- 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 Neel V. Patel / 3 minute read
“I don’t necessarily think of our readers as science readers,” Karen Kaplan, science-and-medicine editor at The Los Angeles Times, says of her newspaper’s audience. “I just think of them as readers” — the same ones who would read about politics or sports.
“A well-done story will explain what the question is that is being investigated, what prompted somebody to look into it, what was the hypothesis, and how did they go about testing that hypothesis,” she says. “You kind of use that lure to ‘trick’ a reader into learning something about the scientific process, if you’ve written your story well.”
Kaplan is right — making a popular-science story resonate with readers starts with the science. But there are steps that editors ought to take that go beyond just making sure a story is written and reported well. Writing for a broader, more diverse audience starts with making sure you have storytellers who represent this audience. It means looking at opportunities to share references familiar to this audience, perhaps through pop culture. It means using resources to create dedicated projects for this audience.
Let’s start with newsroom diversity — something on which Rachel Feltman focuses at Popular Science. When she joined the magazine, in 2016, its readership skewed heavily male and white. Now, after changes in the newsroom, the audience has nearly reached gender parity, she says, with significant gains among people of color as well.
When you diversify the newsroom, you diversify your audience.Rachel Feltman
“When we write about the things that we feel are important or interesting, that means women and others are more likely to read them,” says Feltman. “We have such a great data point for the notion that when you diversify the newsroom, you diversify your audience. It is just as simple as getting more brains in the room, and more people who care about different things and have different lived experiences.”
Andrea Kissack is working on the same thing at NPR, where she is chief editor for science coverage. “We sort of have this North Star goal of reaching younger, more diverse audiences,” she says. She and her team have found success reaching those kinds of listeners through newer, more dedicated story projects and programming.
Right before the pandemic, NPR began Shortwave, a science podcast geared to adults in their 20s and 30s. Its audience has grown considerably among millennials — a generation for whom podcasts are a normal staple of the media diet. Stories for mainstream radio are generally tied to newsworthy events, have a shorter shelf life, and have a more straightforward broadcasting format. Podcasts can be more granular, conversational, and discuss more big-picture and evergreen angles.
Kissack has found that Shortwave’s science storytelling can go in stranger and more niche directions. Podcasts often build loyal listening communities that take to social media to discuss the content and engage with the material. Deep dives into specific subjects encourage that responsive behavior.
Using new storytelling forms also makes it easier to reach audiences in a saturated media environment. If you’re trying to reach a broad audience with popular science, says MIT Technology Review‘s Firth, then you need to keep in mind that you’re competing with basically all other media for people’s attention: not just podcasts, but also YouTube-native shows, Netflix, and so on. “They’re your real competitors in terms of the attention of people who are going to pay you money,” he says. “You need to give people a reason to spend five minutes of their time reading your story or indulging in what you’ve produced versus something else. You can’t assume just because you spent six months on an investigation that anyone owes you their time.”
A starting point, Firth says, is for writers and editors to put themselves in the position of these consumers and think about what, specifically, will sell their stories to an audience. (This chapter will provide some advice.)
One of the best ways to expand audiences, Tayag believes, is to tie coverage to a hot-button issue or trending cultural story. She found success at OneZero and as senior science editor at Inverse by using pop culture as a conduit for talking about science and tech research.
“I think of it as tricking people into learning about science,” she says. “You have to couch the science into something people already know they like. It’s a bit like when you have a dog and you have them digest their medicine in peanut butter. I think giving readers a story packaged in something that’s familiar reduces the trepidation that a lot of people have about a ‘science story.’”
One example she cites is a story she wrote for Inverse in January 2016 about why the actor Mads Mikkelsen looks, well, evil. He had been announced as the villain in the first Doctor Strange movie, the latest in a series of villainous roles Tayag decided this could be a useful conduit to unearthing the psychology behind how our minds make the seemingly superficial decision of who looks kind and trustworthy and who looks mean and deceptive.
Then again, pop-culture pegs can quickly become outdated, Firth notes. Comparing a new technology to Star Trek is no longer going to fly.