Friday 15 August 2014

From the trading room floor

Well, I am now into my penultimate week at New Scientist. The time has zipped past, in a blur of commuting on the tube, interviewing scientists on the phone, meeting deadlines and lots of writing and rewriting. I have begun to get the hang of things a little, and, if nothing else, learned how everybody likes their tea! So far, I have had eight pieces published, and hopefully have more to come. These have varied from short ‘reaction’ pieces to bizarre photos, to slightly longer, news-fuelled articles. I have also had a chance to get my teeth into one longer story so far, that is more forensic based than the others.

Here they are:

Actually, I have already learned more than I ever expected to. I now have insight into the dynamic between reporters, sub-editors and editors, and seen how stories get chosen or pitched to be articles for the magazine or online platforms. I am beginning to see the world through a journalist’s eye – examining ‘ordinary’ events for extraordinary angles, or trying to think of something that no-one else has thought of. It has made me appreciate how science gets published, blogged about and retweeted – it doesn't seem to be so much about the quality of the science – although that has to be sound – but it is more about whether the ordinary person can relate to it, and whether people want to chat about it down the pub. I have gathered that there is a clear correlation between the catchiness of a journal paper title and the chances of it being picked up by popular science journalism. So, if you want a journalist to do a feature on your research, you need to make it clear, easy to understand and emphasise how it affects real people. Basically, meeting the science writer half way will make the whole process much easier for both sides.

Facts are different beasts these days too. I have learned that they are a commodity to be traded, but the exchange rate is very steep. Scientists, or the fact ‘makers’, cherish the few true facts that they might be lucky enough to generate over the course of their careers. I, personally, have spent my academic career being careful not to accidently make incorrect ‘facts’, by avoiding making sweeping statements or jumping to conclusions, by being sceptical and reluctant to exclaim causal links between phenomena. Journalists are fact-hungry. They will procure several precious facts from a handful of different scientists before breakfast. Facts are – quite rightly – the bones of the article on which to hang the meat.

So, at first, my impression was that it felt a little unfair – that the fruit of the scientists’ labour is snapped up and guzzled very quickly. But actually, on closer inspection, it seems to be a more reasonable trade, as scientists relish the recognition of their work, and try hard to produce the sort of facts that people, and journalists, want to consume. Scientists just need to learn to take advantage of this, and start working more closely with journalists. And that, my friends, is just what the Media Fellowship is all about. 

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