The ten commandments of science journalism

August 24th, 2010
By Dave Mosher

Journalists take a lot of flak these days.

For every article bravely shipped to an editor, journos risk a volley from Joe Audience, Jane Stakeholder and even fellow colleagues. Some criticism is well-deserved and well-put. The rest of it is any combination of uninformed, nonconstructive and downright mean.

I lack the institutional knowledge of my, er, “finely aged” colleagues (by no fault of my baby-faced self), but it seems to me that the anonymity, immediacy and searchability of the ‘net has lubricated the delivery of such criticism. In a not-so-great way.

Thus, it’s with great relief that I recently see not one but two very well-crafted criticisms of journalism. The first is Alexis Madrigal’s artful response to a recent Wired magazine piece, the second a review of “The Seven Deadly Sins Of Science Journalism” by Jonathan Parkinson at Science 2.0.

For this post I’m sticking to the latter piece, since it echoes some of the elements of Madrigal’s critique (e.g. sensationalism, oversimplification, getting it wrong, etc.). Also, some would argue the Wired.com blowup isn’t really about science journalism — and this is a sciencey blog, for crissakes!

If you’re too pressed for time, here’s Parkinson’s cardinal list:

  1. Sensationalized reporting
  2. Over-reliance on press releases
  3. Detail-free reporting
  4. Oversimplifying/getting it wrong
  5. Appeal to authority and cheerleading
  6. Jargon
  7. Overworked cliches

I think it’s an extremely valid set of criticisms. But it’s a little light on constructive guidelines for my tastes.

Hence, therefore, I offer you ten commandments of science journalism!
Ten Commandments of science journalism

  1. Thou shalt be interesting without being sensationalist
  2. Thou shalt not use the word “theory” in vain
  3. Thou shalt not idolize cliches
  4. Read the scientific study and keep it handy
  5. Honor thy audience and their mothers/fathers
  6. Thou shalt embrace social media
  7. Thou shalt employ good analogies
  8. Thou shalt be enterprising
  9. Thou shalt acknowledge thy errors
  10. Love thy science journalist neighbors as thyself

Please don’t mistake this for “I’m perfect, so listen to me!” Uh, far from it. I’m human, and humans learn best by screwing up. Well, most of us do anyway.

Let’s spare my dirty laundry and dive in.

1. Thou shalt be interesting without being sensationalist

Why: Sensationalism is bad. Bad for readers (they’re misled/pissed off), bad for journalists (they lose integrity/erode public trust), bad for scientists (they’re perceived as attention whores/cranks), bad for level heads that need spared repeated beating on desks, etc. But it’s often not bad for page views, which is why we see “Darwin was WRONG” headlines all of the time. Hmm, nevermind — that Huffington Post shenanigan magically changed to “Darwin May Have Been WRONG, New Study Argues” without any explanation. Fascinating! (See commandment #9) Sensationalism can be a screaming ALL CAPS banshee, but more often takes on subtler and willfully ignorant forms. Noah Gray offers a striking recent example. You don’t have to look hard these days to find more.

How: Be creative, do your homework and be honest with yourself. I know the pressures of the newsroom, e.g. an editor gives you 500 nanoseconds to file 500 words on 500 newly discovered “Earth-like” planets. You have to get creative — creative in working an alluring yet true-to-reality angle, quickly finding reliable/vetted information, doing the science (and scientists) justice and keeping that editor happy. As alluded to above, not knowing what you’re writing about is a great way to be sensationalist, so do what you have to do to understand the science (see commandment #4). Sometimes, that means missing a deadline (key here: communication skills). If you can’t be honest with yourself, well… you have deeper issues and should step away from the keyboard.

2. Thou shalt not use the word “theory” in vain

Why: Each time a journalist writes “just a theory” or “only a theory” or “merely a theory” — or insinuates pseudoscience (astrology, parapsychology, acupuncture, etc.) is a scientific theory — I cry. And Carl Sagan rolls over in his grave. And a furious hobgoblin emerges from some deep crevasse to defecate on concepts such as gravity, electromagnetism, plate tectonics, evolution, antibiotic resistance and so on.

How: In the context of science, learn what a theory is and what it is not. The end.

3. Thou shalt not idolize cliches

Why: Cliches are typically sensational, inaccurate and nonsensical. In other words, they waste space and do nothing to help readers. Seriously… what the hell does a silver bullet have to do with anything other than a) the merits of a scientific study about silver bullets, b) killing werewolves or c) comments about how silver bullet analogies are stupid?

How: Know thy enemy! Wired Science has a stupendous top 5 list of the worst offenders, plus rated reader suggestions. Neat.

4. Read the scientific study and keep it handy

Why: When you shirk even skimming a scientific study, you’re probably going to screw up that story (one exception: You have an advanced degree in the topic you’re covering. Jerk.). Even after interviewing a scientist, cribbing from a press release or reading older stories on the topic of the day, you’re opening a serious can of worms by not opening that PDF. Need an outside opinion on a study that another scientist can’t read? Good luck. Obviously not every story has a well-written study to accompany it, i.e. unplanned breaking news in science. In that case, use “Thou shalt use common sense and attribute heavily” as an interim commandment until you can dig up potentially related studies. (Those are great day-two stories: “Study published [? years ago] in part described/predicted/explains [breaking science event]!”)

How: Annoy the authors, PIOs, journal employees and anyone else who can get their hands on the study you need. Email, call or knock on the doors of all of them. Show no mercy (see commandment #8). The study is your bedrock, and if don’t have time to read it, at least have a copy in front of you while interviewing a source. Better yet, at least skim the damn thing.

5. Honor thy audience and their mothers/fathers

Why: You are not writing for yourself. Your audience is people who are not you. If you’re blogging, you may be able to safely ignore both previous statements (I kid, I kid). In all seriousness: you must know and acknowledge your audience, and make it as easy and as enjoyable as possible for them to dive into your writing.

How: Put yourself in the reader’s shoes: Perhaps  someone who hasn’t read the study, isn’t exactly familiar with the science and/or may subscribe to popular misconceptions about the topic you’re covering. What do they need and want to know? Address that, and throw them some friggin’ bones (see commandment #7). Assuming your parents aren’t scientists/geniuses, employing the “will my mom or dad get this?” test is another good modus operandi. The amazing Ed Yong also has a great lesson on structure and narrative in writing. Read it, and rejoice.

6. Thou shalt embrace social media

Why: Free services such as Twitter, Aardvark, friendfeed, and so on — if used properly — can be a boon for tracking down sources, interviewing people, generating story ideas, bouncing scientific concepts around and simply keeping track of the nutty amount of science-related stuff happening out there.

How: A post-panel post I previously posted (my, that was fun to write) on social media is a good start. But general rules: Experiment. Observe. Emulate the people you like/respect. Be nice. Make friends. Don’t be a dick.

7. Thou shalt employ good analogies

Why: Analogies set readers up for success in a story. They piece together what are usually esoteric and confusing pieces of information. They give science context. They help inspire wonder. If understanding a science story is like winning Tetris, analogies are like getting a long skinny piece right when you need it. (I love that sound…)

How: Know your audience (see commandment #5), and get creative — you don’t want to tread into the cliche zone, do you? Use something that’s imaginative and simple. Lauren Rugani over at Science 2.0 has a nice recap of a recent example in an NPR story about the human brain, in which a giant sprawled across the Americas illustrates the surprising slowness of nerve impulses.

8. Thou shalt be enterprising

Why: Press releases are great, often well-written and appropriately framed. Bread and butter for daily news. But it’s impossible to count the times they fail — probably because of bureaucratic editing/censure — to capture the most interesting and important story. Releases almost always have edited quotes, too, and any journalist knows quotes are sacred. Think about it from a reader’s perspective, too: they log on to read a press-release-based story, then see similar stories at the same time at 100 different media outlets. That can be weird, confusing and aggravating, especially for those not up to speed on the embargo system tied to science news like a conjoined twin.

How: Be bold. Be different. Don’t do whatever everyone else is doing. Hunt for great sources of story ideas, be it people or databases or calendars or trends or rumors or whatnot. Hone your ability to sift the gems from the chaff by reading your favorite authors and trying to find the genesis of their story ideas. Pay attention to your favorite outlets and see which stories get commissioned. Aside from finding exclusive stories, do them justice — ask the obvious questions, the dumb questions, the weird questions and the hard questions. If someone won’t answer them — or answer them well — find someone else. It’s your duty to get to the bottom of things in the time you’re given.

9. Thou shalt acknowledge thy errors

Why: To put it bluntly, everyone screws up. Even the best of the best. And we all know this, whether or not we acknowledge it. Seems counter-intuitive, but when a journalist acknowledges his or her boo-boo, it can build trust. At the very least, it drastically calms everyone down. Ignoring an error or sneaking in a fix can exacerbate unwanted attention and embarrassment. Take, for instance, the recent Brian Switek alleged plagiarism ordeal. The BBC guy fixed the story, credited Switek, apologized and most everyone moved on.

How: Breathe in, breathe out. Relax. It happens. Tell your editor, fix it right the first time and accompany your changes with a note. If not in the text, then the comments. Humor goes a very, very long way.

10. Love thy science journalist neighbor as thyself

Why: Community is an insanely powerful thing, and I find this especially true with science writers. Simply put, it’s a friendly, empathetic and supportive bunch with few exceptions. We don’t hesitate to help one another out whether it’s finding work, floating ideas, sharing contact info or getting a much-needed PDF of a study (thanks Ferris!).

How: Follow the Golden Rule whilst you go about your work. Congratulate others when they deserve it. Give credit where credit is due. Have nerdy science discussions over a beer (or a sarsaparilla, if drankin’ ain’t yer thang). Have fun.

Photo: Motion Picture Associates; Sexy 10-minute Photoshop job: Dave Mosher

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  • http://twitter.com/kellyalysia Kelly Barrett

    This is a great list. I think Commandment 6 is my favorite, and so important these days. It irks me so much when you go on a reporter’s Twitter site after being directed from somewhere like MyMediaInfo and see that not only is it not an engaging source off diverse content, but it is often completely neglected. Sometimes I see reporters that have their name on a Twitter page but haven’t posted one tweet! They simply haven’t grasped how important it is not only for sharing your own stories but also for finding out news from others and building a network of people interested in similar topics.

  • http://davemosher.com Dave Mosher

    Thanks Kelly — really appreciate your kind words. Let me know if there’s anything to add/fix, though!

    Also, to get a little self-promotional: Recently found out I’m helping with and “unconference” discussion at Science Online 2011 about this very topic (thanks to Arikia Millikan/@arikia for inviting me). It’s tentatively called: “Web 2.0wned: Harnessing new media to enhance your science communication power”

  • Chin

    You Idiot Dont Imitate God Words With Your Science……..