- 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
Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
By Jen Christiansen / 4 minute read
When it comes to science visuals, static information graphics are not always the right solution. Graphics can be a great way to convey specific information in a concise manner. But they’re rarely the best solution as the opening image for a story, for example. An editorial illustration or photograph can be a more effective way to capture people’s attention, pique their curiosity, and entice them to engage more fully with the article’s content.
Michael Mrak, creative director at Scientific American, notes that “[editorial] illustrations can be used to convey broader concepts about a specific subject and can address parts of nature that may not be able to be seen or that are difficult to show. … You can’t send a photographer to a black hole or to see how the quantum realm works, but you can get an artist to envision how they might work or appear.”
When commissioning editorial illustrations, Olena Shmahalo, art director of Quanta Magazine, writes: “I don’t look exclusively for artists who seem comfortable with science — I’d rather hire an artist who’s great at what they do, and I’ll help them with the scientific or mathematical aspects as needed.” In order to set everyone up for success, however, she recommends that editors “ask questions until you understand [the scientific concept at hand] — especially because if you don’t understand, it’s likely the reader won’t either!” That said, “take care not to become a ‘pair of hands’ for the researcher or author you’re working with. … Sometimes those closest to the material want to relay absolutely everything about it in great detail and can be persistent about everything being ‘just so,’” losing sight of the main takeaway.
Bill Douthitt, photography managing editor at Science magazine, notes that certain types of stories lend themselves to photography over illustration — profiles, stories in which the protagonist is going on a trip of some kind, and accounts of fieldwork that can affordably be covered.
Ernie Mastroianni, formerly photo editor at Discover magazine, says the decision to use photography should be made as early as possible. “If we have a personality-driven feature story, we need to develop a concept, hire a photographer, and do the shoot when the subject is either in place at an academic institution or doing fieldwork. … We don’t want to find out that the subject left the archaeological site just a week prior to our query.”
When selecting photos for science stories, the photo editors I queried agreed on one thing: double-check everything for accuracy. “That’s important in anything you do as a journalist,” Bill Douthitt writes, “but particularly so with science, where the results are read by a very highly educated group.”
Liz Tormes, assistant photo editor at Scientific American, notes that when you’re looking for photos of flora and fauna, “it’s important to ask if the photo needs to show a specific species and/or a specific location. Also, be aware that stock sites often misidentify the subject and/or use incorrect keywords.” She recommends doing a few minutes of basic research on the topic before hitting the stock-image portals , especially if you are dealing with something that is rare, so you know exactly what you are looking for. Douthitt adds that the need to check for accuracy isn’t limited to flora and fauna. Are the scientists in your photos using the right gear correctly? You don’t want to undermine your authority with a photo that shows something that scientists will quickly identify as unrealistic.
Meanwhile, video is in the unique position of being able to leverage the best of all three image approaches in one package: weaving together information graphics, conceptual illustrations, and footage of real people and places into self-contained visual stories. In determining the feasibility of using video to tell a science story, Jeffery DelViscio, senior multimedia editor at Scientific American, recommends that you think through the following:
- Logistics: Video really benefits from being considered at the outset of a project rather than as an add-on. Video is time-consuming — and even if you can quickly acquire it, the post-production process can be complicated. Video may also require field reporting and additional technical skills, depending on what is to be visualized. So a decision about including video should be made as early as possible, when choices about how best to focus the filming or video-asset collection can be made while the reporting plan is still being conceptualized.
- Sourcing: Researchers make more video these days, sometimes as part of the actual science, sometimes as a sort of diary of the process. You should be prepared to leverage this kind of work in your reporting if it is of sufficient quality, and if it actually documents the processes you are reporting on. This could be anything from GoPro footage to extremely slow motion (high frame rate) video. These can be compelling additions, when used appropriately and contextually. But you probably will not know that they exist if you never ask your sources.
- Story goals: Video can excel at visualizing complicated scientific processes and augmenting the story experience. But it can also complete for reader attention and sometimes just tread the same narrative steps as the story. Doing so is a waste. Video should work in harmony with the text, pictures, and audio components, not simply mimic them.
The most important question to answer, DelViscio argues, is “Does this story need or significantly benefit from video?” Only experience will help you develop these video reflexes, so don’t be afraid to experiment, which means you will sometimes try things that don’t work. To help guide your decisions, follow his checklist: