Offbeat Science Stories

Find out what happened at the Off-beat Science Stories session of the UK Conference of Science Journalists. The panelists were Mark Henderson, Andrew Jack and Lisa Jardine

Session Video

Session Audio

Download the session recording here

Session Reviews

Catie Lichten and Daniel Sharpe, both UKCSJ student scholars, review the Off-beat science stories session. Catie's review is here and Daniel's review is here.

Storify by Heather Doran

Liveblogged by Sarah Collins

Covering science off the normal beat and away from the labs may seem a bit daunting at first, but Mark Henderson, Andrew Jack, and Lisa Jardine are giving their advice to find offbeat stories at UK Conference of Science Journalists.

Mark Henderson explains how to use politics to find science stories. There are various different ways to do this, he explains.

Looking at consultations can reveal very clear issues. Governments can go against what the whole of the scientific community is saying, for example the banning of human and animal merged embryos. Also science journalists can look at select committees for ideas of what is going to come out of enquiries. He says: “A powerful part of our beat to make sure the government is using science as it should.”

Andrew Jack discusses how to cover the interaction between business and science. He says: “What’s most important in science journalism is application.”

He talks about embargoes and how they are one area that science journalists have an advantage.

But this can create a “culture of containment,” he thinks it “limits the broader focus.”

This type of reporting is press release driven, which he says can be overhyped. The most interesting science goes beyond publication, beyond the peer-reviewed journals.

One example of this, and something he is particularly interested in, is drug resistance. He gives the example of TB, and how it is “an entirely human related problem.” There are various different factors, which science journalists can look into – such as the over-prescriptions of antibiotics, people not following the full treatment of drugs and giving too many to animals.

By focusing on research papers, sometimes journalists do miss the story says Lisa Jardine. She talks about the recovery of a manuscript by Robert Hooke. The manuscript was going to auction and The Royal Society wanted to acquire it. She sent out press releases and tried to pitch it to journalists, she says. No science editors picked up the story, James Naughtie of the Today Show was the only person who covered it. She believes that journalists missed a story because they believed that she had something to gain from it.

She also talks about IVF – most of the stories are celebrity based or sob story based. But none of the stories cover the facts. Stories that look at the science behind IVF, research stories – what is the embryo exposed to in vitro? These stories are seen as more boring than stories of Katie Price having IVF treatment.

Sometimes balance can be damaging she says, fairness is very important says Mark, but balance is something very different that can lead to unfairness. The moral critics are explicit about their view. “That’s an important voice to have represented,” he says.
But the problem is when people who have arrived at a decision for moral reasons, try to frame their argument in scientific terms.

The offbeat stories can make very interesting stories, and there is a need for science journalists to behave like war reporters and find the story themselves, instead of constantly working from desks.

Live Blogged by Joseph Faulkner

My second talk of the day was “Essential Skills: Offbeat Science Stories”, a discussion surrounding the difficulty of getting science stories into the mainstream media.

Mark Henderson, author of “The Geek Manifesto” and former science editor of The Times, is first up, talking about science and politics. Mark starts us off with the fact that of 650 MPs, 158 have a business background, 90 are ‘trained in politics’, 86 are lawyers, 38 are from the media and there is one lonely scientist. It leads to massive mismanagement in scientific issues, especially the ones that aren’t directly related to science.

Mark brings up the immigration cap, in this policy the coalition had absolutely no intention of affecting science but to one who had been experienced in science and scientific research it would have been obvious that it would. Mark’s solution was to run stories on it, he rallied scientists on his side and brought up some unbelievable stories such as how a Cambridge faculty had to advertise for an expert in the local job centre before it could look overseas. Mark decided that this was a winnable campaign and so he pursued it.

Andrew Jack, the pharmaceutical correspondent for the FT is next. He claims that the title is wrong, what one would normally define as an offbeat story, for example a small advance in a particular field, is what science journalism should really be about. Science is most important when it affects us in our daily lives, so while someone chasing a big headline would scoff at the advancement in making self-administering prescribed drugs easier, this is what people really need to hear about. The dangers of big headlines for miracle cures that eventually aren’t used is that our daily advances are ignored when they do become more interesting.

Lisa Jardine, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, comes “as a specimen, not a science journalist”, with an experience of an ignored story. In 2006, 660 pages of Robert Hooke’s missing minutes for the Royal Society was ‘found’ by an antiques dealer and naturally, the Royal Society wanted them back. What was required was a public campaign of fundraising to return it. Naturally Lisa went to the science journalists and tried to get this into the news – no luck, it wasn’t big enough, it was too old, most people don’t know who Hooke was – the breakthrough only came through a friend who was able to ‘have a word’ with one of the producers of the breakfast show. The campaign raised £500,000 with no help from traditional science journalists, symptomatic of what the problem is – big headlines are the bread and butter of journalism.

“…it’s a boring story in comparison to Katie Price’s interest in IVF”, Lisa rounds off the points of the talk while answering a question from the audience. Although many are interested in popular science, the reality of research and what really is important in science can unfortunately be ignored. Twitter is scattered with people quoting “we need more scientists reporting politics”, maybe everybody does want to rule the world?