- 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
Angles, People, Angles
By Neel V. Patel / 3 minute read
The worst sin that a journalist can make is getting something wrong. The second-worst sin is to open the door for the reader to get something wrong. And that’s a big problem in popular science.
In the age of digital media, traffic is king. News media are looking to make their stories more appealing than those of their competitors. That pressure can lead people to make claims greater than the facts allow. Astronomers just found a new exoplanet that might be habitable? ALIENS ARE NEAR. Someone discovered a new type of tree that absorbs more carbon dioxide than usual? CLIMATE CHANGE IS SOLVED. This new biomedical implant helps us spot tumors on X-rays? CANCER IS CANCELED. We just discovered a subatomic particle that we can’t explain? PHYSICS IS BROKEN.
When a story’s claims cannot stand up well to scrutiny, the reader exits the piece with disappointment, and seeds of mistrust are planted.
“We’re really good at the exciting, novel parts — that’s easy journalism,” says science journalist Yasmin Tayag. “But I think where we definitely fall short is always getting it right and balancing the exciting part of the story with accurate content.”
A popular-science story can be a hit with readers in ways beyond just making the biggest and boldest claim.
“Often I find that some of the most interesting popular-science stories are less about the actual findings and more about the scientists’ journey getting there,” says Tayag. “Making it about the people involved often makes the story really compelling, and helps you avoid the story of oversimplification of complex science.”
Karen Kaplan of The Los Angeles Times sums this up more succinctly: “It’s not a science story if you don’t do the science part.” You can’t just accept that new discoveries happen as fait accompli.
Science is messy, it’s complicated. There’s very rarely a neat answer.Yasmin Tayag
A writer who does this well is Marina Koren, who covers all things space at The Atlantic. She doesn’t simply report on new findings — she’s carved out a niche in which she’s able to celebrate the awe and wonder of space research itself.
Koren wrote a story on new findings about comet Borisov, the second object from interstellar space to have been observed visiting the solar system. She painted a narrative picture that included the pristine composition of the comet as it zipped by the sun. In doing so, she didn’t merely explain that we’ve learned something new, but that the process behind learning these new insights was itself a delicate, revelatory endeavor.
Other times, it’s wise to lean into the chaos of science. “You’re hoping for this very neat, clean-cut story that’s also very alluring,” says Tayag. “But science is messy, it’s complicated. There’s very rarely a neat answer.”
In that vein, we published a story at The Daily Beast about physicists’ growing debate over how we ought to measure the expansion of the universe. The writer, David Axe, kept the discussion of physics concepts clear and simple while centering the story on the different factions of scientists debating their own and each others’ theories.
Making popular science more compelling to readers means, as Firth said, meeting the audience halfway to give them something recognizable from their own lives, cultures, and interests. It means not shying away from using the headline as an aggressive sales pitch that this is the story for them. It means having a mastery of language that can smooth out complicated subject matter as well as avoid introducing needless terms and phrases. And it means centering the human element of the story.