This post is part of our ongoing project of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
By Alex Albanese
Looking for ways to build up your science communication skills? Here are some tips from the SMASH16 session “Breaking Science: In the News” with David Ropeik (@dropeik) and Deborah Blum (@deborahblum), moderated by Miles O'Brien (@milesobrien).
1) Don't write a science story, write a good story about science. Make your story undeniably irresistible! Miles O’Brien recalls his early days at CNN in 1991 when a TV producer watched his segment on buckyballs (when 60 carbon atoms organize themselves into a sphere) and proclaimed "I already knew about buckyballs, but that was actually interesting!" Some science stories tend to be more appealing to the general public at their core: space exploration, robots, gene editing, etc. However, it's up to you to find the most interesting aspect of each story. The best storyline might come from the science itself, the implications of the discovery, the people behind the work or from other sources. If your story is relevant or relatable, it is possible to transcend the "science news section" and reach a broader audience. Remember: good storytelling taps into a reader's emotions and interests.
2) Find teachable moments. Current events in news and pop culture offer opportunities to reach the general public. David Ropeik suggests, "If a forest fire ravages an area, write compelling stories about how fire works. When an airplane crashes, write a story explaining the science behind a crash investigation.” The current events on everyone's mind present a golden opportunity to reach those without scientific training. Recently, a picture of a striped dress went viral because it sparked a massive debate whether it was white-gold or blue-black. As the debate raged on between the white-gold and blue-black camps, several articles popped up to discuss the science behind the optical illusion. Having a good sense of pop culture and what's on people's mind will help frame your story in the most compelling context.
3) Gaze into the crystal ball. How can you know what's on people's mind? Social media! Timing is everything when trying to reach a large audience. Be sure to use Twitter and other social media to spot growing news stories. Is the scientific community divided or excited? How is the general public responding to the news? Is there a misunderstanding, excitement, or ethical concerns? The initial reactions of both specialists and non-specialists can help identify a better narrative for your story. Sometimes the original story is less interesting than the debate it creates.
4) Use your superpower! As a journalist or scientist, you have an area of expertise. Use it to its full advantage! it will allow you to find teachable moments and write your best stories. Is the media getting a story wrong? Is the general public developing an irrational fear? Journalism used to require journalists to remain invisible. However, this is changing as the lines between personal blogs and journalism blur. And if you are not an expert, there are many resources at your disposal, such as social media. Are there vocal experts that stand out? Don’t be afraid of reaching out to other experts who can help you out. (Just make sure to vet them first, especially if you are relying on discussions that take place on social media!)
5) Make the most of your format. Science news can be covered by Tweets, TV series, and everything in between. Short form can be the most difficult to write without resorting to sensationalism. The 25 Commandments for Journalists states that the first sentence is the most important sentence you will ever write. But those second, third, and fourth sentences are important, too. A reader will drop your story at the first prospect of boredom. Ropeik said that he regrets "the harm he caused" writing short pieces that intentionally played up the aspects of a story that would get the most attention. The competition for audiences is fierce, and the impulse to capitalize on what is “sexy” or controversial is hard to avoid. According to Ropeik, long-form is the antidote. In longer pieces, you can paint the full picture of story, address misconceptions, and reset the narrative. Unfortunately, there are smaller audiences for long-form journalism. This is where the art of seduction comes into play. You can take advantage of the scarcity principle and provide access to exclusive information. A longer news story can reach a large audience if it provides new information to an ongoing story. Long form can also seduce its readers through style. Deborah Blum wrote The Poisoner's Handbook, in which the history and science of modern forensics is presented with the flair of a thriller novel. Ultimately, you can be successful in short- or long-form pieces, as long as you recognize the constraints of your chosen format.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified David Ropeik and Miles O’Brien.
About the author: Alex was born in Montreal and obtained his BSc and MSc in microbiology and immunology at McGill University. He completed his PhD at the University of Toronto investigating nanoparticle-tumor interactions. He is currently completing his postdoctoral studies at MIT growing and imaging stem cell ‘mini-brains’. Alex is also the creator of Focal Point (University of Toronto) and GLiMPSE (MIT) podcasts where scientists chat about their journey, work, and outlook.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.