I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s happy to see that 2016 is finally coming to a close. In a year of brutal rhetoric and political firestorms, it’s a good time of year to be able to hang up our hats, head home to see family and friends, and avoid talking about politics, science, and everything in between. At the same time, 2017 year is a time for New Year’s resolutions and a chance to make things better than they were the year before. In this last post in our science writing and journalism series, we’d like to encourage our readers to add yet another goal to their resolution check-list: to act as a science communicator and citizen science journalist!
2016 experienced how powerful the role social media holds in shaping and sharing people’s opinions. In particular, there are frequent discussions on the role of social media in the democratic events of 2016, namely Brexit and the US presidential election, but also now the Philippines presidential election. These events demonstrated the power of social media to disseminate ‘news’, whether or not that news was true.
At the same time, blogs, tweets, and personal websites are powerful tools that can enable all of us to become our own type of journalist. Scientists can benefit from understanding journalism and can use the tools and tricks of this trade to create their own impactful yet accurate articles about science and news. Journalism skills include knowing where you find information as well as how you report it. As a scientist you’ll already have a lot of experience in finding out things, be it from experiments or literature searches, but how can we better report the facts into a truth-telling story?
1. Your first sentence
A good news article starts with a strong introductory sentence. In the online Coursera MOOC (link) we were given an exercise on writing the introductory sentence, which in journalism is known as the lead. The lead gives all of the important details of the story in a clear and non-judgmental manner (with no interpretations on the content that are being presented). Your goal in this first sentence should be to answer as many of the key questions of journalism (who, what, why, where, when, and how) in a 25-30 word easy-to-read sentence. Here’s a few examples from the CNN and BBC front pages today (5 Dec):
“Ben Carson will be nominated as the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Trump transition team announced Monday.” 23 words
“Outgoing Italian PM Matteo Renzi has met the country's president following a heavy defeat in a constitutional referendum on Sunday.” 20 words
The very first sentence keeps things simple and uses the next paragraph to fill in the background information tied to the lead. It may feel strange to write a sentence this way, but picture yourself reading an article about something you’ve clicked on during your lunch break. How quickly do you decide if something is interesting to read or not? When you’re in a rush and there’s more and more articles for you read, in general you make that decision rather quickly.
2. The inverted pyramid
An inverted pyramid is the analogy used to describe the organization of the information in a news article. You start with the most news-worthy facts and fill in details and other, less-relevant or less-exciting facts later on. If your goal is to convey new information, following this structure provides your audience with the most important information up-front. As with the first sentence, you might decide while reading an article that it’s not of interest or it’s too boring quite early on, so using a structure where the most important and interesting information comes first can help keep someone’s attention for longer. As you write, introduce new facts in the order that your reader would want to know them. A good question to start with is “What does this latest research finding/piece of information mean for them?”
When writing your story, be sure to answer the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How of the story you’re trying to tell. Before you start writing your article, write down the answers to the 5 W’s and the 1 H. This will help you structure both your first introductory sentence as well as the outline of the write-up. Does a particular aspect of the story resonate more strongly, such as a connection to their health or their daily decision-making? Be thematic when necessary and remember that your audience will have different interests and connections based on who they are.
Answering why will always be the most difficult. So, if you have an answer, be sure to put it front and center. This is also a great strategy for writing a grant application, where your audience (the reviewers) will want to know precisely who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it (and why it matters), where it will have an impact, when it will be finished, and how it will all come together into a cohesive and successful project. So even if news articles or science writing isn’t your thing, the inverted pyramid strategy can still come in handy!
3. KISS (keep it simple, scientists)
Journalistic writing aims to be simple, clear, specific, and engaging—and this is much harder to write than it is to read. Especially when your experience so far has primarily focused on writing like a scientist, where the audience is primarily other researchers with science degrees, translating complex ideas into something that’s readable at a 4th grade level is a challenge. Some basic rules include:
- use everyday words instead of complex ones (‘improve’ instead of ‘ameliorate’)
- use verbs and the active voice (like ‘analyze’ and ‘selected’) instead of abstract statements (‘has been’ or ‘was chosen’)
Thankfully there are a lot of online tools for checking the readability of your work, including the Hemingway App as well as an integrated review system within Wordpress. It will take you more than a few iterations to simplify your writing, but you can rely on these tools or other peer reviews from friends who don’t have a scientific background to give you feedback on the readability of your work. Improving your writing comes with practice and in learning first-hand how you can re-structure and re-word your sentences to make your ideas more active.
4. Be prepared
As we’ve said many times before, background reading and having a thorough understanding about something is crucial before you can write about it. So read, read, and then read some more before you even think about what you’ll say.
If your article will include an interview or requesting a statement from another person, be prepared before you meet with them by reading their work and making a plan of what must be answered during your time with them. Be sure to get some basic information from them (their role in the study/in the field, what their background is) and to get as many answers to the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How as you can. Write out topic headings rather than full questions, and put them at ease by adopting similar body language and style in order to minimize any communication barriers. My favorite interview advice from Coursera was to ask stupid questions and to not be afraid to sound like you don’t know something. The measure of success in an interview isn’t how you feel but what material you get out of it. In other words: it’s not about you, it’s about the story.
When interviewing others, especially scientists whose work might not be published yet, be clear at the beginning of your meeting at what level of attribution you’ll be using. If the discussion is on the record then you’ll need to attribute any statements and facts to the person and paper (if available). If things are on background, you won’t be able to say from whom you got the statement/information from, and anything off the record cannot be published or attributed. You’ll likely not encounter a situation where statements made will be off the record, but if a fellow scientist shares something with you that they don’t want to be made public, it’s up to you to respect their privacy. This is also a good concept to know about for anyone still working as an early career researcher—at some point you might be interviewed by a journalist, and talking about something not yet published can end you up in a difficult situation if the findings come out in a newspaper before a journal article.
Even if you don’t aspire to be a prize-winning, world-renowned journalist, you can still use this skillset to enhance the impact of your science writing. Whether it’s a manuscript for your peers or a written post about your research for an institute outreach activity, becoming a citizen science journalist can help bridge the gap between the news we read and the science we do on a daily basis. In this day and age of blogging, social media, and hourly news updates, it’s possible for any of us to make an impact with our words—impact that we can use to make 2017 a better year than the one before.