists avoid declaring any real-world applications for their research, while journalists always strive to explain why a particular finding should matter to the public. Löwisch said it’s important to present both of these perspectives — to ensure your science stories are more well-rounded and honest and to keep everyone (readers, your editors and your scientist sources) happy. So along with running the eye-catching headline and the here’s-how-it-might-affect-you lede, be sure to also include a quote with the scientist angle. In her words, “You give their concerns or their worries or their hedging a voice — to make clear that [while] a story is partly the journalists’ voice there’s their voice in there too.”

1Ask scientists for analogies. Löwisch recommended asking scientists for their own analogies or metaphors to describe their research in layman’s terms or to run your own analogy attempts by them to make sure they are correct. One example she used was from an article on beetles in The Montana Kaimin student newspaper at the University of Montana. The piece declared at one point, “Bark beetles don’t do their forest-leveling handiwork alone. Every Batman needs a Robin, and for the beetles, their necessary sidekick is their fungi collection.”

Don’t fear fact checking. Pre-publication review of a story by a source is obviously a rare practice in journalism. But it can be very helpful at times on the science beat considering the complexity of the subject matter. To get around sharing your actual story draft with a scientist, Löwisch suggested explaining the overall concept to them and then spot-checking specific facts. The ultimate goal must always be accuracy.

Take a science field trip from time to time. Löwisch recommended not restricting yourself to only the scientists, scientific research or science labs on your own campus. If you can find a scientist, scientific community, science conference or research lab off campus that is connected to a subject you’re currently reporting, don’t be afraid to reach out and set up a field trip.

Being a non-scientist writing about science is A-OK. Löwisch, a nonscientist herself, said student reporters whose majors fall outside the sciences have the advantage of knowing what an average reader most wants to know or might not be able to grasp from a science story. In her words, “Sometimes it’s even better if you have somebody who is not a scientist because they don’t tend to use jargon and don’t tend to assume people already know how science works.”

Have a science major on staff. While non-science majors can bring an every-person angle to science stories, science majors are still invaluable editorial assets for a number of reasons. Chief among them: They are able to use their departmental connections to help build a bridge between your newsroom and campus research labs.

Passion is mandatory. Whether or not you work in the labs, if you aren’t passionate about scientific discovery, you won’t succeed as a science journalist. Löwisch said more diligence and enterprise than usual are needed to succeed at finding and breaking interesting science stories — in part because very few of them exist in obvious news circles.

Search for the human connection. Instead of reporting just the straight science, Löwisch advised running periodic profiles of professors and science students — as a more reader-friendly filter through which to tell their research stories. She also recommended balancing the science in every article with quotes from everyday individuals — again as a method to make the pieces more relatable to a wider audience.

Immerse yourself in the research. It can be challenging to grasp the finer details of a research project through just one or two interviews. Löwisch suggested embedding yourself or one of your reporters into a particular research lab for a few weeks or even a full semester — attending meetings, experiments and group activities. She said this type of full immersion can reveal the day-to-day, little-known aspects of research work and shine a spotlight on the traditionally unsung members of a lab, including the undergraduate and graduate student research assistants.

Ditch words. Löwisch recommended using photography, photo essays, videography and other multimedia tools and platforms as much as possible — at times in place of words — to breathe new life into an already-overdone story such as climate change. As she explained, a fresh multimedia take “has this wow effect [as in] ‘Oh wow, this is crazy, weird, interesting, different!'”

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