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Planting Flags, Luring Tips, Drawing Heat
By Tom Zeller Jr. / 6 minute read
Before becoming editor of the science-reporting team at BuzzFeed, Azeen Ghorayshi made a name for herself as a reporter on the desk covering sexual harassment in science. Trained as an undergraduate in molecular and cellular biology, and armed with a master’s degree in science communication from Imperial College London, Ghorayshi said she arrived on the newly formed science desk in 2015. It was a time when the problem of rampant sexism in science departments was well-established.
“There had been lots of news stories talking about the leaky pipeline,” she said, referring to the tendency of women to leave the sciences during their studies, “and sort of getting at the fact that there was this problem in science departments…. Why is it that so many women end up leaving as you go higher and higher up the chain? And there were many, sort of, microscandals that got at the sexism-in-science problem.”
I think one of the main tools we used was to just plant a flag.Azeen Ghorayshi, science editor, BuzzFeed
The new science team at BuzzFeed, though, saw an opportunity to turn a powerful and important light on bad actors in science. They aggressively covered those “microscandals” — a 2014 cover story in Science that was perceived by critics as casting transgender women in a negative light, for example (the editor in chief at the time, Marcia McNutt, now head of the National Academy of Sciences, issued an apology), and the sexist commentary of the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt at a 2015 conference in Seoul. (Hunt would eventually resign from his teaching post at University College London, and from the European Commission’s Science Council as well.)
That coverage, Ghorayshi said, set the stage for a tip that would lead to an explosive — and exclusive — report on a sexual-harassment investigation of the astronomer Geoff Marcy at the University of California at Berkeley. While other news outlets, including The New York Times and Science, had done their own reports on the scandal, which included charges of sexual harassment involving several women over nearly a decade, it was Ghorayshi, at BuzzFeed, who broke the news to the wider public. That scoop revealed Marcy to have been credibly accused of “inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping — repeated instances of sexual harassment.”
The result of a months-long investigation by the university was that Marcy — a pioneer in the study of exoplanets who cultivated frequent media appearances and was considered by some to be in line for a Nobel Prize — had been given merely an admonition with “clear expectations” for better behavior. Frustrated by the lack of a more robust response, the complainants went looking for a media outlet that might care to know the details of the closed-door investigation. They found one in BuzzFeed, and Ghorayshi said that was no accident.
“I think one of the main tools we used was to just plant a flag, and to signal to readers that this is a topic that we were interested in, and sort of doggedly cover that,” she said. “And also tell people, we are here to hear your pitch, you know? So, I think in a way we sort of telegraphed that this topic was one that was really central to our desk.”
The best accountability stories, Ghorayshi said, need to come from folks on the ground: postdocs in university labs, bench technicians in private research organizations, even administrative staff members inside the bureaucracy of a government science agency, who are witnessing things going wrong. You want those people to think of you, Ghorayshi said, when they have the itch to go public with what they know.
“When the people came along who had gone through a whole investigative process at U.C. Berkeley, and had put together a complaint detailing sexual-harassment allegations stretching back almost a decade, and then after … Berkeley proceeded to not do anything about it — once those people who had filed the complaint were frustrated enough, and they had sort of exhausted all the other options of going through the laid-out processes within their institution to address this, at that point they were like, ‘We need to go to someone to get this news out,'” she said. “And we were there — in a whole newsroom also, I should say, that was reporting a lot on sexual assault and Title IX and issues, campus issues — we were there for them to come to.”
Now that she’s the editor running all of BuzzFeed’s science coverage, Ghorayshi said, she’s gratified to see her team continuing that sort of approach — and it’s one she suggests that editors ought to encourage in young reporters: Build up a drumbeat of coverage in a specific area so that whistle-blowers and tipsters know you’re out there. That strategy, she said, has been paying large dividends for BuzzFeed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
By way of example, Ghorayshi pointed to the work of one of her reporters, Stephanie M. Lee, whose coverage of p-hacking and other research misconduct helped to lay the groundwork for a number of Covid-19 scoops, including several stories relating to the controversial research on coronavirus infection and death rates by the Stanford professor John Ioannidis. From covering troubling sources of funds underwriting his research and misguided advocacy campaigns early in the pandemic, Lee has positioned herself as a go-to reporter for information on questionable coronavirus science.
That’s the sort of journalism that Jim Glanz, of The New York Times, also encourages. He recalled an early story in the mid-1990s, when he was writing at Science magazine, that dealt with the science community’s enthusiasm for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. “It was getting all kinds of, you know — I’m trying to not swear here — it was getting all kinds of coverage that just sort of kissed up to this international collaboration, you know, ‘infinite energy,’ and ‘You can use the material from the oceans,’ or whatever. Well, what I found was that there was this young insurgent group of physicists who had discovered that it was going to be leaky. It couldn’t hold the heat, because of turbulence on the edge of the reactor, and nobody would listen to them. And the senior people who bought into this giant international collaboration and were afraid to ruffle the feathers of the people who were providing the money… just would not listen.”
You have to approach it like that City Hall beat.James Glanz, reporter, The New York Times
The resulting story carried the headline “Turbulence May Sink Titanic Reactor” — and Glanz said the turbulence he kicked up was memorable. “I have never had anybody scream at me as loud as those physicists did when that story broke. And it was right. They had to redesign the entire thing. They would not listen, you know? They weren’t going with the best science. They were going with their institutional directives. And it would have been a $10-billion disaster. Instead they had to deal with an unhappy story and pick up the pieces and scream at me.” (Remember, as George Orwell or William Randolph Hearst or Katherine Graham once quipped: “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”)
And how did Glanz’s blockbuster come about? It wasn’t magic, he said, and it certainly wasn’t because he was reviewing the reactor’s technical plans. He simply listened — and came to the issue with what he called “a prepared mind.” That means both reading up and, more important, talking with scientists informally, at the margins, rather than waiting for embargoed press releases and the slow drip of peer review to dictate coverage. It means being in a mental space, Glanz said, that is prepared to receive — and recognize — an actionable tip when it lands.
“How did I figure that story out? Wandering the halls of a conference,” Glanz said. “I wasn’t going for somebody’s dog-and-pony-show talk. Somebody pulled me aside and said, ‘Have you heard?’ Now, obviously you have to check these things out. But it was my first lesson, or one of my first lessons: that science, as wonderful as it is — and I’m a former scientist, right? — as important as it is to the world, to our society, and as respectful as I am, as a person, of science, you have to approach it like that City Hall beat.”
If you’re an editor overseeing a team of reporters covering science and you’re not encouraging your team to cover science like City Hall, and to cultivate sources and leads and tips outside the routinized, PR-controlled world of science conferences and science publishing — at least some of the time — then, Glanz suggested, “you’re not doing anybody a favor.”
Oh, and another useful observation from Glanz: “If someone is raising their voice with you, that sorta tells you something.”