- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Building Narrative Into the Reporting Process
By Rachel Feltman / 4 minute read
One challenge we editors and writers face in making science stories universally interesting: scientists themselves. While folks in the sciences are, generally speaking, a fascinating bunch, most of them aren’t trained in storytelling, and some are downright awful at translating their own research into a good yarn. This can be compounded by the fact that even the most thrilling science often occurs in a surprisingly dull setting, which can leave a general-assignment reporter feeling at a loss for how to build scenes, develop characters, and weave together narrative threads.
That heightens the need to find details to bring a story to life, says Susan Murcko, features editor at Popular Science. “Traditionally desirable building blocks like scene and character can be challenging. The reporting timeline might mean that the writer has to meet the scientist in an office or lab, as opposed to more interesting settings out in the world — assuming the person’s work even takes them out and about. It’s really important to try to glean any shred of telling detail or personality in otherwise nondescript or literally sterile settings.”
As a result, you should encourage writers to seek out the most engaging possible settings for their stories — fieldwork sites, for example, or residential communities being directly affected by the scientific issues they’re reporting on. But if most of their interviews will take place in a lab, advise the reporters of the potential difficulties before reporting begins. Helping them brainstorm what questions to ask and details to look out for can help ensure that you receive a first draft with at least the beginnings of a compelling story — and can limit the amount of follow-up you will need them to do.
It’s really important to try to glean any shred of telling detail or personality in otherwise nondescript or literally sterile settings.Susan Murcko, features editor at Popular Science
Conversely, don’t rely too much on an unusually articulate or glamorous researcher. Science journalism is still journalism, and if scientists’ take on their latest work is full of heroes and villains and twists and turns, you still have to track down corroboration for their statements, seek the opinion of outside experts on the data, and challenge any exaggerations or oversimplifications they’ve crafted in the name of getting their work more attention.
If it seems as if the story is just writing itself after a single phone call with the main author of the study, that version of events is almost certainly too good to be true. Some stories about science will not cast the findings — or the researchers behind them — in a positive light. You should always ensure that your reporters have sniffed around enough to detect corruption and misconduct.
One trope that science writing sometimes leans on, but shouldn’t, says Maddie Stone, of Earther, is the idea “that science is inherently ‘good’ and the people doing science are the ‘good guys.'” She goes on:
Most people go into science journalism because they love science, not because they’re trying to expose corruption or injustices. But those science stories matter, too. Too often, stories of sexual harassment or discrimination in academia, or science becoming another tool of colonialism, are sidelined because the scientists and institutions at the center of them are respected leaders in a field, and the research they are doing is deemed more important or interesting by the media.
Here are a few interview questions I’ve found crucial in learning to coax the good stuff out of scientific sources without letting them get away with telling tall tales:
- Is there anyone who might not get credit for this who deserves recognition?
- What previous work was integral to the new study?
- Do you have any conflicts to disclose?
- Why do you care about this subject?
- Did any of your findings surprise you?
- What are some of the study’s limitations?
- Do you expect these findings to be controversial in your field?
- What are the broader implications?
- What do people usually get wrong about this subject?
- Looking back on the study, what were some of the most memorable moments for you and your colleagues?
- What are you working on next?
Meanwhile, asking questions that might seem less crucial can yield surprising opportunities for crafting a unique story.
“Sometimes an interesting piece of a science story — something the writer finds out by asking what was most interesting or difficult about the process, or what the researchers tackled in a particularly unique way — can be used to reveal something wider, creating a story about the broader enterprise of science,” says Gideon Lichfield, editor in chief of MIT Technology Review. “Maybe that line of inquiry reveals how funding works, or how rivalries in science and academia work, or how misunderstandings between scientists and the general public work. All these issues might be encapsulated in a relatively small story, if you ask questions that go beyond the scope of what a study’s findings were.”
Asking why a scientist cares about a subject of study is especially crucial if you hope to craft a narrative. All science stories should answer the question of why the readers should care (otherwise, they’re liable to feel that their time has been wasted), but it’s quite likely that the scientist’s personal reason for caring is different, and more surprising.
Sometimes an interesting piece of a science story … can be used to reveal something wider, creating a story about the broader enterprise of science.Gideon Lichfield, editor in chief, MIT Technology Review
For example, consider a scientist who studies naked mole rats. These wrinkly, uncharismatic creatures will seem repulsive to many readers, but there’s a good reason why they should care about this research: the ugly critters have unusually low rates of cancer for a mammalian species — and understanding why might help us gain some of the same benefit for humans. To tell a more compelling story, you could report some anecdote from the researcher’s childhood; maybe an eccentric uncle kept naked mole rats as pets and mentioned their medical potential.