I am obsessed with infographics. I love graphs. I’ve spent hours scrolling indepth analysis of hundreds of statistics and I am that person that fills up people’s inboxes by forwarding them all on.

Due to this previous fascination, I was extremely excited to be attending the panel on Data Journalism at the UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 and finally find out about the nuts and bolts of data journalism.

I was not disappointed. The session kicked off with Peter Aldhous video calling in from the United States and doing the important job of defining what data-driven journalism actually is.

It became clear that it goes a lot deeper than my previous conceptions of colour-coded maps and pretty graphics and really is the foundation for a huge amount of the investigative journalism being done today. A piece in the New York Times on injuries to racehorses and jockeys was held up as a strong piece of data journalism as almost every statement in the article was backed up by careful investigation and verifiable facts. In short, the piece would not exist without the data.

Once I had learnt what true data journalism was, it was time to find out how it’s done. John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times, explained the process behind creating his “maps” of the skills of all the World Cup teams, from initial idea, through finding the data, creating huge spreadsheets, selecting the relevant data, grouping the information and presenting it for consumption. This had the dual effect of making the final product seem even more impressive, yet also helping me to realise that data journalism projects are something that anyone with an internet connection, an idea and a lot of patience could attempt.

Further advice for starting out in data journalism was offered by BBC visual journalist, John Walton. The key message was to not get bogged down in the huge amount of software and data-analysis tools that are available today, but rather to choose a specific story that you want to tell and then figuring out which tools you’ll need in order to tell that story.

For an introductory topic, it was also recommended to make sure that it’s something with a fixed end point and that won’t need to be updated regularly, as data-driven journalism projects can be massively time consuming and it’s important to make sure that the story 'doesn’t run away from you'.

The take-away message from the panel was definitely to take the time to find the right balance between story and data.

"However sensational a story is, the headline must be based on absolute rigour and the methodology must stand up to scrutiny while remaining interesting and accessible," said John Burn-Murdoch and this sentiment was echoed in the particularly relevant Hans Rosling quote: "You have to be like the worst tabloid newspaper in the front and the Academy of Science in the back".

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning, but the atmosphere in the grand rooms of the Royal Society bears an icy tension. Three early-career science journalists are here to pitch their ideas to three 'dragons' who edit three very different publications: Helen Pearson (features editor for Nature); Ehsan Masood (Editor of Research Fortnight); and Hannah Devlin (science editor, of The Times). Timandra Harkness, broadcaster, writer and comedian, takes on the presenter role of Evan Davis as she introduces the first candidate to the Den.

Mathew Thomas begins his confident pitch with the fact that by 2020 one in three people worldwide will have imperfect vision. These changes seem too fast to be caused by genetics alone, so could they down to environmental factors such as staying indoors and 'close work' - focusing eyes on nearby objects? Mathew says the scientific community is uncertain whether nature or nurture are to blame and he details how he wants to explore this debate.

The Dragons agree this is a great story, but they are still uncertain whether to commission it. Hannah feels that the lack of a clear conclusion would put off Times readers, whilst Helen explains that a Nature feature would need to focus primarily on cutting-edge research.  Unfortunately, none of the Dragons want to commission Mathew’s piece, and he leaves the Den.

Next to enter the Den is Alex Dedman. Alex gives an extremely passionate pitch on her frustration that crisp packets nowadays seem to be all ‘grab bags’ – they are considerably bigger than in the past, but the manufacturers now claim each bag contains two smaller portions, not just one. She reveals that food manufacturers have committed to a Government policy to reducing portion sizes, but with tricks such as this one, these commitments may seem worthless. Alex wants to explore how this affects obesity in the UK.

Ehsan describes the proposed article as ‘a good opinion piece’, but it’s just not right for his publication. Hannah agrees it has potential, but it might be more suited to a publication that does a lot of ‘news features’ than to The Times. Helen’s view is more clear-cut: research is key for her. Obesity is a topic Nature looks at regularly, but there’s no new research here. Despite Alex’s obvious enthusiasm, none of the editors wish to commission the piece.  

Our final pitcher is Kate Szell. Kate introduces prosopagnosia – a condition in which people struggle to distinguish faces. It’s been ten years since the first research was published in this field, so she feels now is a good time to examine the condition in the wider media. Many people in the caring professions are unaware of the condition, even though it affects large numbers of people with developmental conditions and will have a major impact on their behavior and needs. Kate eloquently explains the repercussions of this and the effect this may have on funding and science policy in the future.

The Dragons pause to consider. This is certainly an intriguing and thought-provoking topic. Hannah has concerns that it may be too obscure for a daily newspaper, whilst Helen returns to the issue of the lack of new research. It won’t get commission by either of these Dragons, but what about Ehsan? Many of his readers have interests in science funding, and this may certainly appeal to them. He advises Kate to develop this angle of the story more before coming back to him – if she can do this he will definitely consider running it. 

After three pitches only one Dragon has considered commissioning a piece. The recurring theme for journalists seems to be to know who you’re pitching to: get a feel for what an editor is looking for and make sure you provide it.

Freelancing is something that most journalists will consider at some point. For those who take the plunge it can be a challenging and sometimes stressful occupation, but it pays its dividends in the form of being your own boss and deciding exactly what work to do and when. In the session entitled ‘Successful Freelancing', Priya Shetty, Angela Saini and Richard Vize revealed their advice on making a success of going freelance.

Priya started the discussion by providing five pieces of advice she wishes she had known when she started freelancing, which were reiterated by the other panelists throughout the session. Firstly, don’t get hung up on chasing high-profile contacts at conferences just because of their status: develop relationships with people you find interesting and can engage with.

Secondly, remember that as a freelance you are running a business: think of yourself in ‘business terms’ and do your best to develop your brand. Never be afraid to talk about money – be polite but firm when chasing unpaid invoices, and feel free to negotiate fees if you think your client is demanding too much for too low a price. Trust your gut instinct: if a job sounds too ambitious, unrealistic or is unhelpfully vague, stay well clear.

This lead on to Priya’s final, and arguably most important tip: learn to say no. You do not have to do every job that is offered to you, and being able to turn down work if necessary will give you the freedom to explore what you really want to do.

Richard commented that networking has been crucial for his freelance career. Freelancing can be a very solitary profession, so developing social as well as business contacts will help to keep you sane. Take every opportunity to meet new people and connect through social media; it’s essential to get out there and to make sure your insights and knowledge are up to date.

The panel also strongly recommended knowing several people in each department or organization you work for, because individuals change jobs and leave companies fairly regularly.

Cash flow was a big concern for many members of the audience. Angela sets herself a target income each month that she knows will cover her expenses. However, it is also important to build up reserves for a rainy day.

Similarly, remember to pay into a pension pot and pay National Insurance – Angela found that this enabled her to claim maternity benefits when she had her child. The panel also recommended having a couple of organisations you know will probably offer you work each month.

The issue of working for free prompted a lively and impassioned discussion between the panel and audience members.

Whilst the panelists agreed that unpaid science writing is good for raising your profile and making contacts, it was also pointed out that this undercuts those who earn their living by writing such pieces.

Priya suggested new writers instead start writing pieces in small, niche publications to build up their bank of clippings: the NUJ and www.glassdoor.com are good sources to consult when considering how much to charge for this. Writing for these smaller publications also acts as a steppingstone to writing for newspapers and more mainstream magazines. 

For a freelance journalist it is particularly important to consider their next step on the career ladder. For example, Angela has written a book, which has since lead on to speaking engagements. You must always think to the future – what are your goals? What do you want to be doing in twenty years time? As with any career, having a plan for your next few steps will make reaching your final goal much easier.

Despite challenges, many journalists forge extremely successful careers freelancing. It may take vast amounts of courage to step away from the security of a stable monthly salary, but as Robin Vince explained during the talk, freelancing is "one of the best things I’ve done with my career".

Having a strong online persona is about much more than just setting up a website with your best clips in the hope of landing another commission. When done properly, you can set yourself up as the go-to person in your niche or even earn money directly from your site.

The four panellists at UKCSJ's Entrepreneur session had some fantastic advice for writers wanting to develop their personal brand online, including choosing your niche, building a loyal following and finding your voice.

Subject matters

Finding your niche is vital for turning your science writing into a profitable business. If you're just spouting the same content as everyone else, nothing will distinguish you from the other more established writers out there. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, had some simple advice for science journalists looking to go it alone: "Find a niche and report the hell out of it!"

Don't be afraid of being pigeon-holed. National Geographic's creative director Jody Segrue said that in order to be successful you have to get obsessed with a subject that is uniquely yours. That means covering the topics you're passionate about, not the sexy fields that the rest of the science writing community is fighting over.

Get involved

We all know social media is a great tool for promoting your work but it doesn't stop there. Ivan encouraged the group to find people talking about your subject online, whether in forums or on social media, and let them know what you're interested in. You'll be inundated with new material on the subject before long, as well as building a following for your work.

Adam Smith, reporter for Research Fortnight, has put this advice into practice. He found a small group of people on Twitter passionately discussing science policy, the topic of his blog Purse String Theory. By building a relationship with this active community, his popularity quickly grew and in just seven months his blog was shortlisted for a BBC student journalist award, which led to him being offered a job as a reporter for Research Fortnight.

Develop your brand

Entrepreneurs think of themselves as a business, which means you'll need to develop your personal brand. Design a landing page for your website that sets the tone for your work, letting people know what to expect. National Geographic is a massive publication with a 125-year legacy, but Jody’s previous role there involved trying to define exactly what their online persona should be. The challenge, she said, is trying to figure out what you want to be versus what you're telling people you are. Don't try to please everyone; be consistent and you'll have a more loyal following in the end.

Finding your voice

It's important to develop your own voice in writing, a brand that is uniquely yours. There will always be someone working in a similar niche to you, but the trick is to find a different angle. Jim Giles found himself frustrated with science journalism because it lacked the narrative popular in other subject areas. He and a friend launched a very successful Kickstarter appeal to raise funding to launch Matter, an independent online publication specialising in long-form investigative journalism. The gap was there, the demand was there, and Jim's alternative format allowed him to build a popular subscription publication.

Think beyond the platform

Adam’s last piece of advice was to think beyond your platform. Would other types of media work for your format? Could you take your writing elsewhere, for example a blogging network or a magazine? Try out new and exciting projects and keep your brand growing in several directions at once.

It shames me slightly to admit that, prior to attending the session 'Making Science Spectacular Online', I had never really heard of the integrated multimedia approach to online reporting. I’d never thought to 'Snowfall' a blog post, never spent two minutes of my life watching a 15-second clip of a Serengeti lion eating a zebra on a loop, never been taught 'How to put a human on Mars' by the BBC. I knew nothing.

When we were introduced to The Serengeti Lion, an interactive feature developed by National Geographic, I was astonished.

Having spent a fair bit of time exploring the feature since the conference, I’d now go as far as to say I am astounded. I feel like I know the lions, like I’m a part of their pride. I’ve sat with them, huddled in a group as the rain matts their fur and tickles their ears; been a part of the desperate scrabble for a decent bite of warthog. Squealed with delight as the cubs playfully chased each other’s tails.

The Serengeti Lion has also been a great source of education. I may have a degree in zoology, but I had no idea that lions could physically dig prey out of the ground, out of their dens, if they were desperate enough. I also didn’t know that male lions form coalitions (rather more successfully than our government) in order to take over the control of prides.

Regardless of its triumph, for every point The Serengeti Lion won for the multimedia approach, another point was lost by other attempts. The strength of The Serengeti Lion lay in the fact that almost the entire narrative was told by the first-classvideos and the sound clips. The captions of text were a sideline, there to complement the rest. But what about when the text is communicating the narrative, with media “complementing” it?

The problems of integrating spectacular visual and audio media with traditional narrative were well summarised by Jim Giles, a journalist and co-founder of MATTER: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

Since the New York Times first released Snowfall, their flagship interactive report on the February 2012 avalanche at Tunnel Pass, there has been an enormous push for the use of multimedia in online reporting. Such a huge push, with so much enthusiasm behind it, that it can be argued that such platforms are being used without considering if it actually enhances the reader’s experience and the readers engagement, with the subject material.

As Giles explained, a narrative spends an enormous amount of time drawing a reader in, and for the visual effects to really work they have to help the reader get in even deeper, else they become disruptive and intrusive. When it comes down to it, the point of reporting, the thing the journalist should really care about, is the reader engaging with the stories they’re telling. So there’s no point in making a report look beautiful if it isn’t enhancing this experience.

So how can you make the decision? How do you know when to use this multimedia approach, and when to stay away? It can be a simple choice – for example this platform is unlikely to ever be suitable for rolling news stories, the process of production is just too slow.

But after that, it seems to be a matter of personal judgment. And in my opinion, that judgment should always ensure the narrative comes first, and the visual appeal comes second. After all, the right words don’t need visual appeal to be spectacular.

Capture, keep, content. This is writing narrative for science documentaries in a nutshell. But what is involved when you delve deeper into this little trio? In one of the last parallel sessions of the day, Narrative in Science Journalism, Paul Olding explained.

Capture

With hundreds of channels and hours of catch-up TV at a viewer’s disposal, grabbing an audience is harder than ever before. Key to this is an enticing pre-title, the bane of documentary makers the world over. That short period of time before the title sequence has to be big, bold and beautiful, it has to make the “clickers” - the viewers randomly searching the channels for something to watch - stay.

But at the same time as shouting loudly to grab attention, the pre-title can’t actually say anything at all; it just has to promise brilliance in the rest of the feature.

Keep

So the attention of the viewer has been piqued. But how do you keep them sat on their seats for the next 59 minutes? Or ideally, how do you get that audience to grow?

Keeping an audience engaged with a narrative within a television documentary is more difficult than with a narrative within books or magazines. TV can be on in the background; you can eat your dinner, peruse your Twitter feed and do the ironing, all whilst “watching”. In contrast, it’s much more difficult to multitask when reading a book – you have to give it your whole attention.

So how do you encourage people to really engage with your documentary? It’s important to give people what they like, but at the same time wow them with something new.

Then there’s the traditional three act structure, hated by some, loved by others, but arguably successful. The story is built up, and built up to a climax, and then there’s a sudden calm, which leaves the audience begging for more.

Content

Making the content of a science documentary suitable for anyone who may happen to tune in can be difficult. Although journalists from other sectors, such as finance, seem to get away with technical language on a daily basis, one sniff of photosynthesis and commissioners run a mile in the opposite direction.

So information has to be delivered in an accessible way, but without dumbing it down. In addition, the information also has to make it to the viewer in one shot – you can’t flick back the pages and re-read a sentence when you’re watching television. Although difficult, ways to achieve accessibility have been developed. Transmission of complex information is often more successful if you unpack it over time; build it up from the very basics and eventually get to the really complex stuff. By the time you’ve got there, the audience is fine; they know what’s going on because you’ve taken them with you. The narrative has carried them.

Olding was specifically discussing narrative in science documentaries, the session also covered narrative in other formats. Although the point wasn’t specifically raised, I think it can be argued that these three points can be applied to any kind of narrative in science journalism. The blurb of a book, the standfirst of a magazine article have the same function as the pre-title, Capture. A 100,000-word book, a longform report has to be compelling enough to keep the reader turning the pages. And the content has to be accessible, has to be enjoyable. It must take the reader somewhere and allow them to learn, and the story must be being told for a reason. So however you’re reporting science, remember, capture, keep, content.

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