The scientist-journalist divide: what can we learn from each other?

A post by Anne JeffersonResearchBlogging.orgLast week, the journal Nature published two research papers on the effects of human-caused global warming on extreme precipitation events. I’m working on a post on the papers, and they’ve already received quite a bit of attention in the media.

As glamour mag journals often do when they publish papers that they think are going to catch wide attention, the two articles in Nature were accompanied by feature stories designed to add explanation and context to the necessarily succinct and technical writing of the articles themselves. One of these features fell under the heading “News in Focus”, while the other was in the category “News and Views.” Here are the first lines of each of those features.

The varying distribution of fresh water across the globe, involving complex patterns of rainfall in space and time, crucially affects the ecosystems and infrastructure on which human societies depend.

Climate change may be hitting home.

Which of those stories do you suppose was written by an academic scientist and which was written by a science writer? No bonus points for being correct. I’m not going to call either sentence out as good or bad, because I think they both have strengths and weaknesses. Overall, both were very well written pieces. But their first sentences sure do strikingly exemplify the differences in the culture of written expression between research scientists and journalists.

Scientists can definitely learn a thing or two about communication from science journalists. I don’t want to transform my manuscripts into text that reads like journalism, because the two forms of writing serve very different purposes for very different audiences. But reading good science writing online and practicing my own writing here have immeasurably improved my consideration of word choices, sentence structure, the value of an engaging first paragraph (or lede), and sense of narrative arc. I think these skills are carrying over from blogging into my manuscript and grant writing, my interactions with graduate student writing, and even my teaching. Maybe I’ll start asking my students to read both primary papers and the accompanying feature stories, so that they might absorb some writing skills from their reading assignments. So my unsolicited advice to fellow scientists is: “If you want to write better, start by carefully reading good writing.”

But science journalists can learn some tricks from the scientists too. After I read the first article, I understood why extreme precipitation might increase as a result of a warming climate (warm air holds more moisture; additional moisture in the air makes dry places even drier). When I read the second article, that “why” explanation was completely missing. In both articles, I got an overview of what the studies did and what they found, and in the second article I learned about implications for the insurance industry, adding context. But I lost the “why.” And it’s the why that allows us to translate what we’ve learned in one situation or study into another. Given the physical basis (the why) for a study, an interested reader can conjecture that if extreme precipitation is increasing in the Northern Hemisphere, then it’s likely increasing in the Southern Hemisphere as well, and that droughts may becoming more severe in arid regions. (And eventually scientists can test those conjectures.) Without the why, a reader only knows what that the insurance industry is concerned about climate change. If I may be so bold as to give some advice to science journalists, it is this: Explain not just what the paper of the week found, but why the result was obtained. Use those fantastic writing skills to communicate the science behind the science.

If both scientists and journalists are concerned that Americans are ill-informed and apathetic about science, and climate science in particular, then it behooves both groups to change the way we communicate science. And maybe the place to start is to look to each other for advice.

For those who are interested in reading more about extreme precipitation and less about writing, the sentences above came from these two sources.

Allan RP (2011). Climate change: Human influence on rainfall. Nature, 470 (7334), 344-5 PMID: 21331034

Schiermeier Q (2011). Increased flood risk linked to global warming. Nature, 470 (7334) PMID: 21331014

Categories: by Anne, climate science, public science, ranting
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Comments (9)

  1. Hi Anne,

    What you may be running up against in the specific example you chose – a news story meant to accompany a study in the same issue of Nature – is that the stories are intended to be complimentary, not copies. The journalist would likely have been working off the original research article, trying to provide context and the widespread implication of the study, knowing full well that there is more technical detail just a few pages away.

    In fact, I just finished working on a story under similar circumstances (it’s not out, so I can’t really give any detail,) but my story contained the line “for more detail, see XXX, this issue.” That way, I could gloss over the technical details, giving me more space to focus on “my part” of the story – and avoiding wasting space going over information that was already covered.

    That being said, I think you’re absolutely right that scientists and journalists have things to learn from each other’s writing.

    • Ed Yong says:

      A valid point in the dissection of this case study, but Anne makes a valid general point that the details (the hows and whys) are often missing from a lot of science coverage. From experience, the problem with leaving this stuff out is that audiences are very clever. People are naturally inquisitive and even if they don’t have any scientific background, they’re more than capable of asking questions about methods and results. If you don’t provide enough information, not only do you not satisfy readers but you give denialists and contrarians an easy route for criticising a study for being incomplete or bogus, when in fact it was the report of the study that was incomplete.

      See, for example, virtually any news story on epidemiology. Common refrain: “Yeah, but that could easily be explained by age/smoking/wealth/weight etc.” And in most cases, the studies have actually accounted for these confounding factors; it’s just that the reports haven’t mentioned that.

  2. Hi Colin, I see your point, but I was careful to acknowledge that in the post. But there are plenty of places where the two stories overlap in content – in their description of the methods and results of the two studies, for example. I’m not asking for the same level of technical detail to appear in both, but even one or two sentences that explain the “why” of the science would add greatly to the story. And this can totally be in the journalistic writing style.

    For example, lots of news outlets have mentioned the creation of icebergs from Tasman Glacier as a result of this week’s Christchurch earthquake. But this National Geographic article does a nice job of explaining why the glacier was primed to create icebergs.

    “The rain had probably raised the lake level, which made it easier for large chunks to break off, Truffer explained. It’s likely, he added, that the end of the glacier was floating, not anchored to the lake bed. “If you have a floating part of the glacier and you raise lake level, you induce bending [of the ice] that can help the calving process.”"

    Three sentences. Quoting a source. And now this news story has something the others don’t: readers who might understand that floating ice is more likely to create icebergs.

  3. KBHC says:

    Anne, this was a really nice contribution. Thanks for writing. I also agree with Ed’s point about the number of times I have a very basic question (controlling for age/weight/smoking for instance) about a study being reported on when I see a journalist’s perspective, only to later find out it was answered in the article.

    Given that lots of us get our news online, and we don’t necessarily have to write in paragraphs that are one to two sentences, or limit stories to a 500 words, journalists could stand to be a bit more comprehensive, and, as Anne points out, ask the why questions.

    My scholarly science writing has improved from reading journalists and professional science writers, and from trying to do more broad audience writing myself. Some folks obviously already benefit from this scientist/journalist exchange, but it would certainly be nice to see even more of it!

  4. Melissa says:

    Thank you for such an interesting perspective. I’m a graduate student in the sciences, and my classmates and I are making contributions to a science blog for the biology department at the University of New Mexico. We spend a lot of time agonizing over how detailed or technical our blogs should be, but you make a wonderful point about including the “why” behind the conclusions of research. We never want to talk down to our readers, but we also don’t want to make our writing inaccessible. The people who are interested in popular science writing probably have enough scientific curiosity to be given more technical details, and would appreciate a more thorough analysis of the research we are presenting. I will definitely keep this in mind the next time I write for our blog.

  5. Tim Oleson says:

    As a scientist turned (or I should say ‘attempting to turn’) science writer/blogger, your post made for great reading. From my standpoint (i.e., someone accustomed to writing opening sentences like the first one above but who is learning to write for broader audiences), I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Makes me recall my first attempt at science writing…coincidentally about linking climate change to extreme weather. For a class assignment, I chose to write a ‘daily’ piece about a talk that Jerry Meehl (a senior climate scientist at NCAR and IPCC co-author) gave at the Univ. of Wisconsin Madison last fall. The talk was nominally for a general audience so Meehl made a point of replacing a lot of the technical details with explanatory plots, etc. In my write-up, though, I focused a bit too much on the nitty gritty, the “why” as you put it, at the expense of compelling quotes, story structure, etc. I thought I’d done a bang-up job until my prof had a go at it. She liked the level of detail, but reminded me that you have to engage your reader with a good lede and then give them reasons to keep reading. If they lose interest and give up, it won’t much matter that you’ve dutifully included the necessary details/context.

    Thanks again.

  6. I don’t have too much experience in blogging or science writing, to contribute i just want to say scientist should make his/her blog more easy to read, even if they hate that. and i enjoying with this fabulous discussion.

  7. suji george says:

    nice read….
    Categorizing science writing (being subjective) according to me is not a good idea. As in any form of writing, what is important is the content. I hope you will agree to the fact that for writing science article a journalist has to do thorough research. However he may not want to include all the details in his article to make subject easy for the readers (nonscientific community).

  8. Robert says:

    I am an undergraduate of Geology with a concentration in land use. Needing to fill some core credits and realizing my writing is not the greatest (10 years of technical documents can lead to a boring style) I enrolled in a semantics course. Having the new tools of analyzing words I am better able to convey my implications and presuppositions to the readers.

    Also, it is interesting interacting with my peers who study philosophy, logic, and writing (some journalism). Most of whom believe that math and science are too abstract to comprehend. All the while, I am left pondering how they can comprehend the intricacies of language and not see the parallels with math and science.

    In my experience, a better understanding of language, and its uses, allows me to communicate more easily across a wider audience.

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