Four strategies for covering science at your student publication

Science reporting should make sense and add context. These tips will help you get started. 

July 29, 2020

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As COVID-19 wreaks havoc and climate change speeds up, the internet is overflowing with misinformation and people are looking for answers. Student publication science coverage can provide those answers, but developing a science section or beat is easier said than done.

Science reporting has to be understandable to the public and make sense within the context of your newspaper. To develop some strategies to help you start a science section, I interviewed science editors at The Yale Daily News, The Daily Bruin, and The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, and learned from the example of Anil Oza and Emma Rosenbaum, the science editors at The Cornell Daily Sun.

Train science writers

Don’t just look in science departments to find writers. Students who do not major in science can make great science writers, according to Trisha Parayil, co-editor of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter science and technology section.

“When you don’t have a science background, it can be an advantage in being able to write about science in a way that the public will understand,” Parayil said.

No matter the background of your writers, they need training. In addition to standard training, science writers also need to know how to understand and cover complex research.

Shruti Iyer, science and health editor of The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, said a key part of science journalism is finding sources who can provide insight into how the research was conducted, challenges that occurred along the way and why the research ultimately matters.

“Don’t become an advertisement for the research. Always try sourcing not just the leads and the titled guys, but also get sources from their students who did the odd jobs,” Iyer said in an email. “You could get sources outside the research party as well.”

Another way to expand your writers’ skills is to encourage writing for multiple sections. I write for news and science sections of The Cornell Daily Sun. Writing news coverage helps me understand the community I communicate science to, improving my science coverage.

To help ease writers into the work of science journalism, also consider pairing a new writer with a more experienced writer.

Make science journalism accessible to the public

In order to make science accessible, you need to translate polysyllabic vocabulary words and research for the public. Metaphors and imagery are useful for making abstract concepts concrete, and so is clear language.

“Replace jargon with easier words, or in case replacing compromises the accuracy, define the word in simple terms and have an anecdote from the source explaining what it is,” Iyer wrote.

When you clarify research, make sure you don’t present conclusions as more certain than they are.

“One of the challenges people who write about science face is not only jargon but also communicating uncertainty,” said Bayleigh Murray, co-editor for The Johns Hopkins News-Letter science and technology section.

I recently co-authored an article with my colleague Anil Oza examining the strengths and weaknesses of the model used to justify Cornell’s reopening plan. We made uncertainty the story, rather than force a conclusive answer from the data. I recommend you try the same strategy.

Develop protocol for areas of overlap with other sections

Some newspapers, including The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, handle areas of overlap by defining what angles belong to each desk. For the News-Letter, student life is covered by the news desk, while the science desk reports on research. Other newspapers, including The Yale Daily News, have writers from multiple desks co-write articles when beats overlap.

“If an article or topic exists at the intersection of two desks’ coverage areas, they may collaborate,” said Kate Pundyk, science and technology co-editor for The Yale Daily News.

At The Cornell Daily Sun, assistant managing editor Meghna Maharishi started a COVID-19 Slack channel, which we use to coordinate coverage across sections. This Slack channel helps us create not only accurate stories, but also a complete narrative for our readers, covering the many relevant story angles on life in a pandemic. Whatever strategy your newspaper chooses, communication between sections is key.

Understand the context of the science you cover

Race, gender, class, disability and immigration are as relevant to science as they are to any field. Sometimes scientists create research that can help readers understand disparities, and at other times research reinforces inequities. Help keep researchers accountable for the effects of their work by reaching out to communities impacted by studies.

Reporting influences whom your readers think of when they hear the word scientist, doctor or engineer. Do your best to interview underrepresented groups.

“Make sure you have sources that represent diverse communities,” said Pundyk. “Science can be really male and really white, especially at the principal investigator level, so try to interview minority and women sources when you can.”

I have reported on issues including environmental racism, health disparities and inaccessible technology. I recommend doing background research, reaching out to people who understand these issues more than you do and being open to feedback. Your words have an impact on the communities you cover.

Science reporting resources

To learn more about how to cover every aspect of climate change, check out the Columbia Journalism Review’s Covering Climate Now section. The Dart Center has great resources to help you cover many difficult topics, including mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic. When reporting on social issues, consult these style guides compiled by The Open Notebook. The Open Notebook is a great general resource for science reporters.

Tamara Kamis is a student journalist focused on health and the environment. She is a rising junior and biology and society major at Cornell University with a minor in science communication and public engagement. She writes for The Cornell Daily Sun, Study Breaks Magazine and The Borgen Project.

One story worth reading

Student editors: Consider formalizing guidelines for reporting during a pandemic, if you haven’t already. This document compiled from Poynter’s Teachapalooza training is designed for journalism educators, but it’s also a great baseline for student newsroom leaders. It also includes practical tips for reporting on protests and marches, especially relevant as some student journalists have faced violence from police while covering activism this summer.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Most recent newsletter: Freelancing is intimidating — here’s how to get started

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com or on Twitter @blatchfordtr.

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