- 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
By Tom Zeller Jr. / 5 minute read
“Good science journalism stands apart from science,” wrote Boyce Rensberger in 2014. The veteran science journalist and former director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT — publisher of this handbook — was lamenting news that the program would no longer produce the KSJ Tracker. For nearly a decade, and through a weekly churn of blog posts critiquing science journalism the world over, the tracker served as both a watchdog and a conscience for the discipline — one that was sorely needed, Rensberger and others agreed. After all, one of the primary concerns among many journalists at the time was that science reporting was in crisis. Newsrooms across the country were shuttering their science desks as the industry contracted; ever-larger numbers of science writers were losing full-time jobs; and the rise of “science engagement” and “science communication” was blurring the lines between what might be called science boosterism and rigorous, journalistic coverage of science, warts and all (and there are warts).
In the end — and despite some worrisome inflections in the memo announcing its planned phaseout — the function of the KSJ Tracker endured as a regular column in KSJ’s successor publication, Undark, and then later as part of Undark’s continuing mission: exploring science not just as a “gee-whiz” phenomenon, as we like to put it, but as a frequently wondrous, sometimes contentious, and occasionally troubling byproduct of human culture. Whether we do that successfully is for others to judge, but I distinctly recall the resonance of Rensberger’s words for me as a longtime journalist who came to science-and-technology coverage from other beats, including politics and business, and later as we began conceiving of Undark.
[Science journalism] serves the general public — the readers, viewers, and listeners — not the scientific community. ... It does not exist to 'communicate' to the public whatever the scientists and engineers want communicated. That’s the job of a different breed of science writer – the public-relations person who stands with the scientists and serves their interests. Good science journalism is journalism first and must retain an arm's-length relationship to science. Its goal is not to increase public "engagement" with science. Its goal is to keep the public informed of what scientists are doing.
Those are important words, though they can be easy to forget when our charge as editors is to cover “science” writ large. So much of the beat involves great feats of empiricism and human discovery that it would be easy — and gratifying — to feed readers a steady diet of “wonky whale skulls” and “scrotum frogs.” Sure, those stories matter, too. But as with politics, business, urban affairs, sports, the arts, and every other human endeavor of interest, covering “what scientists are doing,” as Rensberger put it, means being willing to uncover a world that is, yes, full of magic and light, but also infused with human frailty. Just like the White House and City Hall, after all, the world’s universities, research institutes, commercial labs, and government science agencies can be bastions of both courage and cowardice, genius and bigotry, and deep currents of humility, self-interest, ambition, and greed. Research fraud, conflicts of interest, discrimination, and all manner of questionable research practices have long dogged the sciences — with calls for reform growing.
For some journalists covering science, those observations will speak to a familiar and motivating truth — one that might even border on the obvious. “One of the biggest deals to scientists themselves is money, and actually getting the grant funding to be able to do the work,” said Azeen Ghorayshi, science editor at Buzzfeed News. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, of course. Money is needed for good science — important science — to flourish. But if there is anything to be learned from the best political and business journalism, it’s that money both enables and corrupts.
Scientists and the scientific establishment have such huge power over our lives — not just in terms of what gets researched and what doesn’t, and the findings of that research, but also in shaping how we think about ourselves.Angela Saini, British science journalist and author
And yet many journalists forget to “follow the money” when it comes to science. The reasons for that, the British science journalist and author Angela Saini noted, can be self-evident. “Editors sometimes — especially on newspapers, or general-publication editors — see science as a kind of wacky extra, almost. They look for fun stories, new discoveries, that kind of thing,” she said. “They don’t see it as a journalistic beat in the same way as other topics always. And I think that’s a mistake, because scientists and the scientific establishment have such huge power over our lives — not just in terms of what gets researched and what doesn’t, and the findings of that research, but also in shaping how we think about ourselves.”
Any science editor seeking to orient a reporting team around a mission, Saini suggested, ought to be mindful of that power — and be willing to task writers with investigating it. “Sometimes people, especially if they come from a science background, get into this because they want to communicate the beauty and their passion for the subject and distill that down for audiences,” she said. “But for me, in particular — I know this is not the case for everybody — but for me, this is also an area that needs to be interrogated.”
New York Times investigative journalist and science reporter James Glanz described the science journalist’s core mission more bluntly: “First on the list is raising hell,” he said. “Raising hell is [number] one. You gotta raise hell. That’s what I do for a living. I raise hell.”
Not everyone in science journalism thinks that way, of course. Maybe you’re a science editor who isn’t interested in raising hell, or who finds such an oppositional posture off-putting, perhaps even inappropriate in the coverage of science. I’d like to use this chapter to convince you otherwise, and to provide some reasons why you might want to discover your inner hell-raiser. And for those of you already eager to mix things up and root out bad actors in science, I’ll share some of my own thoughts, as well as those of a few journalists I admire — reporters and editors alike — on ways to move beyond “gee-whiz” coverage of science and report stories that keep the discipline and its practitioners in check.
“If we shine a clear light on the research enterprise, we do more than just tell an accurate story, although that’s an essential part of this,” said Deborah Blum, current director of the Knight Science Journalism Program. “We give science a chance to recognize and correct the flaws we illuminate — and we do our readers, our listeners, our viewers, the honor of treating them with respect.”
It’s one thing to find a subject interesting. It’s another thing to forget that the field is populated by human beings.Ivan Oransky, editor in chief, Spectrum
One note: This doesn’t mean that the wonder and mystery of science don’t matter. They do. But just as a good political reporter ought to keep her antennae up for legislators on the make, and just as a good business editor knows how important it is to follow the money, a good science editor should be encouraging reporters to regard scientists openly and skeptically, though not cynically. Look beyond embargoes and press releases for the stories that researchers don’t necessarily want publicized, and never forget that enthralling as science can be, scientists and the institutions that support them need tough watchdogs, too.
“I think that a lot of people — and it would be fair to include myself here — go into science reporting, medical reporting in my case, you know, really loving that subject,” said Ivan Oransky, editor-in-chief at Spectrum as well as president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and founder of the science-accountability website Retraction Watch.
“Now, it’s one thing to find a subject interesting,” he added. “It’s another thing to forget that the field is populated by human beings.”