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Science Journalism: Informing and Connecting

Deborah Blum

May 14, 1998 – US House of Representatives, Washington DC


Last year, when I was a science writer at The Sacramento Bee, in California, I wrote a series of stories about Comet Hale-Bopp, what it was, what it l ooked like, how to find it, how to take pictures of it, everything, the science, the scientists, the flashy descriptions, the how-to-do-it – blended into a ru nning series of articles.

The Bee has a circulation about 300,000, the greater Sacramento area is more than a million, so you might think of this as being a relatively urb an and disconnected community. Yet, every day, when I went into the office, my phone mail was jammed with people’s comet questions. I spent hours on the phone with them. And after Hale-Bopp disappeared, people mailed me their photographs of the comet’s bright trace above their houses, the white streak over nearby mountains, the dark river delta tree-tops.

This wasn’t the first time this happened. Earlier in 1997, I wrote a story about a little boy infected with a mysterious parasite – exploring, in part, why the science was so baffling – and people started calling me at home on the weekend about the story. For all that people don’t understand science well, they are fascinated by it; they are concerned about it; they know it affects their lives – and where do they go at this point to learn more, to unders tand more, to reconnect with science.

We tend to underestimate the interest, partly because, admittedly the knowledge base is poor. But it’s one of the most promising elements of how to solve our science and engineering literacy problems. Science writers like myself pick up on this because every calls us – partly because, no matter that newspapers are a private business, readers regard us a public service. And I happen to agree that that’s indeed part of the job description. We have a tradition, at least, of being responsible to the public.

I’m not arguing, at all, that the media is the answer. In this case, only a part of it. There are many others, as we all know: strengthening our science and engineering education program from ground up, making it less of a filtering process for scientists to be and more of a science for everyone program. We need to redefine the role definition of a scientist, away from someone who talks only to peers and into someone who shares. But for those already disconnected and uncertain, I think the media can play a critical role in informing and connecting – both to scientists and to readers. For the latter, this is particularly true at the regional and local level. Who does connect with science drop-outs in society? Who do they talk to if they’re interested or confused? Where do they get their information. And I would argue that we of the media are a major source of that – and with that comes a responsibility to do it well, a lot better than we do it today.

My point is that science journalism becomes an essential point of outreach and of translation. We tell people things that no one else tells them. I once wrote a story about the side effects of chemotherapy – some treatments can produce secondary cancers. And a woman with leukemia called me up. She’d dropped out of her chemo program. Her doctor had never told her anything -she had decided she could get better advice from me. Of course, she couldn’t see me having a coronary attack on the other end of the line. It took me a week of frantic calling to get into a new chemo program, one where doctors would talk to her.

In the last year, since I’ve left the Bee, I’ve written for Psychology Today and Health magazine, for The New York Times and the Washington Post, and it’s terrific work but the audience is different. I’m writing for a generally different audience, well educated, science literate. Regional newspapers have those readers too. But they weren’t the ones I took such delight in writing for.

When I wrote for the Bee, I used to think of it as, if you will, preaching to the unconverted – trying to reach people who were convinced that science was boring, hard, they were too dumb for it – and make them see that they were wrong. It was the most challenging writing I’ve ever done and I miss it -and I’ll tell you later why I left.

It’s important here to distinguish between science writers and the rest of journalism. Let’s give the media due credit. First of all, particularly i n the last decade, editors have recognized the need to cover science in an intelligent way. The Bee is an outstanding example of this. My editor there, Gregory Favre, was determined that good newspapers covered science and medicine well and full time; established those beats, and made sure that we had th e money and the time to do it right. In the time I was there, the Bee, a northern California paper of 300,000, sent me to Europe to write about AIDS research, to Alaska to write about glaciers, Hawaii to cover volcanoes, and gave me months, sometimes, to explore issues in great depth, as it did with my series on the ethical dilemmas of primate research, “The Monkey Wars”, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Furthermore, within the field of journalism has arisen the specialty of science writing, which is beginning to establish itself as a profession in its own right. There are now long established science writing programs at my own university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at Boston University, New York University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Maryland, Lehigh University, Columbia University and Cornell University. I’ve listed these in no particular order and this is not an all inclusive list. There are new programs being established at places like Emory University. There’s a program at UC-Santa Cruz, which is strictly for scientists who which to become science writers.

I serve on the board of directors of the National Association for Science Writers and we now make a point of offering professional training workshops at our annual meeting. We also put together a book, published last year by Oxford University Press, called A Field Guide for Science Writers, which is now being used in science writing courses around the country. We run a mentor ing program for young science journalists as well. It’s worth noting that the Society of Environmental Journalists also runs a training meeting.

Let me here discuss a few basics of good science journalism/communication:

1) When we report discoveries/breakthroughs (now jokingly called the “b-word” by veteran science journalists), they have to be put in context. Often a so-called discovery is not the end of a scientific road – but merely moves the research along a path. Failing to make that clear – the exploratory nature of science – has led to the “everything causes cancer” syndrome, instead of an understanding that researchers themselves are testing their way through a complicated science.

2) Science and engineering have to be approachable. We have to transla te jargon, simplify when appropriate, use analogies when they work. When I’m doing this – I’ll check the fairness of my analogies with the researchers involved. I wrote a story once about the apparent discovery of an peculiar high-energy physics particle, tentatively dubbed the leptoquark. I framed the whole story in terms of physics playing the building blocks and the shock effect when suddenly a mysterious block turned up in the bucket. I ran this by the physicist in charge of the experiment and he was perfectly happy with that comparison.

I try to make things vivid but I don’t write down or condescend to readers. Most people are smart enough to get these concepts. My responsibility is to make sure that my translations good enough to get the basic point across, not to beat the reader to death with technical details which are not necessar y to understanding.

3) The second point of that story is that science journalists – like political journalists – should be confident and comfortable in approaching their sources. This is a serious problem, especially for those not trained in science journalism. We’ve had too much a legacy in this country of science-is-hard and you’re-not smart-enough to get it. We can’t afford to repeat that lesson in newspapers.

So reporters have to be confident in taking their building block analogies to scientists, in asking the questions that will get them there, and in treating their science sources with same skepticism, intelligent analysis, as they should use in other areas. It’s at this point that training of science journalists is so important. Otherwise we end up with awestruck, condescending, and even inaccurate journalism. I don’t believe in writing down and I don’t think there’s any branch of science that justifies it.

4) Science and engineering are human enterprise and I think we can’t s tress that enough. It’s not done by a separate super-species. Research is done by people – it has human trial and error; fears; failures; and heroism. All that of that needs to be a component of how we explain science and sometimes it’s that very element that allows us to transcend the occasional difficulty o f the material. Steven Hawking’s disabilities somehow drew people into the very esoteric physics that he loves. I once wrote a story about the neutral theory of molecular biology (which has to do with how scientists determine how o ld species really are) and it appeared across the top of the front page of t he paper. Why? Because researchers are really passionate about this and the story I wrote involved a disagreement between an American and Japanese scientist, which had become so furious that the Japanese researcher was sending out letters, describing the other geneticist as “the evil scientist from America.”

5) We tend, as an enterprise, to cover scientific process poorly, as I mentioned earlier. But controversy allows us to illuminate this. The story above is one example; another was the coverage of the failed cold fusion experiments in Utah. Those scientists refused to put their work through t he careful screening of peer review. That allowed writers like myself to talk about peer review, why it works, why it’s important. Peer review normally would cause my editors alone to doze off at their desks, but the drama of this particular story provided a framework for the telling.

6) Science journalists used to be accused of being stenographers, breathlessly writing down what Dr. Genius told them and spitting it back. As we move away from that – I hope – we began to explore the ethical and political dimensions of science and engineering. The series I won the Pulitzer for did this with primate research. The paper – again, credit to committe d editors – gave me a year to gather documents for that series, and seven months for full time interviewing and writing. The point of that series was to take people inside the world of animal research – here’s what it’s really like behind the scenes of a primate research laboratory – so that readers coul d make their own, informed decisions about the rights and wrongs of the work.

7) We used to talk only about the importance of an informed public whe n it came to government. But I believe we need to raise those stakes; we need an informed public when it comes to science and engineering, because those t wo are fields and forces that change peoples lives. People should be given every opportunity to understand and come to terms with the nature of change. Here’s an example. I’m writing a story for Psychology Today on the scienc e of face reading. One of the side-issues is the development of computers that will read their users’ faces so that, as one IBM scientist put it, we can have a more natural relationship with our machines. People need to understand that such programs in the works; they need time and understanding to develop a comfort level with them. I count myself as a member of the public here -I’m still wrestling with notion of having “natural” relationship wi th a computer.

8) Finally, after all of those serious pronouncements, I believe that one of the problems of journalists not being comfortable and well-trained in science and engineering coverage is that they then take it too seriously themselv es. It’s not just that they don’t ask the hard questions; they don’t do the l ight stories enough – relax into saying science is fun.

Because that too is an essential part of drawing people back into fascination with science, making them realize how much it is a part of th eir lives and how easy it can be. In other words, just as with scientists, good science writers should have a sense of humor about what they do.

And when we as storytellers learn that, we find that many scientists don’t like being isolated and pushed away either; they enjoy stories that show how lively their work can be. The “evil scientist from America” loved the story about his work and his students made an “evil scientist” sign and hung it on his office door.

I’m going to end, then, on a low note, with an example of story I did just for fun. But before I do that, I’d li ke to make a couple other points about what’s needed to improve what we’ve already begun.

We continue to need better-trained science journalists. But we also need some fundamental training in science journalism for all reporters, many of whom will end up doing some science stories during their careers. To that end, I believe that at least an entry level science writing course should be required of journalism school graduates.

We also need to do some retrofitting and by this I mean training works hops at existing newspapers, magazines, television stations, radio stations, to teach general assignment reporters some of the fundamentals of good science journalism. Further, some programs should also be designed for editors. The lack of science-and-engineering educated editors represents a serious gap at many newspapers. Good science reporters are invaluable – and every paper of 100,000 should have at least one, smaller papers should dedicate at least a part-time position – but all need intelligent, educated editing and we al l need editors who can judge the many science stories that flow into newsrooms, via wire services, and can make informed judgments about how to handle them.

My concerns about journalism education were a major reason I left a great a newspaper job to become a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin. Being here, also, allows me to work with the other end of the issue – training scientists to be more comfortable with public communication. This is a serious problem still and I would argue that we should eventually require every person majoring in science to take a science communication course, to be taught that communicating with public is part of the job description.

In the meantime, at the UW campus, I talk to scientists. I’ve met with research groups: I’ve talked to science students and, I must add, sometimes at the request of science professors who also see this as a legitimate gap. I’ve also given presentations on science communication at professional meeting s ranging from the American Astronomical Society to the American Association of Allergists and Immunologists. I talk to scientists at universities; most recently at the University of Virginia medical school.

Science journalists like myself spend a lot of time living in the culture of science – we go to meetings, read technical journals, hang out in laboratories, talk more to scientists sometimes than other journalists. Scientists, how ever, know very little about the culture of journalism – what makes a story, how to talk to reporters – and we have a responsibility on our side to make that path easier.

I was the first fulltime science writer at the Sacramento paper and when I started no one really even knew what to do with me. When I left, people were queued up for the job – they saw as fun, as high-profile, as highly valued. We’ve come so far since I started that I can’t help but believe that with, finally, the appreciation of how important this is, that we can make a real contribution toward bringing science and engineering back home.

Okay, finally, the low note. When I left the paper, aside from the Pulitzer, the story people best remembered was one about a University of Arizona scientist who studied what grows inside toilets and where it travels. This guy would attach petri dishes full of bacteria food onto bathroom walls. He’d identify what was growing in the toilet and then flush it. The same bacteria suddenly popped up in petri dishes as high as the ceiling. It turns out that if you don’t shut the lid, the toilet sprays the bathroom with an invisibly fine spray of organisms. This is especially bad if you leave toothbrushes outside the medicine chest.

I, my husband, who’s also a journalist, and almost every reporter in t he newsroom went home and threw our toothbrushes out. I know because they all told me. That is science in everyday life.