Narrative in Science Journalism

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.


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.


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.


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.

Reproducibility in Science

Science is in crisis, they say. Negative results don't get published, while gibberish occasionally does; shaky studies are under-powered and over-reported; peer reviewers miss obvious mistakes and accept results that agree with their biases, regardless of merit; field-defining results cannot be replicated.

The current culture of 'publish or perish' doesn't help matters. A scientist's worth is judged based on how many papers they publish, how many times those papers are cited, and how much money they pull in.

Scientists, science journalists and others are beginning, however, to rage against the machine. Post-publication peer review allows many more eyes the chance to dismantle papers after the fact. Pre-registration of studies and pre-data peer review may help to shift the focus away from novel results as a marker of quality.

Science is meant to correct and regulate itself and perhaps this is just what it's doing, albeit very publicly. The final plenary of UKCSJ 2014 looked at the role science journalism can play in this process and how we fit in to the movement to improve the practice of science.

"The system is being gamed," according to Chris Chambers, a cognitive neuroscientist and science writer who is actively involved in the movement to fix science. He spoke with passion and erudition about what's wrong and what we can do.

For starters, we must stop valuing science by its results. A high-quality study is not necessarily an interesting one. That, then, poses a conundrum for science journalists, whose job is to get people excited about interesting things (in an even-handed and sceptical manner, of course).

Sharing data should be mandatory. Journals should publish replications, especially those of a novel study they originally published – what Chambers referred to as the 'Pottery Barn rule' of "you break it, you buy it." Finally, he called for more investigative science journalism, arguing that no system is truly capable of regulating itself.

Next to speak was Ivan Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today, who, by this point, was on his third panel appearance of the day. Oransky's challenge to us was: are we comfortable being wrong? Are we really "shocked, shocked" to find a lack of replication going on in science?

During his talk, the sounds of dragging tables rumbled and screeched in the room below us – possibly a loose metaphor for the painful changes the scientific community is undergoing.

In closing, Oransky advised us to be cautious, suggesting we favour a slower form of journalism. He said the “smartest take” on a topic - rather than instant, uncritical news coverage - tends, in the long run, to do best in terms of viewing metrics.

In an ideal world, I would fully agree.

Finally, Deborah Cohen, whose job is to scrutinise medical studies, asked us to ask scientists why they are researching a particular topic right now. Why ask this question? Why, in some cases, are other questions not being asked?

At points, I got the feeling Cohen wanted to say far more than she allowed herself to do. Speaking coyly about research on diabetes drugs and pancreatic cancer, she remarked: “You can see a problem or not see a problem, depending on how you dissect.” Perhaps this also pertains to the issues facing science journalism, and science.

Ensuring, say, pre-study registration gains widespread acceptance relies on other aspects of science aligning at the same time. As Chambers mentioned, moving the focus away from novel results would be a start, but novelty is what currently gets published, and publications lead to grant money and job security.

Altering such an entrenched, lumbering, almost fossilised system will be hard. It's comforting to know that passionate, experienced obsessives like the members of this panel are trying to shift the culture of science for the better.

Matthew Gwynfryn Thomas can be found at

Has Gender Equality In Science Journalism Taken a Step Back in the 21st Century?

The opening plenary session at the UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 was on the hot topic of sexism in science journalism and, while progress is clearly being made towards gender equality, the panel highlighted a number of factors that have negatively impacted women working in science journalism, particularly in recent years.

It would be easy to argue that the outlook for female science journalists has improved dramatically and there are verifiable facts to back this up. There are higher numbers of women working in science journalism than ever before, more and more publications are employing positive discrimination policies, and the pay gap is shrinking at last.

However, there have been three major shifts in journalistic culture in the last few decades that have specifically had a negative effect on the careers of female journalists, including those working in science and technology.

Joan Haran, freelance researcher, first brought up the fact that the economic downturn took its toll hardest on female journalists as senior women, already vastly outnumbered, were very much “first out the door” when cuts had to be made. This phenomenon didn’t just occur at the top of the ladder; the recession had a huge impact on women throughout science journalism, including freelancers.

Online journalism has also created a host of new problems for women working in science journalism as having higher profiles leaves them more open to abuse and threats. Many online publications employ non-moderated and unfiltered comment sections and at the panel, Michelle Stanistreet, general Secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who was reporting on the results of the NUJ’s survey of sexism in journalism, made the point that many journalists are heavily pressured to engage positively with these comments, despite the fact that a huge number contain aggressive misogyny and threats of violence that would never have been published in an editor’s letters page in the past.

This culture is discouraging women from entering or continuing to work in the science journalism field and can have devastating effects.

Another trend that was seen in the NUJ’s survey was exploitation of interns. There are a higher percentage of female interns than there are employed female journalists and the internship positions are generally unpaid and highly competitive. This leaves interns in vulnerable positions as they are in a far less secure position to speak out if abuse is occurring and are keen to impress and progress their careers. Michelle Stanistreet described how damaging these situations can become if they aren’t discussed and noting that, in some cases, “the journalistic equivalent of the casting couch is still alive and kicking in the 21st century”.

While it is vital to identify problems and speak out, it is also important to try to propose solutions and possible methods to improve the working environments of female science journalists. Priya Shetty, founder of SexismInScience, explained that science journalism needs an “internal recalibration” with concrete policies and procedures in place, rather than just good intentions of a respectful working environment.

It was mentioned several times by the panel that men working in science journalism are quick to defend themselves and their close colleagues and to make the point that “not all men” are abusers.

However, it is far more important to realise that while the perpetrators of sexism are in the minority, women who have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis are in the majority. Priya Shetty described the “culture of open secrets” that prevents people from speaking out and naming known harassers. It was in firm agreement that known harassers need to face harsher consequences for their actions, regardless of their status within the journalism community. This was concisely summed up by Priya Shetty: “If you don’t want to tarnish your career, don’t harass people”.

While gender equality is clearly still very much a “work in progress” within science journalism, the panel showed that there are people and organisations taking steps to address this and offered both practical solutions and personal reassurance.

Statistics in Science Journalism

Humans are not naturally statistical thinkers. Although we bumble through life in a probabilistic universe, a lot of our decisions are informed by our own biases, our peers and what we’ve done in the past. Time and again, researchers have demonstrated the human inability to behave rationally or weigh up risks accurately.

Science journalists are people too, and we struggle with statistics as much as anyone. But, unfortunately, we cannot escape having to grapple with the subject. Part of our job – perhaps our duty – is to understand, engage with and translate these tricky, abstract concepts.

The Statistics in Science Journalism session at UKCSJ 2014 was a head-on collision between passionate journalists and the confusing monstrosity that is statistics. Deborah Cohen, the BMJ's investigations editor, produced this session to help us understand how not to get things wrong.

Ivan Oransky, vice president of MedPage Today and co-founder of the excellent Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch blogs, led proceedings by taking us on a slide-by-slide journey through a realm of shoddy studies and equally shoddy reporting. With righteous vigour, like the George Costanza of statistics, Oransky demolished the failures in reporting. He showed us how the journalists in question could have written better, balanced coverage just by probing a little deeper, remaining sceptical and – what you think would be an obvious step – reading the study carefully.

“I think it’s journalistic malpractice to not have the full study in front of you when you’re reporting,” Oransky said. Academic articles can be awful beasts but we must not fear tackling them. There are resources out there to help us along. Jennifer Raff, for one, has written a wonderful guide to reading scientific papers.

Oransky advised us to ask "dumb questions" so we don't end up with notebooks full of jargon, and warning us that "if you don't ask the questions you think are dumb, you'll look dumb to your readers."

Throughout the session, we accumulated a long list of 'dos', don'ts' and caveats for reporting on studies. Oranksy promised his presentation would soon appear on SlideShare.

Of the many very important points raised, I want to touch on one: the difference between statistical significance and clinical significance. Just because a drug passes some statistical tests doesn’t mean it passes muster in the real world. We should be mindful of whether a treatment has an actual effect on people’s lives.

As journalists, we are not expected to be experts but we must make sure we ask the people who are experts in order to understand these difficult, wayward concepts. Oransky suggested we keep a biostatistician among our key contacts and treat them to lunch from time to time.

Cohen and Oransky covered a glut of topics, each worthy of their own session, if not their own conference. To name just a few: medicalisation and 'disease-mongering' (Oransky: "I challenge anyone in this room to not have social phobia"); clinical trial design; the cost of new treatments and why that information is so hard to find; the politics and personal biases of medical researchers; should journalists debunk or just ignore bad studies?

This session made it clear that science journalists must not be afraid to grapple with the jargon of statistics.

Statistics is hard and strange and requires constant vigilance to not muck things up. But, in a week where David Spiegelhalter was knighted for 'services to statistics', even the Queen thinks it's important.

Successful Freelancing

Becoming a freelance science writer is a scary step into a world of flexibility and insecurity. You are now the head of your own business and only you can control whether you succeed or fail. Fortunately UKCSJ brought together a panel of accomplished freelancers ready to impart the wisdom they have learned over their years of experience.

How to build contacts

The first step, explained Angela Saini, is to build up a bank of contacts. During her last year at the BBC she got to know the science team, as well as contacting magazines and journals that she hoped to write for as a freelancer. If you're entering a new field people might not trust you initially, so it's important to get your name out into the editorial consciousness.

Richard Vize, Guardian columnist and public policy expert, described himself as a relentless networker. He recommended getting to know three or four additional contacts at every institution you work with and helping them with problems to immerse yourself as a vital part of the team, rather than someone who works for them every now and again.

Thankfully for the more naturally introverted in the audience, global health writer Priya Shetty's advice was that you don't have to schmooze to build contacts. Start conversations with people whose work you are naturally interested in, whether face-to-face or using social media. This innate alignment means contacts will think of you when new opportunities arise.

Building your portfolio

The great thing about freelancing is the huge variety of subjects you can cover. You're free to be as generalist or specialist as you like, although Angela's advice was to build up your portfolio in a small niche initially, especially if you have a science background. By starting with minor publications, you can build up a collection of clippings to accompany your later pitches to big outlets.

Where should you go for stories? "Ditch the press releases," Angela urged. Spend your time meeting researchers, either at conferences or through university press offices.  Universities' PR teams will be keen to introduce journalists to scientists to raise their profile, so set up a meeting with researchers who haven't yet published to find interesting alternative stories.

Negotiating money

It's best for everyone involved to decide on your payment in advance. Talking about money shouldn't be embarrassing, said Priya, so don't be afraid to ask for more. Richard urged the group to keep their mouths shut until the client makes an offer. The most frustrating thing about freelancing, he said, is having your initial offer immediately accepted, as you know you've undersold your work!

Should you work for free when first starting out? Priya's opinion was that if you're getting exposure in a big outlet, like the BBC, then it's alright to do the occasional unpaid article, but be aware that free doesn't turn into a viable career and subconsciously you might produce work of a lower quality than you otherwise would have.

Angela was not happy about anyone working for free; you'll be undercutting everyone else trying to make a living and you're saying to editors that they don't need to pay for copy. The panellists all agreed that working for free is a difficult rut to get out of, but instead of producing unpaid content a new freelancer should focus on obtaining paid work.

Trust your gut

As a freelancer, you'll almost always come out worse if things go wrong. You might be overworked, underpaid or sometimes not paid at all. It's hard to know who to trust at first, said Priya, but do try and listen to your gut feeling. Some warning signs to look out for are an unclear brief, an unrealistic workload for the time or money, and poorly defined deadlines.

If you don't want to take on a task, don't do it. As a freelancer, the only power you have is to decide who to work with, when you work and what work you want to take. Exercise your right to choose.

A great job

Richard half-jokingly warned the audience that freelancing will make you virtually unemployable because you're so used to the creativity and flexibility of running your own business, but that's such a huge benefit of the job. It can be hard if work's quiet or things go wrong, but ultimately Richard believes going freelance is the best decision he's ever made.

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