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 journalisms
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
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 writers 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
- 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
- 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
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.