Monday, May 4, 2009
When writing a feature article for a magazine, you'll almost always have to find people to validate what you say. So if you're working on an article on, say, breast cancer, you'll need to interview experts who can explain technical terms and the benefits of treatment, patients who've battled with it, and maybe even a couple of celebrities who are willing to share their experiences. After all, the primary objective of any writer is to have a basic understanding of the subject and then to find the best way to communicate that information to the target audience.
Getting a useful interview is harder than you might think. Many scientists are notoriously fond of jargon. Getting them to stop using it can be next to impossible. The approach one writer suggests is to tell your subject to pretend you are a potential funder, that you are drunk, and you don’t have the faintest idea what his work is, but he won’t get a penny unless he can explain to you what his work is about. If that doesn’t work, you should find an expert with whom you can discuss the topic until you do understand it.
Most writers are willing to admit that they don’t really understand the topic in detail; but, many don’t really know how to go about finding a reliable expert. Writers need to know how to ask questions. They also need to know who is the best person to approach and they need to have a feel for the varying personalities and preferences of the people – the subject matter experts–to know how best to approach them. Once the writer has found the appropriate expert to approach, strong listening skills are required to capture the information necessary and to know which follow-up questions need to be answered.
Your readers hold you to a high standard of accuracy. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions until you get it straight, and don’t be afraid to keep going back to your sources to clarify points, check facts, and get responses to new information that comes up in your reporting. But, science is a highly competitive enterprise, filled with lively and interesting characters. Writing about science by only focusing on the research data would be like covering Congress by focusing only on the language of the legislation. Conflicts can lead you to hot areas of research—the most intense fights tend to be about important scientific issues—and they can also be a way to write about difficult areas of science in a lively way.
So, your task then, as a writer tackling a science story assignment is to “Get the facts, just the facts.” How do you find experts who can give you the facts? The internet is your first line of attack; but, beware, anyone can put information on the internet. You will still need to verify the information you find there with an expert. Think of it as getting a second opinion. With that word of caution in mind, here are some strategies for finding experts.
Search the databases: There are dozens of databases that contain listings of experts, along with their professional qualifications, details about their work and their contact information. Some of the popular databases are:
· http://www.experts.com/ Since 1994, Experts.com has been providing millions of users worldwide with access to the information and expertise that they need. As one of the nation's most established and premier Internet registries, Experts.com serves as a "who's who" of experts at the top of their respective fields.
http://www.expertclick.com/ offers Journalist News Media Resource benefits; Directory of Experts Listing Information.
Hit the bookstores: Find out the authors and publishers of the latest books related to your subject by visiting your local bookstore or Amazon.com. You can find contact details of the author or the publisher online and send them a request for interviews. Because authors are constantly looking for publicity, especially for their new books, they may be more than happy to help you.
Contact public relations: They can be your best friends, or your worst nightmare, but PR people serve a very important purpose when it comes to connecting you to quotable, media-savvy professionals. Keep in mind though, PR people themselves are not the experts. Do remember, too, that the bigger your publication, the more likely they are to respond to you.
Contact extension specialists at land grant universities: These individuals are specialists in their field, they have wide contacts within their fields, and a major part of their jobs is to communicate science to the public.
Be a collector: Companies often send out press releases regarding company changes, product launches and important events; authors announce their new books and professionals looking for publicity regularly offer tips and new ideas. The contact information for these people is on every press release and this is often the most helpful part of the press release. The contacts have agreed to be listed and typically are very responsive to interview requests.
Find a professional association: You'll find dozens of associations, non-profit organizations and clubs on almost every topic imaginable. Look up the Encyclopedia of Associations (a three-volume set) at your library and find something that's relevant to your subject of interest. You can call them and ask their public affairs department to recommend someone. You can also do this with the public affairs offices at universities.
The best idea of all is to use a combination of several of the above techniques, instead of relying solely on one. That'll not only give you a quick selection of experts, but the most credible ones as well. And that's bound to help in securing more lucrative assignments.
A session entitled “Experts: Who needs ‘em” with a panel of three writer/experts experienced in science communication will be presented at the OWAA Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids, MI in June, 2009.
Published in Outdoors Unlimited
So where does the writer find the information necessary to produce an accurate yet interesting article? “Think locally,” advises David Periman of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Get to know your local biologist at nearby universities.” Learn their areas of expertise. Establishing these relationships is important; when an important story comes up on deadline, a researcher who has met you is more likely to call you back. As in any beat, maintain an exhaustive list of sources, organized by topic on a computer where it can be easily searched, include e-mail addresses, home and cell phone numbers if you can.
National meetings of societies are large but good places to find specialists in the field of your chosen interest. The information on time and place of these meetings are usually available on the society websites. Another option for finding experts or story ideas is peer-reviewed scientific journals. Peer-reviewed simply means that experts in the field have read the papers and suggested corrections and revisions before the journals accepted the papers for publication. If you are unsure if a jounal that you are using is peer reviewed, check with your local librarian. Whether you use information from a peer-reviewed journal or a source from a local research institution, be sure to check the facts.
Here are some tips:
- Don’t trust tips on blurbs or tip sheets. They can be helpful, but they can also be wrong. Always verify.
- Preliminary study information is often released as news but it is designed to create interest and obtain grants. It is often unreliable or incomplete.
- Don’t trust news releases. They too can be helpful, but sometimes wrong. Verify release information from the actual paper or the paper’s author. Double-check background information with other reliable sources.
- Be aware of the pitfalls of the peer-review system. Some jounals have more rigorous review than others. Again, double-check background information with other reliable sources.
- Ask a paper’s authors or researchers about previous news coverage of their work. Make sure that what you’re reporting is really new and wasn’t covered in detail just a few months ago.
- Ask about potential conflicts of interest. If any of the researchers have a financial interest at stake, this could and should be a red flag. You have to judge if stating the conflict will be enough to ease readers’minds or might the research information be called into question because of the financial interest. At this point, it would probably be in the best interest of your credibility to find another expert.
- Check trivial facts. Make certain that you have the expert’s affiliation and title.
A word of caution however, be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred. And always, remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist. Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise. Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.
Now that you have a few good sources, how do you interpret the scientific information to make it understandable and interesting the public? First, be sure that you understand the topic and the information that you have collected. If you don’t have a complete understanding yourself, you will not be able to communicate the information accurately. Being a good science writer doesn’t require a college degree in science, however, it does require some healthy skepticism and the ability to ask good questions about things that can affect research studies and other claims. To separate truth from trash, you will need answers to these questions:
- Was the study done, or claim made, on the basis of evidence only?
- How was the study designed and conducted? Was it laboratory research, field collections or observations? What are the numbers? Was the study large enough to reach believable conclusions? Are the results statistically significant? That phrase simply means that based on the scientific standards, the statistical results are unlikely to be attributable to chance alone.
- Are there other possible explanations for the study’s conclusions?
- Was the study conducted free of any form of bias, unintentional or otherwise?
- Have the findings been checked or replicated by other experts? And, how do the findings fit with previous knowledge on the topic?
You must understand five principles of scientific analysis to find answers to these questions. They are the basis of scientific inquiry.
1. Some Uncertainty is Acceptable. Science looks at the statistical probability of what’s true. Conclusions are based on strong evidence, without waiting for an elusive proof positive. But science is always an evolving story, a continuing journey that allows for mid-course correction. This can confuse the public, especially when preliminary information is reported as fact. Scientists then are accused of “changing their minds or flip-flopping.”
2. Probability and Large numbers. The more subjects or observations in a study the better. A commonly accepted numerical expression is the P (probability) value, determined by a formula that considers the number of events being compared. A P value of .05 or less is usually considered statistically significant. It means that there are 5 or fewer chances in 100 that the results could be due to chance alone. The lower the P value, the lower the odds that chance alone could be responsible. Science writers don’t have to do the math, they just have to ask researchers: “Show me your numbers.”
3. Is There Another Explanation? Association alone does not prove cause and effect. You must be able to distinguish between coincidence and causation. A chemical in a town’s water supply may not be the cause of the illness there. A study’s time span can be very important so that normal cycles are not confused with study results. Ask the researcher and yourself: “Can you think of any alternative explanations for the study’s numbers and conclusions? Did the study last long enough to support its conclusions?”
4. The Dimensions of Studies. For costs and other reasons, all studies are not created equal. Old records, statistics and memories are often unreliable. Case studies involving only one or two subjects usually are not considered a basis on which to draw broad conclusions. Far better is a study that follows a selected population for the long term, sometimes decades. Ask researchers in all scientific fields: “Why did you design your study the way you did? Is a more definitive study now needed?” Nevertheless, always bear in mind, exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
5. The Power of Peer Review. The burden of proof rests with researchers seeking to change scientific conclusions. Science is never accepted until confirmed by additional studies. Science writers should look for consensus among studies.
Above all, have fun. Science is intriguing, funny and essential to everyday life. If you write too loftily, you lose some of the best stories and the ones to which your readers most relate. Your credibility will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of your work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.
The points discussed in this article will be illustrated in a session entitled “The Anatomy of a Science Story” with a panel of three experienced science writers at the OWAA Annual Meeting in Bismark, ND in June, 2008.
Published in Outdoors Unlimited
“Think locally,” advises David Periman of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Get to know your local biologist at nearby universities.” Learn their areas of expertise. Establishing these relationships is important; when an important story comes up on deadline, a researcher who has met you is more likely to call you back. As in any beat, maintain an exhaustive list of sources, organized by topic on a computer where it can be easily searched, include home and cell phone numbers if you can. Be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred. And always remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist. Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise. Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.
Another, but related issue is risk reporting. Over the past three decades, issue-oriented organizations and the media have bombarded the public with a seemingly endless array of risks, from the familiar to the exotic: anthrax, West Nile virus, radon, asbestos, or mad cow disease. In writing about scientific research and numbers, it is important to understand how strong the study is, the scientific credibility of those who conducted it, and the degree of uncertainty. Real science should include numbers. Junk science is full of words such as “may, might, could”. Writers should look for both relative and absolute risk information. Relative risk can be misleading if you have no idea what the level of risk was in the first place. Comparing a new risk with more familiar risks can sometimes be helpful, such as the irony of the pregnant woman who was protesting against air pollution from a West Virginia power plant while smoking a cigarette that obviously put her and her unborn child at far greater risk.
Conventional wisdom may be an even greater problem when presenting science to the public. Yes, even scientists can be guilty of accepting something as fact when it is not fact, or is an interpretation of facts that still have substantial uncertainty related to them. This problem has become particularly troublesome with respect to environmental issues. Ecology and environmental issues related to ecological matters generally involve greater uncertainty than the so-called hard sciences (physics and chemistry). An example is the statement that “fire is an ecological necessity”. This statement is accurate only if a particular stage of ecological succession must be maintained. In the absence of fire, succession will proceed in a different direction. It is more accurate to say, “Fire is natural, but it is not absolutely necessary”. Finding reliable sources that can and will distinguish between organizational policy or conventional wisdom and scientifically valid information may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort.
The credibility of the communicator, the media and, ultimately, the scientific enterprise itself, is at stake in our coverage of risks to human health and the environment. Many readers and listeners look to the media for some guidance in understanding the risks that we face and how to deal with them. Sometimes the best that we as communicators can offer is the simple truth that science currently has no clear answer, so we need to learn to live with uncertainty. This fact, in itself, is not easy to communicate. We owe it to our audiences to provide more sophisticated, balanced risk reporting that goes beyond the “fear factor” approach. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right, and that they interpret these facts appropriately!
Outdoor communicators are often perceived by the public as authorities on fish, wildlife, and environmental issues. The writer has a responsibility to be accurate, as well as interesting and entertaining. If you are expressing your opinion, or the opinion of an “expert”, say so. Opinions are important, but they should not be presented as scientific fact. The credibility of the writer will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of his/her work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.
A session entitled “Science, the public and the Outdoor Communicator” with a panel of five writers experienced in science communication will be presented at the OWAA Annual Meeting in Roanoke, VA in June, 2007.
Published in Outdoors Unlimited