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SICB Officers

What Makes Science News?

    Kevin Bonine and Amy Driskell

    The SICB Public Affairs Committee sponsored a Media Workshop at the 1998 SICB Annual Meeting. Boyce Rensberger of the Washington Post discussed "What Makes Science News?" Rensberger has 32 years experience as a science journalist.

    Science journalists act as necessary intermediaries or translators between scientists and the general public. Although scientists publish their findings in scientific journals, this form of communication is not accessible to the general public, nor would most of the general public be able to understand the contents of the papers contained within.

    Rensberger also pointed out that scientists rely on science journalism to find out about scientific findings in fields outside their own. Therefore, he encourages all scientists to communicate openly with the press, and to take the time to explain their science and share their enthusiasm when contacted by science writers.

    Science writers operate in two modes, many filling primarily one of these roles. The first is what Rensberger called the "watchdog" mode, which is journalism’s traditional role. These writers focus on informing the public of problems and focus on "bad news," such as technological disasters and ecological threats.

    The other role of science writers is that of "teacher," communicating fascinating information to the public. Rensberger believes that this is the primary reason that most science writers enter the field; to pursue "a lifelong self-directed continuing education."

    When preparing an article, scientists and science journalists each have a different motivation and audience. Scientists know that others in their field will need to keep abreast of the literature and will read the articles they write.

    To lure newspaper readers into the article, the science writer needs to present the exciting result first, followed by the supporting research. Science writers often try to interject "the human element" into their stories. Readers are interested in what motivates scientists, what excites them, and the trials and tribulations that are a part of research. Emotions are contagious and the dry relation of facts does not attract the public reader. Similarly, chronicling the controversies and "thrill of the scientific chase" for the truth can be important aspects of a science writer’s work.

    To obtain story ideas, most science writers use the following methods:

    • Journal subscriptions - Many ideas come from Science and Nature. The publishers of the journals actively compete for the attention of science journalists and regularly send out "tip sheets" detailing upcoming articles and providing lay-language summaries, abstracts, authors’ e-mail add-resses, etc.
    • Annual Meetings – Journalists generally attend between one and four each year.
    • News Releases - Every day, writers wade through 20-30 news releases sent directly to them by the public relations divisions of universities, government labs, research organizations and advocacy groups. Though news releases can provide a great story idea, most get tossed aside.
    • Research - Science writers often think up topics that interest them or might interest the public and then research these topics.
    • Other Publications - It is common to "jump on the bandwagon" after seeing coverage of a topic in a competing publication. This practice can lead to the familiar phenomenon of "herd journalism" in which nearly every media source appears to be reporting the same information on the same topic.

    Overall, Rensberger uses his gut reaction when deciding what stories to pursue, though he offered these five criteria on what he considers.

    • Fascination Value - For example the public is more interested in dinosaur stories than fossil algae, animal behavior is more exciting than animal anatomy, human evolution is more fascinating than worm evolution.
    • Size of the natural audience - How many people are already interested in the subject? For example, cancer and cold stories have larger natural audiences than stories on minor diseases such as Prader-Willi syndrome.
    • Importance - How much difference will this news make in the real world? An AIDS related story is considered by Rensberger to be more important than a bunion removal story.
    • Reliability of results - Are the scientific findings believable? Have they been ‘approved’ via the channels of scientific peer review? Have they been published in a reputable journal?
    • Timeliness - Generally the newer the findings, the better. Journalists love to say "today Dr. So-And-So reports that…" or "tomorrow J. Q. Researcher will…"

    The science writer needs to get his or her editor interested in the story, generally an editor that does not have a scientific background. Often, the editor wants to see flashier and more grandiose statements to attract readership. Stories that overturn conventional wisdom are likely to get published.

    Rensberger also commented that the tradition of representing both sides of the story may not be so appropriate when one side has been almost unanimously disproved. Another journalistic tradition that is changing is the policy of not showing copy to researchers before publication. As the body of facts and knowledge grows, the need to check facts on the part of the science writer is growing as well. Unfortunately, the public generally cannot distinguish between science and "other stuff masquerading as the search for truth" such as astrology.

    Rensberger finds most scientists to be helpful, generous and willing to explain their work to journalists. He hopes this trend continues and urges researchers to make efforts to facilitate factual relation of science to the public readership.

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