What do you need to help you cover stories about science? This nonprofit’s hitting the road to find out

Last year, a nonprofit launched with the mission of connecting journalists to scientific experts. Now, SciLine is getting ready for a road trip to visit local newsrooms and figure out what they need.

SciLine is hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science, and gets philanthropic funding from a number of organizations, including the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight helps fund my coverage of local news innovation.)

Director Rick Weiss, who spent 15 years covering science for The Washington Post, spoke with Poynter via email about what SciLine does, how it does it and what it hopes to learn on the road. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

How did SciLine begin?

The idea of creating something like SciLine has been floating around the science journalism community for more than a decade. But a sense of urgency grew in the past few years, as newsrooms shrunk and reduced their numbers of specialty reporters. That meant more and more stories about science, health, and the environment were getting handled by local, general assignment, or business reporters, many of whom don’t have strong science backgrounds or deep benches of experts they can turn to on deadline. On top of that there’s been this recent society-wide trend of false information being widely and rapidly propagated through social media, and more deadlines than ever per day, meaning too little time to fact check. When I learned that philanthropic money was ready to step up to the plate to support an effort to help all kinds of reporters bring more scientific evidence into their stories, and that the nonprofit and widely respected American Association for the Advancement of Science was game for hosting the effort, I jumped at the chance to make a go of it.

How does it work?

Our first and most prominent service is what we half-jokingly refer to as our matchmaking service. A reporter contacts us describing the story they’re working on and what kind of expert they need. We scan our large and ever-growing database of scientific experts whom we’ve recruited because they have technical expertise and are also articulate speakers and explainers of science. If we don’t yet have an appropriate match in our database, the SciLine staff goes into research overdrive and finds one or two. At that point we’re basically a multi-headed reporter on steroids. Either way, we contact the expert or experts, make sure they’re right for the question and are available within the reporter’s deadline. Then we provide their contact information to the reporter and get out of the way. It’s super gratifying to see in the vast majority of cases our experts getting quoted in the resulting stories, bringing solid evidence and scientific context to bear.

What else are you working on?

We’re starting to produce fact sheets on scientific topics in the news, designed to be especially easy to use by deadline-panicked reporters with their hair on fire. Extremely succinct, mostly bullet-pointed, and vetted by multiple experts before we post them so you know you won’t be running a correction tomorrow, with useful references for those who have time to dig deeper. We’re also soon going to start a series of virtual media briefings, Google hangout style, to get reporters up to speed on hot science, health, and environment topics. And we have plans to provide fast, on-the-record written comments by scientists and other experts on breaking news — which reporters can use directly in their stories or just read to help them be smarter as they frame their stories. I should add that it is a big SciLine goal to diversify the community of experts contributing to news coverage. There are so many smart and articulate experts out there, including women and people of color who are not in the circle of “usual suspects” who reporters, in a pinch, typically turn to. We want to change that landscape. So we encourage experts from groups underrepresented in science to get in touch and self-nominate for inclusion in our database of sources.

What are you looking for in the places that you'd like to visit?

To educate ourselves about the real day-to-day needs in local newsrooms and TV and radio studios and also to let reporters and producers know how we can help … We want to know things like how much do you care about national versus local science-related news — do you care about lead in drinking water generally or only if it’s a problem here? If it is a problem here, do you need a local expert or would you prefer someone with national credentials? How hard would it be to pipe in an expert from a distant studio? What difference does it make if there’s a major university or research center in town? Things like that. We’re just now picking the best cities to go to, using overlays of data from Nielsen ratings and research-funding maps and other indicators like whether the local newspaper recently laid off the last of its health staff, as the Oregonian reportedly just did. I know this is not like Amazon HQ2, where every city in the country is going to want us to come. But we’d love to hear from folks about what criteria we should include as we choose, and any suggestions about communities where we might have the most impact.

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