Ask a scientist, and they might tell you that journalists are more interested in selling news than getting a story right, are overly concerned with conflict and scientific outliers, and will miss the point or twist information to fit a headline. Ask a journalist, and they might tell you that scientists are forever speaking in jargon that no one else understands, don’t care about the big picture, and are more interested in impressing their peers than communicating with the rest of the world. Scientists live in a world dealing with specifics, rational arguments, and a constant search for data, where it takes months or years to publish peer-reviewed findings. Journalists live in a world looking for generalizations, emotional perspectives, and a constant search for stories, where the headlines are published daily. How can these two groups see eye to eye?
Last Friday, in our graduate class on Science for Environmental Management, we had the amazing opportunity to talk to Rona Kobell, a staff writer at the Bay Journal. Rona has also written for Public Risk and the Baltimore Sun, and spent a year at the University of Michigan studying the use of economic incentives on environmental policy1. The Bay Journal has been covering environmental issues surrounding the Chesapeake Bay for over 25 years2, including stories about horseshoe crabs, oysters, aquaculture, funding, restoration, and more. In recent news, Rona reported on the controversy surrounding the firing of Maryland’s crab program manager, Brenda Davis3.
Rona was full of insights for our class as we are developing our scientific careers. Here are a few tidbits of knowledge gleaned from our discussion:
- Capturing an audience’s attention is all about the first paragraph, or what journalists call “the lead,” so make sure it is good! This can also apply to scientific papers. If you don’t get your point across in the abstract, and get mired down in the details, most will lose interest and move on.
- DON’T use jargon when talking about your research. People don’t like to admit when they don’t understand something, or they may think they get it, but what they hear is not what you meant to say. For example, instead of “excess nutrients,” say “pollution.”
- Relate your research to your life. Tell a story about your own experience to show why it is important.
- “The Media” often has negative connotations to it, but reporters are people too, and as people, not all reporters are the same. Building working relationships with reporters that you find trustworthy will be rewarding for both of you.
- “Fake News” is not the same thing as “News that you don’t agree with.”
- Most reporters do not like email interviews, and don’t want to be told “I’ll send you my paper.” As Rona said, “You can’t question a PDF.”
In addition to discussing many aspects of reporting and scientific journalism, our class did a few mock interviews, and also discussed Twitter, a news and social media service actively used by over 300 million people4. Twitter can be a great way to share information about your research, but it comes with its own challenges. Tweets are restricted to 140 characters, so you need to be creative to get your message across. Keep it simple, keep it catchy, and avoid using acronyms and impolite words (fart, for example).
With today’s proliferation of short stories on social websites and other nontraditional news outlets, in-depth stories are becoming harder to find, and reporters who write them are increasingly rare. Now more than ever, though, it is so important to communicate scientific research in a way that people understand. Science journalists have the ability to do this. It seems clear to me that scientists and journalists can learn so much from one another, and we need each other. We are indeed a perfect pairing.
1. Bay Journal: About Us http://www.bayjournal.com/about
2. Bay Journal Media, Inc.: Chesapeake Bay Journal http://www.bayjournal.com/chesapeakemediaservice
3. Kobell, Rona. 22 February 2017. Maryland’s veteran crab manager fired after watermen complain to Hogan http://www.bayjournal.com/article/marylands_veteran_crab_manager_fired_after_watermen_complain_to_hogan
4. Twitter Usage: Company Facts. https://about.twitter.com/company