A bit more unsolicited advice

Sean Carroll — the Cosmic Variance one — has a very useful post up on how scientists should engage the press. Most pleasing from where I sit (as the transducer, not the source of the signal) Sean makes it clear that there are two sides to every missed connection between a story as the scientist imagines it and the one that some reporter actually puts out to the public. It can’t hurt to have your own, in-house and top-shelf science writer to remind you that there are obligations to be met by both parties to the conversation.

The whole post is good advice, more or less must reading for any scientist who finds him/herself on the business end of a microphone or a notebook. Here, I just want to underline a couple of Sean’s points.

1: Story. Scientists may not feel that their work falls into a narrative, but there is no coverage without a story, which means, for the most part, there is no coverage without a character for whom the events being narrated have some consequence. Not all characters are human, to be sure. An experiment, or a difficult observation, or nature itself can take on the role of antagonist. But somewhere at the center of a tale that works in public telling is a human protagonist. Good writers are always looking for that person, and a scientist thinking that the work speaks for itself is one of the ways that encounters between writers and researchers can end in tears.

2: There is a difference between education and exposition. Science writers do the latter when necessary; they commit the former, as Sean says, by accident — or rather as a pleasing by-product of an effort to entertain and/or intrigue. The goal of good writing is to move people, to create an emotional effect, a moment of aesthetic pleasure, a sensation of intellectual engagement.

Education in the traditional sense is not part of that brief. I’ve emphasized elsewhere on this blog the distinction between a scientific worldview and scientific literacy. Something of that sort is what I think Sean is talking about in this part of his post, and it is a view I entirely endorse. Whatever facts readers learn as they encounter any given story are fine, but they are secondary to experiencing the thrill of a good story — of allowing those same readers to feel as if they are eavesdropping on someone in the midst of figuring something out about how the material world actually works. (There are lots of other tropes in science writing, of course, but that’s a big one, and I think you get the idea.)

3. One specific piece of advice I’d add to Sean’s list is to remember that writers are usually on deadlines — and those deadlines bite.

If you want to influence the course of a story, you’ve got to (a) understand the time constraint that your reporter faces and (b) act on that knowledge. Know when you have to get back to someone on a fact check, for example — for if you do not respond before galleys are locked (or the website goes live, for those of you actually living in the 21st century), then you are out of luck. And then the journalist will feel aggrieved, with at least some cause, when you send a bitter note about how badly yet another science writer has messed up your field.

4. Beyond all this, I’d just like to underline in thick pencil Sean’s exhortation to his colleagues to take an active role in the scientist-journalist exchange.

But listen as well as speak. It’s OK to press someone on what they think their story is about. If she — if I — have something wrong, or just stupid, then fine, say so and argue the point as vigorously as necessary.

But if he is, (if I am) doing something that makes sense on its own terms, but just isn’t the story you would have done — then think about what you can achieve within the framework of that story. Baldly telling someone that they should do something other than they are, or have been commissioned to do is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.

I had an experience not too long ago that ran into this conflict. I published an article in February 2006 in Discover about the Giant Magellan Telescope project. The hook for the piece was Carnegie Observatories’ director Wendy Freedman’s gamble: casting the first of seven primary mirrors for the instrument without having the money in hand to complete the project.

That hook left an important player largely to one side: the University of California/Caltech/Canadian Universities Thirty Meter Telescope team. When I went to speak with key members of that project, they tried to persuade me to emphasize their effort instead, or at least to describe it in parallel with the GMT. But the story as Discover and I had worked it out was not first about a race between the two projects to build the next generation of large optical telescopes; rather, it focused on what the GMT’s gamble could tell our readers about the way big, risky scientific projects actually work.

I did make mention of the TMT in the piece — just not with the kind of parallel priority that those working on the project felt they merited. They were miffed; I hope they’ve gotten over it by now — for that’s the last turn to this particular sermon:

There is always another story.

Which is to say: if you don’t get what you want out of one go-round, help the writer (if he or she is someone you think is worth trying to work with over time) to be prepared (and eager) for the next conversation.

If you care enough, become a source — someone who establishes relationships with trusted reporters over time. Sources catalyze stories. They have enormous influence over what gets written. (Though beware: as usual they run the risk of suffering the inevitable reward of all good deeds as well.)

Image: Jang Seungeop, “Jeon telling a story” mid-late nineteenth century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: good public communication of science, journalism, Journalism and its discontents, science writing, Uncategorized, Writing

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