How to explain the reporting process to the scientist in your life

May 16 2013

Here at STEMwire, I’m supposedly a “content expert” – code for “very interested in STEM education” but “not a journalism major,” and therefore pretty new to the reporting process and everything it entails.  I do, however, firmly believe in the importance of both science writing and well-researched, well-written journalistic pieces on science topics, and came to Reese News Lab ready to learn.  The team was clever enough come up with a science metaphor for the prep process of writing a news article. If you’re a hard scientist who thinks a “lead” is one end of a battery – and you want to learn more about how to think like a journalist – read on.

  1. Define your question. This is pretty self-explanatory. Just as in science, as you read and learn more, your question will change – but it’s good to have a place to start from.
  2. Read, read, read [literature review.] Now that you know what slice of the universe your topic lives in, look at what else is there. Go through news coverage, background information, scholarly articles – what else are people saying about your topic? What angles have they already covered? You wouldn’t research the effects of peppermint oil on stress and subsequent food intake if another researcher already had – likewise you won’t cover the President’s budget for science-related programs with the same focus that another reporter already did. You don’t know what’s out there until you read.
  3. Pre-interview [proof of concept experiments.] Now that you’ve gotten the lay of the land, ask some questions! The names you see written about again and again in print news are just like the researchers you see cited in the references section of paper after paper, and you should try to connect with them. Give a potential source a call, send them an email, float some of your preliminary questions out there – try some experiments, see if you can replicate results, modify to better fit your question.
  4. Write a lead In just about two sentences, you should be able to summarize the issue you are investigating and either the results you predict or the direction you think your work will take. This question should be specific – don’t bite off more than you can chew.
  5. Pitch [abstract.] Every lab has group meeting – every reporting staff has pitch sessions. Get up and give the abstract of your paper, the part that’ll hook people in and make them want to keep reading – what are you investigating, what do you already know, what do your preliminary results or research show you, and what might you expect to find. Expect pushback – every editor or principal investigator will do this differently. Here at Reese, we sit around in a circle and ask questions. These questions help you figure out what more you need to know, and whether (for the time being) your pitch lives or goes to the resting place of ideas (lab notebook, laptop, same deal.)

This is only the beginning part of the process. I hope that scientists out there can see the clear similarities – and no longer think reporters are some alien species. We’re all investigators at heart, and this summer I’m excited to investigate the world in a new way.

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