September 7, 2022

Five years ago, as local newsrooms shrunk and specialty reporters became fewer, a nonpartisan, free service launched to help those who remained.

SciLine, based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, trains journalists and matches them with expert sources. Whether about climate change or COVID-19 or anything else, SciLine’s premise is that science strengthens stories.

I wrote about the organization in 2018, and with a free, upcoming virtual training, now felt like the right time to remind people of this resource. SciLine’s latest training takes place from 1 to 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Sept. 15 with Crash Course: Science Essentials for Local Reporters.

Before the pandemic, SciLine regularly hosted in-person workshops with about 30 reporters and several experts to go deep on topics including genomics and oil and gas development. Since the pandemic, the group has trained more journalists virtually and with a broader goal.

“What we realized is that it’s just as important teaching about science, teaching what science is and how science works,” said Rick Weiss, SciLine’s founder, director and previously a Washington Post science reporter.

“We can reach that local reporter in California on their lunch break and hopefully make a difference in their reporting process,” said Tori Fosheim, a neuroscientist and SciLine’s scientific outreach manager.

The trick, Weiss said, is understanding how to find scientists, how to talk with them and how to convey their findings “so you don’t overstate or understate results or fall for other classic pitfalls in science reporting.”

For instance, scientists aren’t working to prove something to be true, he said, but rather excluding alternative explanations. It’s work that’s about narrowing down.

“Science rules out certain presumptions about how the world works,” Weiss said, “and as it does that, it increasingly narrows what may be the truth.”

When journalists understand that process, and that the findings they’re reporting on can change, they can temper their work. That matters, Fosheim said, because for the majority of people, journalists are the conduit between them and science.

“They’re relying on reporters to translate that accurately and effectively, and we’ve seen how important the general population having a good understanding of science is,” she said. “I think it’s important for reporters to really be aware of that responsibility and really think about how to prevent that whiplash and how to bolster public faith in the institution of science, not just a specific scientific finding, but the process of science.”

SciLine also offers a free matchmaking service of sorts. The organization’s matching program has linked about 3,000 journalists and scientists in every state. SciLine even has a saying: “Somebody studies that.”

“You can name any topic in the world and there is somebody in this country who is studying it from a scientific point of view,” Weiss said.

For journalists looking for sources, even on deadline, SciLine works to match them with an expert who’s also a good communicator, Fosheim said. Then, SciLine gets out of the way.

With the crash course and the matching service, the goal is to help when science can help strengthen a story, Weiss said, “which in our view is almost always the case.”

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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