Articles about "Science writing"

microscope in a medical lab

Journalists do a lousy job reporting on health studies, researchers find

JAMA Internal Medicine

Researchers found a lot to be dissatisfied with in a review of nearly 2,000 stories about “new medical treatments, tests, products, and procedures.” Most stories were “unsatisfactory on 5 of 10 review criteria: costs, benefits, harms, quality of the evidence, and comparison of the new approach with alternatives,” Gary Schwitzer writes in a report published by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Some of the problems researchers from found in the study, which examined reports in print, Web and broadcast media:

  • Stories “often framed benefits in the most positive light”
    It’s important to report on absolute risk, not just relative risk, the study warns. Here’s a guide to understanding the difference.
  • Reports rarely explain the limitations of observational studies
    Lots of news outlets reported on a Mayo Clinic study published last summer about the effects of coffee on mortality, and “Each story used language suggesting cause and effect had been established, although it had not,” Schwitzer writes. (“Heavy coffee consumption linked to higher death risk,” USA Today wrote, and it was far from alone).
    The research “reported a ‘positive (statistical) association,’ Schwitzer wrote last year. “That’s not causation.”
  • Stories based on press releases or one interview
    Eight percent of the stories studied “apparently relied solely or largely on news releases as the source of information.” Another problem the study ID’d: Coverage of new technology is often “Fawning.”
  • Stories “often provide cheerleading for local researchers and businesses”
    A Los Angeles Times story about a drug that hoped to ease pain from menstrual cramps “provided no data but quoted a company vice president, the only person quoted, who said that the drug could be a “breakthrough,” the study says. Journalists, it says, “should be more skeptical of what they are told by representatives of the health care industry.”

Related: Why journalists drive scientists crazy, in graphs | The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them) Read more


Why journalists drive scientists crazy, in graphs

Backreaction | Uncertain Principles

Scientists and the journalists who cover them are locked in an “eternal tug of war,” Sabine Hossenfelder writes. The journos feel they have to elide detail so a general audience can read them. The scientists feel the resulting “knowledge transfer” to readers is pitifully low. Hossenfelder illustrates the problem with a series of graphs, like this one:

Hossenfelder notes that sports journalism doesn’t assume its readers need their reports dumbed-down, and suggests online science journalism may hold a solution: “a system with a few layers – call them beginner, advanced, pro – would already make a big difference.” Read more

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 11.47.02 PM

Matter faces familiar challenges in crafting a new web experience

While most online news outlets worry about their mobile-first strategy, Matter is trying to create a web-first reading experience. It doesn’t publish a print edition, present a bundled collection of news articles or host advertisements. It has no pop-ups, banners or complicated navigation menus — just a clean, lightweight layout that lets the story stand on its own.

Since its November 2012 launch, the site has offered human-focused, long-form investigative writing about science and technology – a flavor of journalism that’s largely disappeared amid the Web’s cost-cutting strategies and attention-deficit design.

“We’d hear about stories people wanted to tell that were crying out for narrative treatment,” co-founder Jim Giles told me when I visited Matter’s San Francisco office in August. Matter’s stories have ranged from body integrity identity disorder to Silicon Valley’s “charisma coach” to Tutankhamun’s DNA.

Writers of such long-form stories had very few places that would publish them, Giles said — candidates were limited to The New Yorker or Harper’s Magazine. And if none of those publications took a piece, Nature, New Scientist or Scientific America were unlikely to publish a 6,000- to 9,000-word effort.

With no need to support a legacy print product, Giles and co-founder Bobbie Johnson built a hybrid model — e-book meets magazine — promising a new reader experience.

“All writing publications at some level want a reading experience that’s so amazing it’s like you’ve lost track of the world around you,” Giles said.

Paying the bills

Matter has tried to create a reader experience that’s different from that of other websites, but struggled with a problem its competitors know all too well: how to pay the bills.

Matter’s original model centered on publishing a story each month, protected by a paywall. Readers could pay 99 cents for access to the story online or as a Kindle e-book, or subscribe monthly for the same price.

“Ninety-nine cents felt like a nice price in the App Store where people are used to making a decision to buy something without too much cognitive effort,” Giles said last summer.

But the paywall undermined Matter’s efforts to increase visibility, Giles said, leaving the site facing a dilemma: It was difficult for people to grasp the type of content Matter published if they couldn’t see it, and they wouldn’t pay unless they could sample that content first. And, of course, with so many news sites offering free content, it’s difficult to train readers to pay.

Despite a successful Kickstarter campaign – Matter raised its goal of $50,000 within 48 hours and eventually raised $140,000 — it couldn’t generate enough revenue to justify its paywall. In an email, Johnson said subscriptions were “good” but slower than the site needed; while e-book sales gave Matter a solid “long tail” of content for readers to discover, Giles recalled that having an e-book emerge as a hit proved “harder than we thought.”

After a year of trying a subscription-based model, Matter announced last week that all of its stories will be free.

“Ultimately, we’d seen our stories do very well when they were outside the paywall, and thought it would be better to capitalize on what we’d done best,” Johnson said.

That also means an end to selling Kindle singles, which can’t be sold because the content is free elsewhere.

Matter also announced it will move permanently to the Medium publishing platform, eventually abandoning its old website. Medium, co-founded by Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, acquired Matter in April, though Matter declared its business model and editorial focus will stay independent from Medium.

New experiments

In another change, Matter readers can now enjoy “substantial pieces weekly,” Johnson said.

Matter’s hope is that publishing weekly will help keep traffic consistent — Giles said most of Matter’s traffic came in the first three days after publishing a story — and help make the site habit-forming for readers.

Giles and Johnson are now trying a membership program involving reader donations, similar to how NPR affiliates generate revenue.

Looking back at Matter’s experiments so far, Giles said he’s been surprised by Matter’s difficulty finding content.

“I’ve talked to a lot of writers who say, ‘Oh yeah yeah, I heard about you,’ ” he recalled. “Well, we’re here and we have money — pitch us. I can pay you to do the work you want to do. I thought you’d be coming to me.” Read more


Style guide aims to make it easier to cover stories like Plan B

When news broke that the Obama administration had abandoned its effort to maintain age restrictions on a form of emergency contraception called Plan B, Monte Morin described the medication using dispassionate and clear language:

Plan B One-Step, like the related two-pill Plan B, uses the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel to prevent pregnancy by blocking ovulation and impeding the mobility of sperm. Neither Plan B nor Plan B One-Step causes an abortion, nor does either harm a fetus.

Emotions run high around any news involving contraception or abortion, and news organizations do themselves and their audiences a real service when they deliver news in a fashion that allows readers to focus on the content of their stories rather than on how they’re presented.

That’s one reason why the Women’s Media Center’s newish “Media Guide to Covering Reproductive Issues” by Sarah Erdreich is an interesting read for anyone covering stories like Plan B. In its introduction, the guide says its professed goal is to “give reporters and media outlets factual, historic, legal, medical, polling and policy sources.” Read more

magnifying glass and puzzle

How digital platforms are changing the way science reporters find & tell stories

NASA’s many social media products point to an uncomfortable new reality for reporters: the space agency doesn’t really need them to break news.

“We have an obligation to authentically share NASA on social media,” Jason Townsend, deputy social media manager for NASA, said in an email interview. “When we have news — a big discovery or mission activities — we will be covering it on social media. We know that many reporters follow us and get their information directly from social media instead of waiting for it to show up on the wire.”

NASA now has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Flickr, through which the agency can tell followers about the latest discovery, or share interesting content in general. It’s its own media outlet.

A Soyuz rocket with Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Karen Nyberg of NASA lifts off from Kazakhstan on May 29, 2013. (Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

That approach reflects a larger reality in science journalism: There aren’t nearly as many science reporters as there were years ago.

“One of the really big issues in science writing at the moment is the decline in science sections or the decline in resources devoted to us in the conventional media,” Ron Winslow, president of the National Association of Science Writers, and health and medical science reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, said in a phone interview. “The explosion of knowledge in science right now is amazing. … The idea that we don’t really devote enough journalistic resources in translating this to consumers is a real dilemma for us.”

Winslow explained why he thinks the decline is occurring.

“It is a big challenge to translate what to most people is a foreign language into understandable English… Personally, I think that editors and news organizations generally underestimate the interest and ability of readers to handle and be interested in science topics,” he said.

There are other issues facing science reporting beyond fewer column inches and writers, however. Winslow said access to government agencies can be hard to obtain beyond talking with a communications or public relations official. For example, speaking with someone who runs social media at NASA may be easier in the digital age, but it may still be difficult to talk with a scientist or someone actively involved in research.

“There’s always tension in that arena,” he said.

Dennis Overbye, a “cosmic affairs correspondent” with The New York Times, told me that another issue with science reporting is that stories can be overhyped.

“There are a lot of ‘holy grails’ and ‘missing links’ that you read about that aren’t holy grails and aren’t missing links,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s hard to be balanced and discriminating and still convey some excitement to the reader.”

Overbye said some of the hype comes from government agencies trying to “stay alive and promote their programs. … Some of the stuff you get from them is over the top and you have to dial it back.” However, now that those agencies have social media accounts, reporters don’t have power as gatekeepers to decide whether or not something is newsworthy, as they did in the past.

“We now take questions from social media during news conferences and often invite social media followers to sit in and participate with journalists during NASA news events. What was once reserved only for news media, such as participating at the press site during a rocket launch, is now open to members of the public who are actively engaged on social media,” John Yembrick, social media manager at NASA, said in an email interview. “This allows us to connect with non-traditional audiences to tell NASA’s story for us from their perspective.”

NASA’s social media and Internet presence comes amid an increase in nontraditional news platforms, some of which have fostered science reporting. MATTER, an online publication that was recently bought by Medium, is an example of this.

“We felt there was a missing link in the broad scope of science and technology journalism,” Bobbie Johnson, a MATTER co-founder, said via email. “Stories about complex subjects — and science is nearly always a complex subject — require greater depth and rigour than most media outlets can really provide. … We thought there was a new shape for digital publishing that could be explored; the same kind of shape that was already being shown by The Atavist and others.”

I asked Winslow about his thoughts on sites and blogs like MATTER that are wholly devoted to science reporting.

“There’s a lot of… really good and really interesting stuff in the blogosphere,” Winslow said. “A question for me is, how many of those writers are reaching a broader audience — or are they just reaching an insular audience?”

Johnson spoke to MATTER’s audience.

“If I had to characterise our readers, I’d say they’re super-smart, voracious consumers of ideas who crave a little bit more than they kind find elsewhere. Many of them work as professional scientists, researchers, technologists, engineers, programmers — but not all.”

Johnson said working with Medium gives them access to a new audience, and that the publication is giving them the opportunity to move forward with existing plans.

“These will allow us to broaden our coverage and try more innovative, experimental approaches to the work we do,” he said.

Moving forward, science reporting’s presence in the blogosphere is indicative of its success as shareable content.

“Science stories and medical stories we write are frequently among the most emailed stories of the day,” Winslow said of his experience as a reporter. If online content is targeted toward audience interests and increased shareability, science reporting may be saved.

And at least as far as NASA is concerned, social media platforms are a new way of spreading science news and engaging followers.

“While we can always wow our audience with a pretty picture of the universe from the Hubble Space Telescope or any number of other science missions,” Townsend said, “we can also use that picture to showcase and talk about the science behind the image.”

Related: The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them) | Angier: Newspaper Science Reporting Is ‘Basically Going out of Existence’ Read more

American astronaut Sunita Williams speaks with students at the National Science Center in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them)

Yes, math is tough, and so are physics, chemistry, biology and mechanical engineering. But even reporters who get queasy about science can’t always ignore it, particularly when reporting on economics, the environment, or medicine. While science writing is a specialty, general assignment reporters need only follow some simple guidelines to avoid mistakes.

1. Don’t sap the very life out of the story.
The world of science is filled with researchers working on particles a fraction the size of an atom and studying cosmic distances that are incomprehensible to the average person. And barely a day goes by when a researcher doesn’t come up with insights or a discovery once thought to be impossible. It’s a world filled with wonder and awe. Don’t get bogged down in numbers and minutiae. Find the passion and excitement of the story — then share them.

American astronaut Sunita Williams speaks with students at the National Science Center in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

2. Don’t leave out the science.
Some ongoing stories have significant science components. Two examples come immediately to mind: hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) and global warming. It’s not enough to write that the majority of scientists agree that the earth’s temperatures are increasing and that human activity is to blame. By mentioning how scientists take their readings and what they’re specifically finding, the public will acquire a deeper respect for the actual work involved and be in a better position to appreciate your stories. It may not be practical to include the science in every update, but consider doing so periodically. Read more


New longform science journalism site ‘Matter’ launches today

Matter, a site that publishes longform stories about science and technology, launched today. The site, which will publish one story per month, is open to people who sign up as members. For 99 cents, they’ll get access to monthly stories, along with ebook and audiobook versions of the story.

Members are also invited to online question and answer sessions with the site’s editors and writers to find out more about the reporting that went into each story.

The site launched with a story about Body Integrity Identity Disorder, which affects people who want to remove some part of their bodies — often a limb or two. Anil Ananthaswamy profiled a man who has the disease and accompanied him when he got his leg amputated in Asia. The 7,700-word story explains a complicated disorder through the eyes of someone who suffers from it.

“This story was put together by great people who worked hard and went the extra mile to do a level of reporting you don’t find in too many places,” Matter Co-Founder Bobbie Johnson said via email.

But will people be willing to pay for it? Read more


NPR’s new global health beat blends social media, traditional reporting

As news organizations experiment more with social networking sites, many are realizing that social media has to be an integral part of how we gather news, tell stories and develop beats.

NPR’s new global health and development beat is a good example of a hybrid approach to storytelling, one that places just as much emphasis on social media as it does on shoe-leather reporting.

NPR has hired an associate producer, Michaeleen Doucleff, who will work with reporter Jason Beaubien to build an audience for the beat through social media and multimedia. The beat, which is part of NPR’s Science Desk, is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

A new & better way to tell global health stories

Joe Neel, deputy senior supervising editor and a correspondent on the Science Desk, said the global health and development beat is helping NPR’s science team reshape the way it approaches stories.

“We have covered global health and development issues over the years, but we were really looking for a way to tell stories in a different way,” he said by phone. “A lot of media organizations have shed their global health reporters and reduced the amount of time they’re spending on it, and there was some feeling that the reporting had become formulaic. We looked at what we were doing and said, ‘Let’s find a new way.’”

Jason Beaubien

The beat is designed for Beaubien to travel abroad and talk face-to-face with people who are affected by diseases such as AIDS and polio. The goal, Beaubien said by phone, is to put a human face on global health issues. A month into the job, he’s already traveled to Botswana, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa for a series on AIDS.

“If we need to get somewhere, we’re going to get there and see how an issue is affecting people in distant parts of the world. I think that is going to make these stories that much more powerful,” said Beaubien, who was formerly NPR’s Mexico City correspondent. (Carrie Kahn, who previously reported for NPR West, is taking his former spot.)

Beaubien, who was previously an NPR foreign correspondent, admits: “I really have no background in science, so this is pushing me in a lot of different ways.” His editor, Neel,  thinks that’s a good thing. “I really wanted to bring in a fresh set of eyes who could see things that we may not otherwise see from a science perspective,” he said.

Global health and development is a complex beat that involves health, science and international coverage. And it’s a beat that you don’t find in many newsrooms, which have cut back on science and international coverage in recent years. New York Times science writer Natalie Angier told Poynter a few years ago that the science beat was “basically going out of existence.”

In a July 2009 Pew study, 76 percent of scientists surveyed said news reports fail to make distinctions between research results that are well-founded and those that aren’t. About half of those surveyed said the media oversimplify scientific issues. There’s a need, then, for coverage that makes these issues easy to understand without dumbing them down.

Use multimedia & social media to generate interest

Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news at NPR, said multimedia projects will be a key part of helping readers understand global health issues.

“We’re pretty selective in how and where we choose to do in-depth multimedia work, in part because just doing radio and digital is enough of a multimedia channel. But there are a handful of areas that have been home-runs in multimedia — investigative, music and science,” Stencel said by phone. “Science is definitely one of the places where we’ve been investing in multimedia.”

Michaeleen Doucleff

Part of Doucleff’s role as an associate producer is to create multimedia projects for the beat. She’s already created some, including a slideshow on how HIV attacks the immune system. She’s also written blog posts about topics such as vampire bat bites, condoms and fake poop. (Yes, you read that right.) She’s currently designing a Web page where all of the global health tweets, stories and comments will be archived.

Additionally, Doucleff runs the Twitter account @nprGlobalHealth and uses it to generate interest in Beaubien’s stories and other stories on the beat. She’s also planning to use Storify, Tumblr and other social networking sites to tell stories.

“I am really looking forward to seeing how well Twitter works, not only as a source of interesting stories and people, but also as a tool for integrating NPR into the thriving global health community there,” said Doucleff, who previously worked at the science journal Cell. “We want to be a voice in the discussion there, as well as a sounding board.”

Unlike Beaubien, Doucleff has a strong science background; she earned her master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy and has a doctorate in biophysics. Like Beaubien, she’s a good storyteller and understands how social media enhances storytelling.

“I think my favorite part [of the job], which also seems like one of the hardest, is engaging people in an important topic that they traditionally don’t want to pay attention to,” Doucleff said via email. “Some of the global health issues can be hard to swallow, but I want to use the power of social media and new media formats to get people’s attention and to get them interested.”

Social media, Stencel said, is helping to inform both the global health beat team and its audience. And it’s enabling NPR to have a global presence.

“Nothing quite beats being on the ground. But no news organization can be everywhere. Social media multiplies our capacity by allowing us to listen in on and participate in active discussions around the world, many of which will inform where we go and what we do when we get there,” Stencel said.

“At the same time, these globe-spanning discussions are important in and of themselves. Activists, researchers, front-line health workers and public health officials in hot spots around the world are sharing information — communicating and convening continuously in a way that in the past might have happened more slowly, if at all. If those same people gathered for, say, a global health summit, we’d want to be there. Following those conversations in social media IS being there.” Read more


Science writers: Jonah Lehrer’s scientific errors worse than fabricated quotes

Discover Magazine | Psychology Today | Huffington Post | Meetings & Conventions

Jonah Lehrer’s fake Bob Dylan quotations detract from a more serious problem flagged by scientists while he was a rising star: his habit of misstating and mischaracterizing scientific facts. The problem, according to science writers, is that Lehrer isn’t a scientist, nor are his editors or readers.

A Discover Magazine commenter says he spotted an error in a 2010 New Yorker article by Lehrer, but “no amount of emailing or writing” The New Yorker would correct it. Read more


What do we mean by ‘longform journalism’ & how can we get it ‘to go’?

A Kickstarter project run by two journalists raised $50,000 in just 38 hours last week and has raised a total of $87,297 so far. The goal of the project, called “Matter,” is to “publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science. That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story.”

The project raises interesting questions about what constitutes longform journalism. We know that technology has renewed attention to longform journalism in recent years. But it’s also changed how we think about it.

Do we define longform by the quality of the writing? By the amount of time it took to write? By the research it entailed? Or do we define it by length? The longform journalism site Longreads, for instance, asks people to “post their favorite stories over 1,500 words.”

These conceptual differences matter, says New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier. When I asked her about the “Matter” Kickstarter project, Angier said she’s been wondering what people mean when they say “longform” journalism. She tends to equate it less with length and more with depth of reporting.

“Even as the editors have cut back on the column inches they’ll allot to my work (or anybody else’s), I continue to treat every piece I write as though it were an in-depth feature,” Angier said. “I can’t imagine writing about science any other way.”

A writer or site that continuously produces quality content drives people come back. But given how fast news comes at us these days, and how many choices we have on the Web, quality longform stories can easily get lost.

Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads and editorial adviser of Read it Later, says that when it comes to content on the Web, “it feels like we’re living in a Hot Dog-Shooting Terrordome.”

In a story published earlier today, Armstrong said publishers are faced with a “seemingly unsolveable problem” — how to embrace the increasing demands for content without losing sight of their commitment to quality.

“But there’s a bigger challenge for the media business,” Armstrong wrote. “How can we change the ecosystem and evolve to a model that puts renewed attention on quality over quantity?”

Crowdfunded projects like “Matter” are one possible solution. But beyond that, Armstrong says, news sites need to find more ways to make content portable.

“Let people take content with them, and they will soon value it more highly than if it is shot at them,” Armstrong said. “Content creators will be rewarded with a longer social lifespan for the stories and videos they work so hard to create. And that ultimately lifts the value of a media brand.”

It seems, then, that the definition of longform can’t be limited to length or even quality. Increasingly, longform stories need to have staying power, and we need more tools to give them a greater lifespan. In keeping with the hot dog analogy, we need more “take-out” bags for content, Armstrong said.

Read it Later, which has more than 4 million users, enables people to save stories from their computer, smart phone or iPad, and makes them available for offline use. Read it Later data shows that, on average, users keep a video or article in their queue for 96 hours before marking it viewed. As this study shows, that’s a pretty long time compared to the life span of stories shared on Twitter.

The more we can give readers tools to control how and when they engage with content, the easier it will be for them to read content that may require more careful attention — either because it’s long, in-depth, or both.

Readers have a hunger for visionary thinkers and big ideas, Angier said. Whether or not people will pay for this content is a little less clear.

“People want substance, and insight, and optimism with a forebrain, and again where can you turn for any of that but to science? But will people pay to read long, provocative, beautifully crafted science stories? And will ‘Matter’ pay writers a living wage to meet that desire? Consider me a hopeful skeptic.” Read more