Longform science writing is flourishing, with a growing number of outlets that publish pieces at 3,000… 5,000… even 10,000 words. This session will look at the art of crafting long narratives, from the minutiae of structure, to tips and tricks for reporting.
Chair: Alok Jha, Science Correspondent, The Guardian
Panel: Helen Pearson, Chief Features Editor, Nature
Will Storr, Author and Journalist
Paul Olding, TV and Film, Director and Producer
Liveblog will appear below.
Ivan Oransky, Vice President and global editorial director of MedPage Today, who also writes of the blogs Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch is next to speak on reproducibility in science.
‘So you want to get it wrong?’. The catchy question gets Ivan Oransky’s section going, he feels it will challenge us to think about how often we are comfortable being wrong and a clip from Casablanca ‘I’m shocked, shocked!’ aptly illustrates this point. The problem of reproducibility has been around for a long time and the concept of fraud in science does conjure sense of shock and concern. It is human nature to not want to be wrong, science journalists themselves may be a ‘part of the problem’ as too much emphasis is placed on individual papers.
Ivan Oransky then exemplifies a case of lack of reproducibility with a New York Times, March 12, 1981 publications. This piece was based on a study linking coffee use to pancreatic cancer. A few months later, the credibility of the piece dissipated with the revelation of a fundamental experimental design flaw: the control group consisted of people hospitalised for non cancer in the GI tract, this invalidated the study as the individuals were not drinking coffee without cancer but due to alternative GI problems. Another publication, again by the New York Times 1998 claimed we were one year away from cured cancer based on results from mice studies. The article written by Gina Kolata was then discredited in 2013 by the same writer due to the species barrier.
A quizz then breaks up the informative section, in which it is stated that out of 5,000 compounds started out for the market only 5 make it to clinical (human trials), furthermore only 1 tends to make if to FDA approval. A graph then illustrates the great rise in retractions since 1977, the number increasing 10 fold between 2001-2010 disproportionate to the increase in number of papers published.
Ivan Oransky ends with a quote from Clint Eastwood ‘Do you feel lucky?’, before urging the journalists to think about reproducibility in daily work.
Keep critical, keep asking questions.
We’re not good at dealing with ‘I don’t know’. So as a journalist it’s important to go back to the researchers, ask why they’re researching it now? What has led to the question being asked. If it isn’t clear into the introduction, double check. Or even, why isn’t the question being asked? An ongoing question in diabetes research is why aren’t fairly simple questions being asked, or studies being done? Is there something there that we don’t know, or just don’t want to know? It’s cynical but there’s reasons to be critical.
There’s ways to get things onto the market, and key are animal studies, which are very very difficult, with so many problems. You’re looking for effects on animals, but you’re also looking at pathology. You can disect organs however you want, so you can see a problem, or you can not. So journalists have to ask the questions.
Investigations officer at the BMJ. There’s a lot to investigate in health sciences; they’re the gift that keeps on giving! Whole time is spent unpicking what’s potentially gone wrong.
Why might two groups of researchers come up with different outcomes?
Compare new publications with the old literature – with so much online availability of articles, there’s less excuses for missing out information from old studies, less excuse for not reproducing early studies.
Chris Chambers: Reproducibility is vastly important in science. In the long term it is the only marker we have for what is true.
The scientific method is being ‘gamed’. Very few papers are being replicated and studies are using small sample sizes. There are also problems with cherry picking results.
Can we fix this? Yes, stop judging the value of science by results. This can be achieved by reworking the peer-review publishing process, deciding what to publish before results are collected. This ‘pre-registering’ of papers can limit the gaming of the system. This is just one answer to the puzzle of reproducibility.
Secondly, more value must be placed on replication.
Thirdly, open data should be the rule rather than the exception.
Lastly, there must be more investigative science journalism. Critical reporting helps keep science honest.
Q: do you set frees or does the publication?
Priya: publications probably have a variable rate – different bands, if you’re starting out compared to if you are experienced. Use a lot of judicious googling. Time will teach you.
Glassdoor.com publish rate, as do NUJ
[to John Burns-Murdoch] How did you create the World Cup project in just three days?
JBM: Previous knowledge and genuine enthusiasm were the keys to getting the work done quickly. It could have also been done for any other sport but extra time would have been spent on research and you’re not as proactive on projects that you’re not individually passionate about.
PA: It’s important to not be afraid to modify previous code. This can result in vastly reduced coding time and more efficient projects.
It is FT policy to only create things that can be applied to future situations and reused. It’s important to balance creating templates with bespoke work.
Data journalism talk is finishing up now. An absolutely fascinating talk with a lot to think about!
Q: a worry that freelance work (in Italy) is drying up
Angela: write for other countries – e.g. America. In UK, with fewer staff writers, market is good for freelancers
Priya: fingers in lots of pies is important. As a journalist you become adaptable. Diversify.
Q: how do you track work to know you can pay bills every month?
Angela: have a minimum amount you need to earn. Have a private pension. Pay your national insurance. (They can pay maternity leave)
Richard: build up reserve of money. Time management is hard, especially relaxation time if working from home.
Martin: having one or two organisations that will pay you every month is useful
Is it possible to publish data journalism straight through large platforms as a freelancer?
PA: Yes, but you need to have a very clear idea of the amount of work that goes in to the project and a clear end point. Not every editor will be receptive to ideas, but good editors will recognise its worth. Need to make sure that you are not being paid by standard word rates as vast amounts of work goes in to smaller word counts.
Q: how much time and effort do you put into a pitch? Do you ever get people approaching you for work?
Priya: pitching is a skill that you hone. You need to have enough of a pitch to convince an editor – especially if you don’t know the editor. As a fellah meet, your time is money, so needs balance. A pitch might not have the right home.
People approach me know but been doing this a long time. Takes a while for people to want to commission you.
Richard: approach it like writing a news story. Absolutely grab their attention. Explain why you are uniquely qualified to do the work.
Martin: be known as the person who knows about something
Question: Do you always have to have a narrative?
Answer (Helen): No, you don’t always need to have a narrative, especially if you are writing for a specialist science publication. But to make it appealing in a mainstream publication then you won’t get a commission without one.
John Walton, BBC Visual Journalism Team
Key piece of advice for data journalism is to have a specific story that you want to tell, THEN figuring out what tools you’ll need to learn in order to tell the story.
Spreadsheets are vitally important and can be manipulated “without a degree in statistics”. However, they are very much a gateway drug to more advanced methods of data manipulation.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/nhswinter shows the number of patients attending A&E centres over time and is an example of JW’s work.
Projects can be time consuming and if you’re doing an introductory project, make sure it’s something with a fixed end point and that won’t need to be updated regularly. Most important thing is to double check everything multiple times as there can often be a “butterfly effect” of a tiny mistake having huge ramifications.
Royal Statistical Society have resources to help journalists make sense of statistics in science and in news.
Question: challenge is to find bigger outlets. Should I be a generalist of a specialist?
Angela: it will benefit to focus on a specialism. But can still write stories about other topics – though it will be more competitive.
Question: how long should I work for free for?
Priya: if you’ve picked an area you can write well in, you shouldn’t need to write for free for very long. Minimise the stuff you give away. Working for free only really works in an ideas industry. You wouldn’t give away furniture you made for free. Hone your pitches
Richard: it’s a really difficult rut to get out of. Spending longer on a paid piece of work would be more valuable.
Q: how difficult is it to organise meetings with PRs
Angela: doesn’t take very much out of their day – is quite easy and you get stories. Invest time in chasing paid commissions
Question: How do we make inanimate objects interesting?
Answer (Audience): I have written two books where the main characters were inanimate objects, one was a mummy and one was a mechanical clock. I feel you have to focus on the human stories of the people who dedicate their lives to studying these objects.
Audience Comment: You really have to give the reader reasons to care. You have to give them an emotional relationship with the characters.
Martin Ince: going freelance is a positive step
Audience: freelancing can be isolating. Think about local groups
Question: Should we start to storyboard feature articles and write them in scenes?
Answer (Paul): I think we write in scenes already, but I think storyboarding a feature could really help improve the narrative.
Angela Saini: started career in TV news. Didn’t find it intellectually fulfilling. Missed science.
At the beginning, in last year at BBC, built up lots of contacts with journals, science units. Hard to build trust at the beginning. Pick a specialism and write for small, niche publications.
Once you have a bank of clipping, you can go to mainstream publications. You’ll have to keep pitching – keep sending ideas. Once you’ve written your first piece for a publication you want to write for, you can write for them forever.
Can drop publications from your portfolio if they don’t pay enough.
Radio worst paywise but best at raising your profile. Writing pays well. With TV, you can make a lot of money but hard to get commissioned – can take a long time
Ditch the press releases and go off-beat. Go to conferences
Join NUJ. They run courses and give advice on pay, legal issues.
Always be on deadline. Be professional. Be nice. If they’re not paying enough, don’t do it. The quality of your work is all you have to sell yourself
Don’t work for free if freelancing on the side of a main job. Don’t undercut others. Freelancing is not a hobby
With a staff job, you have a direction. Career ladder less clear when freelance but you create your own.
Fellowships are paid and great ways of moving career forward.
Your career is a long time. Have bigger goals and bigger ambitions. Have something to say. Think about what you want from your life and how your career as a freelancer helps you achieve that
John Burn-Murdoch, FT Data Journalist
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.
JBM describes the process behind creating an infographic that recently appeared in the FT “mapping” the qualities of each team in the World Cup. Main steps including reaching out to experts and enthusiasts, locating precise, accurate and comprehensive data on every player in every team throughout 12 tournaments. He also describes the vast amount of data that needs to be taken in order to filter out the relevant material (100,000 matches in this case!).
Important technique is called “data scraping” and software can be used to read and store information directly from the source code of websites. In the case of the World Cup infographic, performance statistics for every match were stored in collaborative Google spreadsheet. Data was then imported from Wikipedia to match players to 2014 World Cup squads.
Data was then presented through HighCharts and grouped by different factors by which the teams are rated.
Amazing piece of work – especially as it was done by one person in three days! It can be found at http://www.ft.com/world-cup-interactive
Helen Pearson: Narrative is just stuff happening over time. It is just events unfolding over a timeframe.
You need a reason to tell a story, even if it’s a great story it needs a reason to have currency. Ask yourself, why is it important to tell this story?
Richard Vize: freelancing since left OFSTED in 2011
Setting up a company gives you can identity, focus and professional badge of convenience
Was networking relentlessly for first few months. Build relationships. Make sure your knowledge and insights are still current
Be seen as part of a team rather than someone who writes occasionally
LinkedIn works well – especially for telling people about your freelance status
Negotiating your own rates is tough. Sometimes you may be offered more money than you expected.
Has differential rates depending on expertise needed. You must value your expertise and knowledge.
Freelancing means you are AWOL from career ladder. You become used to flexibility and creativity of growing your own business, it’d become difficult to be locked into a position for another company again.
Can do diverse things. Teaching, be a charity trustee, etc.
Manage your own psychology of the highs and lows
Has doubts at times but overall best thing done in career
Paul Olding: How do you capture an audience? Firstly, the title. You have to think about the order of the words. The first words need to be grabbing.
Capturing the audience is paramount. On TV, you need to grab people in the first few seconds, because there is so much competition.
Keeping the audience is hard. You need to know your audience, but don’t be dictated to too much by previous programs. The best thing to do is write what you want to write and try to blow them away. The structure is also important for keeping your audience, keeping them wanting to know more. Utilising visual metaphors can help with this.
Content can be built up, this way complex ideas can be conveyed easily.
Data Journalism session is underway with Paul Aldhous Skyping in from the US.
He will be discussing “data in the wider field” of journalism as a whole by initially showing a variety of articles and infographics and asking the audience if each is am example of data journalism. A written article about race horses is held up as the strongest piece of data journalism,compared to images and diagrams due to the fact that the article would not exist without the raw facts.
Data journalism can cause small errors to be amplified in a way that would not occur with descriptive writing.
Priya Shetty: been freelancing on and off for 8 years.
Seek out interesting ideas and people rather than just creating contacts. Can lead to interesting collaborations – for projects and clients you didn’t think you would
Idea of brand could feel a bit corporate, but you are a business. No one is paying you a salary. Thinking of yourself as a business make your output your product.
Negotiate. Talking about money is not embarrassing. Often can be tempted to work for free – it has value of its own but can’t keep undercutting yourself. You are your HR, finance and legal departments. Be prepared to be tough if money owed to you.
Trust your gut and your instincts. When things go badly, you are the one who suffers. The instinct is a business skill. If commission’s bitter is unclear, when amount of work seems unrealistic for the time, or when timescale seem unrealistic, these are warning signs.
Say no. Can be daunting, especially when starting out. You can set your own terms and boundaries. The autonomy and the ability to say no is a negotiating skill. Sometimes, though, you have to work weird times.
You have terms and conditions as much as your client does.
If you ask for more money the worst thing they can say is no.
Will Storr: Long form writing is truly linked to literature. It is about change. Change to a character’s life, and their journey. When this is done well, you can fall through a piece easily, from the beginning to the end, without even knowing you have done it.
We hope you enjoyed that liveblog! All of the answers to questions were summarised, not direct quotes.
Picking up on the references of culture being indivisible – I was recently bought a subscription of the London Review of Books. But singularly absent from it is science and technology. If we’re trying to include science in our culture, why isn’t it being included?
Will: The London Review of Books is a very idiosyncratic publication, and few people read it. The New Yorker gives hope…
Are there tools or tips, what couldn’t you live without when writing a book?
Jo: I’m bad at technology so the most important thing for me is keeping a diary, of thoughts, sudden connections etc.
Phil: I’m like Jo, I write my notes longhand. Very boring tip – always keep a good system for noting down your references. The worst point of a book is not being able to find a reference when you’re finishing off!
Q: If you were starting out over again what wouldn’t you do?
Jim: I would have sought out people who already launched businesses.
Adam: was worried that upsetting a source would burn bridges. But could fall back on amateur status of student website.
Jody: not in the same boat as the others on panel – less personal risk. One or two times I’ve launched something where I didn’t trust my own instinct enough.
Ivan: didn’t moderate comments to begin with. Have a clear comments policy. Think about what you’re producing as data – categorisation of posts. But don’t start out by thinking how you’ll make a living doing the project
As you’re writing, do you have a writer in mind or do you write the book you want to read yourself?
Philip: I’ve never found it useful to have some kind of idealised reader. You can worry about your reader, but your worries aren’t always realised, so is it worth worrying?
Jo: Igenerally write for me, I’m learning that I shouldn’t put things in just because I think they should be there. I put in the bits I’m interested in and passionate about.
Will: Your question reminds me of an experience I had. We had a science writer who had a very successful book, and we wanted him to write something else, a follow up, that would appeal to the same people he’d already reached out to. His idea made us go white, but he was very passionate about it. We had another idea, and we persuaded him to write that, and the manuscript was absolutely fantastic. When we rang to congratulate him, he told us how miserable he was that when he was halfway through he nearly gave up. Although he didn’t, when it came to the marketing, it lacked the oomph. But it was picked as Sunday Times Best Science Book, so it’s difficult to know what to take from that really!
Karolina: I’ve seen promising careers disintegrate because writers wrote what they really really wanted to, rather than what would have worked. It’s just worth noting.
Question: who makes the money?
Jim: we were bought by Medium. Before that I could not imagine taking a salary from Matter. Freed from constraints of having to raise money. Matter now a general interest magazine but still commission longform science articles
Question: how do you deal with legal issues outside of a publication?
Ivan: had benefits of working with/as journalists for a long time. But still vulnerable to lawsuits without a company. Would urge anyone to become familiar with libel laws.
How is self publishing affecting the landscape? As a publisher if you saw a self published book you liked, would you then choose to publish it?
Will: In simplest terms, self publishing is a threat to publishers. But, if you can’t beat them join them. So yes, pick up self published works, give them a sheen, see how it goes.
A publisher provided a marketing plan, which was why I chose the publisher, but when it came to it, the plan wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. What can be done to avoid this?
Will: Your agent should have held your publisher to their word. But sadly this isn’t an altogether unusual case. Particularly if an editor leaves, you lose your ally on the inside.
Karolina: I don’t read marketing plans because there’s a discrepancy between their content and what actually happens. Experienced agents knows which publishers are capable of what, and so can make an informed choice of which publisher to go with. It’s extremely inexact, but it works. As an agent you put pressure on the editor, and in turn they put pressure on the marketing team. And they know if they let me down I won’t sell them another book.
Alok: how far do you go with your own blog before you give up?
Ivan: started blogging on own with EmbargoWatch. Doesn’t get a tremendous amount of traffic. Now RetractionWatch taken over my time. Natural move from one to other.
Jim Giles: we were going to keep going until we were broke
Jody: everyone who works at Nat Geo driven by passion for the brand. You really have to love what you’re doing.
Adam: I was at the point where my bank balance was close to zero. Because it was a student project, it was an experiment and didn’t matter if it failed. That’s a good mentality to have – try and maybe fail.
Community important. If you don’t find one, maybe that’s a sign to stop
Proposals – how much do you put into them? Where do you draw the line?
Karolina: The text your sending to an agent can be rougher than the finished project you’d then send on to the publisher. For a frist time author a sample chapter is good too, unless your proposal reflects the intended writing style of the book too. This is easier if you’re not writing a narrative.
Jo: I approached agents without even a proposal in order to get advice. It was still 15,000 words without a sample chapter, because it was so detailed.
Philip: My proposals are getting longer and longer; my current one is over 20,000 words. But when you’re dealing with such a detailed topic it’s almost impossible to make it any shorter, the length can be useful.
Criteria for success in a serious science book? 15,000 books, hard copy, soft back, both? Over what time frame? What’s the lifetime?
Will: 15,000 was the top, it is often less. And there’s a small window of opportunity.
Question: hearing a lot about setting up blogs and websites. Is there a balance between setting up your own blogs versus blogging for another site?
Ivan: Freedom and control of own blog is powerful stuff.
Make sure you own the right to do whatever you want with the content no matter what. Don’t necessarily mean sell it.
Adam Smith: platforms of blogs more likely to have larger audience but you have control of your own blog. Do both.
Tips for getting through the process of writing a book?
Jo: It’s really difficult because you’re presented with so much time, it’s different to a short deadline. You have to plan differently, find a rota and stick to it. Don’t think you can gather all the information and then write. Think of a story, do some research, more story, more research etc. Also the fear will kick in.
Karolina: Deciding to do the research first is a mistake because you’ll never really complete the research, there’ll always be something else. So do some research, but start relatively soon. If you delay too long, you’ll be scared of starting.
Philip: Just do it badly. Once you have some words on the page, you’re over the hump, and then you can start to play with them.
The thing about publishing is that it is not a science. Publishers are very good about being wise after the fact, but they’re often surprised at what works. No publishing house worth its salt can claim to publish relevant books without having science. Science illuminates everything, it is the world. And so to describe the world in books, science is essential.
There are very few science books in the general publishing. You have to dig into the specialist pile, and it usually sells around 15,000 copies. But once science overlaps with other subjects, it’s a different story. A prime example is “self help” books (possibly more popular in the US than the UK). Books that tell the reader about themselves, how they work and how they might work better are very popular. Also popular are books that tell the whole of a subject in one package. As this is difficult to do, as long as a clever narrative gives a sense of completeness, then a book will also do well.
Why love reading science books? They give a sense of discovery. If you can take the reader on a journey of discovery, then there is inherent pleasure to be had. Books often work because the whole book is geared towards finding an answer, and until you find the answer you are gripped.
What is longform?
Jim Giles: Not about length but how you’re telling the story.
Jim Giles: Hits are a bad metric for longform. Completion rates of reading article important.
Jim Giles: for years had frustration with science journalism because I love longform journalism – seemed like there was a gap between them.
Spent a year writing business plans for Matter. Put it on Kickstarter. We had identified a thing that didn’t quite exist.
Look at what’s out there. What are you going to do that’s better or more original?
Was uncertain whether we’d ever make any money or be able to pay ourselves. Matter then bought by Medium after 18 months of making no money and getting scared.
The more time and energy you can channel into your own thing, the better, regardless of whether you’re getting paid for it.
As an agent, Karolina represents a whole range of writers, not just science writers. T
The important thing for her is that someone has something to say, not something that hasn’t been said before, but that there’s actually a book there. There has to be enough in the idea to sustain 80,000 words. A lot of ideas writers bring to her are magazine pieces, or should be explored in another format. A readers interest has to be sustained throughout. The books should be worth finding at the front of the book shop, not stuffed at the back of the fifth floor.
Secondly, there’s nothing that isn’t worth writing about; it just has to be done in the right way. So how do you tell the story? It isn’t a narrative, but the register has to be understandable. Unlearning the scientific way of writing and finding a way of speaking to a wide number of readers in important. It’s doesn’t have to be dumbed down or diluted, it just has to be approachable.
The structure of a book has to be right. It’s worth contacting an agent at an early side when you have an idea, you’ve done some research and you’ve got an idea of the structure. It’s easier to edit a skeleton of an idea, and then build the book around the good structure, rather than reworking an entire manuscript. The Man Who Couldn’t Stop is a book both about the science of OCD, but also someones personal experience of OCD. It had to appeal to everyone, not just be found in the self help section for a few niche individuals. And it got months to get the proposal right, but once it was right the book came out better, was att he front of the bookstores and on the Times bestseller list.
Jody Sugrue: creative direction is a beautiful combination of curation, design and strategy.
Challenge is figuring out what you want to be versus who you tell people you are.
Find something that’s uniquely yours, get obsessed and do it every day.
How do you do something unique and unexpected when people have preconceived ideas about who you are?
Not about using shares/tweets as a metric of success. Develop a relationship with your readers.
Write what you want to write about. Be genuine.
Philip opens by discussing how it’s such a strange time to want to be writing books because of the way technology is developing. Not only is publishing changing, but the very way we read books could change – Google glass anyone? Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to actually make money from writing. So why write? For the acclaim? Even that’s getting harder. It’s not unheard of for an author to not get one review in a newspaper once a book is published.
So why bother? Primarily, because you’ve got something to say. Not just a description of science. You have to have a unique perspective, a way of giving readers information in a completely unique way. It’s the only way to beat wikipedia!
You could also write books because writing them helps you develop a voice. We read our favourite fictions authors not because we want to read the stories they tell, but because we like the way they tell them. And that’s what makes book writing from most of science journalism, where you’re actively discouraged from having an individual voice. So in that respect, writing non fiction books isn’t that different from writing fiction.
Ivan Oransky: think of social media as if you’re an orchestra conductor, not someone with a megaphone. It’s a way to get sources and let people know what you’re interested in, not just to promote your work.
Don’t be afraid of having a voice.
“Find a niche and report the hell out of it!” Specialist reporters and students are concerned about getting too pigeon-holed.
Once you’ve launched a blog, TELL PEOPLE! Yes you can use social media, but it’s important to find reporters that are interested in this and get them involved in promotion.
A freelance science journalist and author currently writing her third book, Jo is currently thinking about “what can science journalists do that academics don’t do” and “how we can use stories in science books”.
We know stories are important, they’re how we learn, they trigger emotions in us and cause the release of hormones such as oxytocin. This reaction can help people that wouldn’t usually enjoy science engage, and it can be useful to use the story as a priority and then add the science.
In her current work, she’s trying to write about a subject rather than tell one whole story, so she’s found it difficult to remember to go back to include a story because there’s so much abstract information. This has become easier by tackling it chapter by chapter, story by story.
When you’re interviewing for stories it can be difficult to get more than just fact out of interviewees, you have to push for more information. More information helps the story take shape. Sometimes it’s worth trying to integrate yourself into the experiences of the interviewee, so you can tell their stories more effectively. You go beyond scientific information to make the stories excellent.
Adam Smith: find an online community and become a part of it. Twitter, blogging helps.
Come up with a line and stick to it.
Think beyond the blog. How can you take your project elsewhere?
Adam Smith: started a blog during journalism course reporting for an under reported community. Started writing about science funding: ‘purse string theory’
Alok Jha: Finding your voice means more than just lists of your stuff. How do you become the go-to person for a particular thing?
Mukul Devichand, BBC trending, kicks of the personal development speech by considering how journalists can use free/ low cost tools in this social media era.
Want to know what topics are currently popular?
Twitter is a great place to start, Mukul Devichand hails it a ‘very searchable network’ in which the ‘twitterarchy’ can voice their opinions. On the other hand he notes that twitter is full of self publicists and so progresses onto other suggestions. Trend24.com allows one to see what is trending in a specific geographical locations, social conversations can be localised and the tool provides a quick and easy way to do this. Youtube is the next site to be highlighted, despite being saturated with ‘videos of cats on skateboards doing silly things’ the website does in fact have its own internal analytics. Journalists recognise social media is an international phenomenon, whilst facebook and twitter are widely used, each country has its own concoction of different platforms. Take China for instance, where hot.weibo.com is the tool of the times. Can’t speak Chinese? Well you need fear, google chrome is here and has a nifty translational ability.
Want to know how topics are spreading?
With 5% of people keeping location services ‘on’ their phones, the small percentage quickly becomes a significant one when considered globally. Trendsmap.com can allow writers to physically track the spread of a particular topic. Mukul Devichand exemplifies this with ‘The GM banana’ which is meant to have a great impact in Uganda Africa. Geofeedia.com draws an area of the world, searching every located post and a quick search revealed that no comment had been made about the banana in Kampala.
Want to find experts on your topic?
Twitter bios present a host of self proclaimed expertise, nevertheless Twitter lists are proposed as a useful way of aggregating potentially interesting people, as well as viewing other users lists. Followerwonk follows peoples bios, doubt can be confirmed or dissipated with this tool, your days of finding out people ‘might not be who they say they are’ could finally be over.
Laura Wheeler, Community Manager for Digital Science, continues the tips by highlighting www.rebelmouse.com, a Croatian tool which can pull anything from the web in a real and dynamic way. She explains her personal experience working with portfolio companies and how rebelmouse has simplified ‘collecting all the information in one place’. Furthermore one can manually add their photos and videos to create a thorough final product. Hootsuite enterprise is certainly on the more expensive, with a price tag of £1000 per head, but she states its use in assigning varying security levels for different people on each social media platform. Posts can be auto scheduled to the best publishing time, so leaving timing to the tool means one less thing to worry about!
Storyful separates news from noise, tackling one of the greatest challenges of social media: there is so much information, finding the ‘important stuff’ can be truly difficult. As a multi search engine, as many as 60 media sites can be scoured, vital for breaking news stories and well, searching for yourself too. She concludes on Topsy the ‘google of social media’.
Paul Bradshaw, Director, MA Online Journalism, Birmingham City University who initiates with Store. This essential provides a ‘personal archive’ and differs from the standard method of bookmarking as it can be accessed from any computer and sent to others. delicious.com is a simpler version of store where data can also be found. Let’s say the deadline for a health story looms – searching health + data may provide the remaining facts and figures you’ve been searching for. Talk then turns to tables, research.google.com/tables, Zanran and Tabula are mentioned.
‘Scraping’ – the process of ‘asking a computer to gather data’ such as tables or information from webpages can be simplified by the recent, fast and intuitive Kimono. Malpractice in medicine is one of a few highlighted data points which kimono can access and self updates so that the journalist need not check the same website daily.
If doing something repeitice, have to check the same page over and over agian – every day updates ireland patients left on chairs tables bed. Set a toll to grab the information and keep updating them so you dont have to. openrefine removes unwanted ‘dirty data’, whilst ikmultimedia and the padcaster provides high quality output from ipads and iphones, as well an ‘incredibly fast’ turnaround for interview pieces. Lastly, Paul Bradshaw talks about creatavist, a tool used on ‘one of the most powerful projects’ by one of his students – the history of the slave trade in Guinea – it benefits from a ‘nice clean design’ in which profiles of interviews done with individuals, audio, videos and maps can all be embedded,
Deborah Cohen stresses the importance of asking sources about their conflicts of interest – something that is far more common practice in the US than in the UK.
Statistics in Science Journalism is drawing to a close now. Hugely interesting and useful talk with a very engaged audience!
Question: How does copyright work on your platforms?
Answer (Sebastian): It is none of my business, all of the copyrights are with the writers.
Answer (Sarah): We ask all our writers if we can put all their articles out on non-commercial Creative Commons license. If someone wants to republish our articles to make money, we would seek payment for the writer. We won’t sit back and let someone take our writers stories to make money without paying them.
Answer (Giles): The whole platform is based around Creative Commons. It goes against what we do to copyright our stories. We make our content available for all audiences.
Question: I work in traditional publishing and it is hard to make money. What’s the sustainability of the models you have? Will you be here in 14 years?
Answer (Jim): I think the traditional paywalled subscription model can work, but it is normally only for specialist, large publications. Matter did have a grant to get it started but it is exploring new business models to keep the funding going. We have talked about membership models, but not behind a paywall.
Answer (Sarah): We are exploring a subscription model, but that is still to be decided.
Answer (Sebastian): 14-years is a very long time. I’m not sure if any of us will be here!
That’s all from Tool of the Trade. Some fantastic websites mentioned!
Two vital tips:
1. Use NNT (number needed to treat) as a statistic to describe treatments.
2. Keep in contact with a biostatistician and use their skills!
Point from the audience: Most scientists are on ResearchGate, a social media site for scientists. Scientists upload their research articles and can answer questions. It could be a useful tool for science journalists to find experts in the field they’re covering.
When reading papers, need to consider who stands to benefit from the results. Is there an ulterior motive at play here? How many people actually have the disease?
Laura: RebelMouse is described as a mashup of Pinterest, Storify and Tumblr. RebelMouse can be synced with MailChimp, which can be great for brand promotion.
It’s really popular with journalists as a way of showing their work. It’s a fantastic way of displaying testimonials. People are talking about you on social media, so you can display this as an endorsement.
You have complete control of what people see. It can update automatically but you can set what content you’d like to keep at the top. It’s great for collating everything in one place!
Key factors for assessing the validity of a paper:
- – Has it been peer reviewed?
- – Where was it published?
- [in clinical cases] Has it been tested on humans? IO’s view is that there are minimal cases in which studies on animals can be directly translated to humans.
- Does it describe a power score?
Important question to ask researchers:
- “Were those your primary endpoints?” I.e. were the “goalposts moved” during the study?
- Is a statistically significant endpoint actually indicative of a clinically significant outcome? Does this change in results translate in to real benefits for patients?
Laura: Hootsuite is also great for collaborating with other Twitter users, or if you need to keep an eye on a particular feed!
Question from the floor: What’s the advantage of Hootsuite over Tweetdeck?
Laura: The advantage of Hootsuite over Tweetdeck allows you to build analytical frameworks. It works brilliantly with Google Analytics. Tweetdeck is continuously changing, which can be frustrating.
Paul: The ability to have multiple users with different permissions is a really attractive feature of HootSuite.
Laura: HootSuite enterprise is about £1000 per head, so quite expensive, but this allows the different security access levels.
HootSuite can really streamline your social media efforts, enabling great analytics. It’s also one of only two apps that can schedule posts for Google+. We tested a lot of other systems over two years, but find this one is the most useful.
Question: How do you protect the ideas of freelancers who are pitching them openly?
Answer (Sarah): The topics are not general. The writers propose ideas which they have a particular access which others can’t get. It is a worry though. But ideas themselves aren’t really commissionable, ideas are always floating around. It is the execution we are paying for.
Sebastian: The essence of crowed funding is you ask people for money to do something you like, but it is for something they also like as well. And this hasn’t been applied greatly to journalism.
Creativist allows you to create a scrolling page with embedded images, video and audio, with profile pop-ups, maps, infographics etc. For a big impact story, it’s well worth exploring this powerful too.
Question was asked about assessing validity of journals in a specialised field that you are unfamiliar with. Impact factor can be useful to look at but is “fairly useless” when looked at on its own. The impact factor needs to be compared to a number of journals in the same field in order to be a valuable piece of information.
PadCaster allows you to attach lenses, lights and tripods to iPads for a fast turnaround of video interviews.
Sarah explains that the rate for writing on Contributoria is not fixed. There are many variables including experience, promotions and whether the idea is worth funding.
Question: What is in it for the people who are putting the money up?
Answer: It is set up to be a collaborative community environment. I think our users feel a sense of altruism and a sense of belonging to a community.
Kimono: If you want to grab information from a webpage repeatedly, set up an alert from Kimono that can collect data every time the website is updated.
OpenRefine: If you want to combine spreadsheets in different formats, fix dirty data or remove unnecessary lines, all of these things are very easy to do in OpenRefine. It has tools for cleaning up things like consistent capitalisation too.
“I think it’s journalistic malpractice to not have the full study in front of you when you’re reporting.” Vital quote by Ivan Oransky on the important of referring back to original data.
Sebastian Esser: Only recently secured 1-million euros to fund a magazine with no advertisements. The project is just getting underway.
Paul Bradshaw (Director of the Masters Online Journalism course at Birmingham City University)
Pinboard is an online bookmarking tool: accessible anywhere so much better than storing on your personal computer.
Google has a Table search that finds tables on websites. research.google.com/tables. It finds the data, not just the headline statistics.
Tabula is a great free tool for journalists to extract a table of data from a PDF. You draw the area over the part you want and it will convert it to a spreadsheet.
Sarah Hartley: Contributoria allows writers to pitch stories to potential readers who choose whether or not to fund them.
The initial idea was developed with a grant from Google. It is not a specific science platform, but tailored to all long form journalism.
There is a 3-month production cycle, with a pitching phase followed by production and publishing phases, if the pitch receives enough public backing.
This allows the readers to fund specific topics which interest them.
Hootsuite enterprise – the paid-for software allows multi security levels, scheduled posting, and vanity URLs.
Storyful: allows you to separate the news from the noise. Finding the important things on social media can be difficult! You can search for specific topics in a combination of social media accounts/blogs/dating sites/profile pages.
Topsy is Google for Twitter! Twitter even use it themselves.You can search links to your blog, hashtags and specific people. It provides a sentiment score to see how positively people are speaking about the topic. You can also use it to compare trends.
Serious issue with clinical studies is that many of them are observational; people have to report their own actions. Generally, people will exaggerate their “healthy” behaviours and downplay their “unhealthy” behaviours. This can add another degree of uncertainty to a study.
Science students aren’t trained to read academic journal articles in university so we need to learn from experience, conferences and journalists how to critically assess the validity of studies (paper on the “relationship between crotch length and fertility” is cited as an example of poor use of data).
Laura Wheeler (Digital Science)
Rebel Mouse: aggregate stories in a dynamic format, manually adding multimedia and social media accounts, along with articles from other sites. It’s great for producing a page about yourself; clips, articles, photographs!
Jim Giles: The readers are very much in charge of Matter. They vote and decide which topics they would like to hear more about.
Ideas for the future include a investigative reporting fellowship, inviting investigative journalists to compete for a pot of money to fund a project of their choice.
Mukul: You can use social media to find (self-proclaimed) experts. Check out Twitter lists to find the top people in the field.
Followerwonk: you can analyse who people really are by who their followers are!
Mukul: 5% of people have location broadcasts linked to their Twitter accounts, so you can watch trends spread across the country/world. You can also use trendsmap.com to see where important topics are being discussed.
Geofeedia.com allows you to select a region of the world and see who (with geolocated phone settings) in that area is talking about it!
Giles Newton: Mosaic.com is funder by the Welcome Trust, however their content is not limited to Welcome Trust funded science.
As Welcome Trust initiatives are released on Creative Commons, Mosaic news stories are taken up by major websites such as CNN and Hacker News, causing major surges in traffic.
Tools to investigate social media
First of all, what tools can you use to find out what’s trending
Trends24.com is great for Twitter.
Youtube: youtube.com/trendsdashboard – It’s not all cats! Some things are very important. You can use Youtube’s built in trends dashboard and break it down by age too.
In China, Weibo is the top social media site. hot.weibo.com is great to find out what they’re talking about in China (when combined with Google Translate!)
“Knowing Your Limitations or, Debunking the Easy Way”, Ivan Oransky’s talk on statistics in science journalism starts by stating that science is never infallible and perfect and that researchers need to realise this.
Mukul Devichand (BBC trending)
BBC trending is an answer to the social media era.
We can look at social media to indicate what conversations are occurring in current events.
Dan’s top tool: the highlighter pen! Perfect for highlighting the top quote from an interview.
Dan Clery (Science magazine)
A colleague e-mailed round asking how to do interviews. A simple question, but one with surprisingly varied responses; shorthand, speedwriting, drop vowels, livescrive (Wifi pen that records both handwriting and audio).
There was also a lot of discussion on whether to transcribe during the interview, is audio recording acceptable, can you take photographs to remind you of the scene?
Tagline: Useful stuff for the working hack!
Welcome to the Tools of the Trade live blog!
Hope you enjoyed that as much as we did! Summary to follow.
Question from Adam (chair): We haven’t discussed the move to mobiles. 50% of Guardian traffic is coming from mobile internet. What are your thoughts on this?
Duncan: A huge amount of time is going into mobile website development. The mobile experience is often less good than the desktop experience. Perhaps we should just go with Apple’s idea of creating a simple website and then sit back and relax!
Amanda: We’re getting a lot of mobile users on the BBC that wouldn’t watch our television programmes or read the BBC website.
Jim: The things that work on mobiles strip out the fancy bits and focus on pictures and images. It’s clear that it can work, but it’s not currently obvious how to do this.
Jody: The serengeti lions videos were absolutely not suited for a mobile experience, but we provided a trailer for it to whet mobile users appetites to entice them onto their desktops.
Question: Are the BBC taking freelance radio feature commissions?
Answer: If you have an original idea which is not obvious, then it will be considered. If not, they probably already have someone working on it. Ideas have to be special.
Duncan: Big organisations are nervous to move away from things they usually do. The organisations that will thrive are those that will take risks, experiment and do new things.
Amanda: We have information security concerns, as well as external sites being overwhelmed by BBC traffic. We are prepared to take more risks on the television side, for example new digital and editing techniques, but we’re surprisingly constrained on the digital media side.
Question from Adam (chair): Can this be used for breaking news?
Amanda: It takes forever! If you have a template you can be much faster, but if you need something done quickly you need to talk to the television designers. It may not be very interactive but it will have a lot of hits if it’s a story breaking over a couple of weeks. It’s going to be slow for a long time.
Jim: If you want to do something flash, it’s not possible. In five years time, I think things will be a lot better. New start ups are starting to develop this, but you can’t currently get an interactive multimedia site on a few hours timescale.
Jody: The New York Times are able to do some simple multimedia things, nothing too interactive, but this is slowly developing.
Question from the floor: Is there a standard way to pitch? Is a new way of doing things evolving?
Amanda: Some parts of the BBC have this. What we don’t have so much is magazine-style pitching, where people come with a good idea that could combine media.
Duncan: This is very new, so what tends to happen is that most of the fancy glitzy stuff happens in house. It’s really popular with in house staff so it’s very difficult for freelancers to get a look in, although this is beginning to open up more.
Amanda: Videos can get in the way. Content is king, and is the foundation of journalism. You can use videos to get them interested. You’ve got to be able to see the narrative through the page.
Jody: The challenge is to combine all of these features into a cohesive unit. Ideally you’re looking at the bigger picture, the narrative as a whole. A good visual architect will examine whether each piece fits.
Mohit Bakaya: Introduces the various ways of communicating science on the radio. He explains that the Infinite Monkey Cage was commissioned to try to attract a younger target audience.
His formula for commissioning can be summed up by “the 6 ‘E’s”: emerging, engaging, explaining, emotional, enchanting and exploding. If you hit at least one of those categories, then the idea is a potential commissioning success.
Question from the floor: Is there a role for freelancers in this online media world? Can I pitch an idea for a visualisation combined with a narrative?
Amanda: Absolutely, that happens every day!
Duncan: If you have a new way of doing something, people will be eager to work with you. Being a journalist who knows how to code is a real bonus!
Jim: Students are always asking me if they should learn coding, photography, video etc. Yes, it will make you more employable, but 90% of it will always be the story.
Duncan: I would encourage anyone who wants to do the data-driven stuff should check out free coding lessons like Codecademy. Even if you don’t program it yourself, it will demystify the process for you.
Amanda: The BBC have a lot of our own tools, but we also partner with outside institutions who can provide new platforms. Our main tools are in-house, but where we can, partnerships are where we should be!
Jim: Online e-books are easy to publish. Matter allows long-form article publishing in science and technology.
A question from the floor: How much do these things cost?!
Jody: National Geographic has a huge print budget, which we are able to access. National Geographic does print really well, but we are still trying to figure out how we want to display things online. The internet is competitive, so if you have a good story you need to use engaging ways to captivate the audience.
Amanda: You don’t need a big name behind you to publish your work. Anyone can produce videos on Youtube. Science lends itself well to social media and getting people excited with interesting experiments, whether it’s a eureka moments or a magnesium strip burning! The budget can expand to as large as you want to make it however!
Free tools like Vine (short videos on Twitter) can captivate the attention of the public, who will then click on to find out more.
Big budgets are tens of millions of pounds.
Duncan: It’s critical to make the data more understandable, but also more tactile and easy to use. Multimedia makes things interesting!
Sue Nelson: Explains the start of her career as a studio manager, reminiscing about the time she had to have a sword fight in the radio studio to produce sound effects and stab a melon to capture the sound of the final blow.
Sue explains the weird range of objects which are used to convey different sounds on the radio, adding that when the visual elements are taken away, convincing sound effects can be produced from many different objects.
Creativity is returning to science radio broadcasting after the “dull live news phase”. The magazine format of shows such as Inside Science suits the topic of science far better than other formats.
Duncan’s team also produced interactive infographics to coincide with the IPCC report. Users can add their own date of birth and examine how the climate has changed over their lifetime, and how it could change by the time they retire.
Duncan wanted to tell a story about air travel, on the 100th anniversary of the first passenger flight. His team at The Guardian created amazing live infographics that show each of the flights currently in the air and asks what comes next.
The content is very accessible for both the general public and people who want more detailed information.
Amanda: Another interesting project that captured the public’s attention was the Secret life of the cat, an interactive website to complement the popular programme on Horizon last year. GPS collars tracked cats around their home territories to see what they get up to when you’re not around.
Editor of visual journalism at the BBC.
As a partnership with Imperial College London, Amanda’s team produced visuals about How to Put a Human on Mars. It marries TV and the internet.
Using a green room for virtual reality, suddenly you’re on your way to Mars and exploring the planet. The scientists at Imperial were fantastic actors.
“We put a few tricks in this but there’s some serious science in this!” The BBC can make science amazing for the general public.
Jim wanted to take a more cynical approach to multimedia in science journalism. Takeaway message: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”
Jim is discussing the New York Times Snow Fall video, the quintessential multimedia example in science writing. Unfortunately the amazing visuals take the reader away from the writing, preventing them from getting drawn in. “There is so much going on that they’ve actually distracted from the narrative experience”.
People are too focussed on making science journalism visually amazing.
It can be done well, however. Gary Rivlin’s experience with a prisoner, Stray Bullet, includes audio clips between chapters that don’t detract from the overall piece.
Brady Haran: Says he began his YouTube science communications to show the people behind the scientists, by exploring the everyday aspects of their lives. This evolved into various channels communicating various subjects from astronomy to mathematics. Now he has over 2.7 millions subscribers and over 192 million views.
Brady says that sound is the most important aspect of video. People will tolerate bad video quality but won’t tolerate bad sound.
Jody: The lion work was a huge experiment. All in all eight people were involved, including editors, technicians and designers.
Jody Segrue (National Geographic)
Researchers in the field for two years followed a pride of Serengeti lions. The videos were only going to used for a few images and youtube videos, but Jody proposed doing something different. These up close and personal (non-linear) videos were used to create an online safari. People can see these lions in a way they never have before. Check out this amazing work here!
Angela Saini begins by introducing the panel of radio and video experts.
Sue Nelson: Hopefully this can be the start of the discussion on how women, specifically in science communication, should be treated.
Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) provides an overview on how ‘sexism is alive and kicking in the broader industry’.
The recent economic downturn has shown shocking instances of discrimination against women in the workplace, with part time workers and those recently returning from maternity leave being targeted. She exemplifies this situation with reference to the case in which three women had been grouped into the same selection pool to lose their jobs at a national newspaper, suffice to say the subsequent pay offs ‘where not the results they wanted to see’.
She goes on to discuss how a 2012 survey had highlighted how an already male dominated environment suffered further from senior women losing their decision making positions. The ‘Old Boys Club’ approach increases the difficulty for women get the jobs in the first place, with non advertised roles and opaque salary structure taking place today.
The section comes to a close with disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and even abuse, these often left unreported out of fear and worries on the potential affect on careers. She feels that internships need to provide a safe and fair environment for females through adequate support systems and pay. She then concludes by stating that older women often are not put into presenting roles like their equally wrinkled male counterparts. This equal representation of women in the media is ‘all of our problems’.
Audience question: Should we be more open about particular cases?
Priya Shetty: currently, blame placed on victims of harassment tarnishing or destroying the career of people who harass. Be more open but be willing to back it up. At least be open with your or their institution if not willing to go public about harassment.
Sue Nelson opens the talk up to questions from the floor.
Priya Shetty: looked at gender imbalances for 15 years but ignored the problems ‘at home’ so set up Sexism in Science.
“There isn’t really an empowering our encouraging environment for women to speak up ”
We need institutions and publications to commit to dealing with sexism.
Idea of a manifesto – keep talking about the problems. Perhapsthere is a code of silence or open secrets in such a small industry.
“This all stems from a place of respect ”
We need “internal recalibration”. Start from not treating people in certain ways because of their gender.
This is about men and women. Both sexes have responsibility. Senior staff have responsibility to create a safe and empowering environment.
Journalists are trained to interrogate assumptions – we must apply that to these issues
Joan Harran discusses sexism in science journalism and the results of a survey conducted by ABSW to investigate this issue .40 female journalists were interviewed for this purpose.
Sexism is a broad term, encompassing wide range of behaviours such as sexual harassment,coercing of employees into sexual activities, etc.
Women journalists are left vulnerable on many occassions, either due to the situation or due to high profiles involved.Risk to career also prevents reporting against sexual harassment, at times.
Organizations sometimes want to avoid bad publicity, by not responding to sexual harassment.But, it often backfires and is detrimental to the organization itself.
One female interviewee reported being grabbed and kissed by a male colleague while being sneered at by a female colleague, showing lack of support at workplace. Another female journalist was constantly approached by a male colleague, even after politely declining his advances. He eventually tried to sabotage her professional image.
Some interviewees also said they were left alone to deal with their problems.
These preliminary findings are indeed thought provoking, and a lot needs to be improved in this regard.
Sue Nelson introduces the topic of sexism in science journalism. She says the following discussion will focus on personal experiences of sexism in the industry, followed by a debate on the topics raised.
The first plenary kicks off with a session on sexism in science journalism inspired by several recent high profile cases of sexism.
Intelligent criticism is not just about pointing fingers but about breaking the mold in the assumptions made – so not everyone thinks in the same way, says Davis.
Science funding is a pretty closed debate – institutions and people who make decisions on funding like to keep that privilege, says Cullerne Bown, in response to a question about the lack of journalism that looks into funding policy decisions.
A mini-twitterstorm follows disagreements on the importance of investigative journalism that exposes, holds to account. St. Louis maintains there’s no balance in explanatory vs investigative journalism: too many focus on explaining. Most science writers are now communicators, rather than journalists – everyone is communicating.
Debating explanation vs exposure in science journalism; the panel disagrees on the importance of investigative journalism that exposes misconduct.
Where there’s money and power there’s corruption – but why do we expect our scientists not to be corrupt? We need to ask those questions.
Scientific misconduct is under-reported: ‘we’ve failed as journalists to report it well’.
We need to pull back a bit from scientists – we’re not just the mouthpieces for them.
ABSW’s Connie St. Louis says explaining is important, but we need to leave a little bit more space for exploration and challenge.
There’s good reason to break some rules of journalism – e.g. to challenge the authority of older journalists; a lot of the rules deserve to be broken, says Rosen.
Informing the public shouldn’t succumb to elitist/populist divide evident at #ukcsj, say Jay Rosen.
Do the journalism you’re comfortable with, don’t be afraid to check your copy with the source, says Davis.
Bias towards negativity possible if a single narrative of exposing/critiquing takes over in media reporting.
Yet explanation is devalued in journalism, while skepticism and heroic denunciation have become more important since the Watergate: exposing rather than explaining.
Evan Davis, presenter Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, says science journalism is not special but it has an important characteristic: the explanation plays a big role in its consumer value.
Science journalists’ attitudinal weakness is they want to keep being a good science student.
Too many stories focus on discoveries, too little on questioning research agendas.
Big stories are getting missed – tend to be stories where science is not doing brilliantly; e.g. medical research is not doing well at the moment – pipeline of drugs is no bigger than 20 years ago, we are getting worse at discovering new drugs but stories only focus on breakthroughs (which don’t reach the patients).
William Cullerne Bown says science journalism is failing, especially financially.
Kenny Campbell, Editor of Metro, comes out fighting for the traditional newsroom, claiming to a room full of science journalists that the reason science is not represented well enough is because of them, yes, the audience. A scientist has two complaints about the media, Kenny says, 1. That a newsroom isn’t covering the story, 2. That they aren’t covering it properly. The problem is that what we class as interesting is different to what he’d want to read. Where we are interested in the process of science, he is interested in the outcome, the big headlines, so how can we solve this? One way is to keep interacting with the press, but to learn from your mistakes, don’t let the same thing happen twice. If a story about a scientific discovery comes in front of him and interests him, it’ll be in, the problem is making the story and telling it well.
Ian Katz, Deputy Editor of the Guardian, takes a more sympathetic stance on science news, he brings up the fact that on the Guardian website the science section gets the same amount of hits as the politics and travel sections with a comparably tiny team. People are interested in science, whenever the public are polled on what they want to read more of, the two topics which always come up are foreign news and science. The Guardian is above other newspapers in its science coverage, but Ian expresses that the reason this is true is because it is not as worried about breaking even, so it can protect the specialist writers where otherwise it may not be possible. What the future may bring would be a collaboration between specialist blogs and newspapers, so perhaps the role of a newsroom science journalist is fading out.
Martin Fewell, Deputy Editor of Channel 4 News, is arguably the most appreciative of science journalists, he claims that his science correspondent is worth his weight in gold (a figure that he later produces – roughly £2,000,000) because as soon as something newsworthy happens that’s deeply rooted in science – Fukushima, the dust cloud – the knowledge that the correspondent knows is incredibly precious at that point. Scientific reporters can also look at general news stories from a scientific standpoint and show a completely different – and sometimes award winning – way of doing things.
For one looking to schmooze, the conclusion of this talk is to stay away from the Metro. The cruel reality is that science as we are currently doing it doesn’t sell and what is needed is either a change in how we produce scientific stories, or to accept that Rihanna will more often be front page of a newspaper than my lecturer.
Richard Lea says that just because your blog has 3000 users, doesn’t mean that you have a sure fire way to get your book published. It shows you have an audience, but if your proposal is no good then the publishers probably won’t go for it.
Richard Lea is a writer and editor of Guardian Books. He speaks about popular science best-sellers.
These include, Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, The God Dillusion and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.
Best-seller of this year is dominated by Brian Cox (so perhaps you should have a successful TV show first, he says)
It’s been send that there’s four or five key features in successful science books. He gives the following features that a successful book and author should have.
“Arresting idea, amazing idea, story that you’re passionate to tell at length.”
“Topicality and timing.”
“Take on the experts, be bold enough to say what you think is going on.”
Carl Zimmer explains why he wants to write a science book.
He says that you always do a lot of research and then select what portion you can use in your story, even if it’s a 5000 word feature, all the research he couldn’t use drove him crazy. On top of wanting to use all his research he also said that there’s a much deeper relationship between the writer and the reader which he says he wanted to get into.
Peter Tallack, found of The Science Factory, is an agent. He says paper publishers don’t really know about the book.
They don’t want copycat books. There are many different responses from publishers.
Publishers are looking for certain things including: a new angle, important, credible, he says that journalists who immerse themselves in their topic are particularly good and finally passion, he says.
Carl Zimmer advises that people don’t self-publish and go through an agent.
Carl Zimmer, science blogger and author, joins us by video link from the USA. He speaks about the difference between publishing his first book and his latest book.
He felt that he had enough information to sustain a book, with a hefty story. He used his research and developed a proposal, including an overview of the book and a sales pitch to a publisher. “I had a lucky break with my first book,” he says.
He says that people should find an agent and go from there.
Steve Yentis is the Editor-in-Chief of Anaesthesia, one of Britain’s two journals focusing on the area. He started his talk with some interesting details about people who have had papers retracted. Scott Reuben, who had 21 papers retracted in 2009. Joachim Boldt, who is currently the most retracted author with 80 out of 88 papers retracted. But Yoshitaka Fujii currently has 193 papers under suspicion. At various different point journals need to look at misconduct.
Peter Aldhous, San Francisco Bureau Chief, New Scientist, followed on from this. He shows that many similar things are happening in stem cell research. He says that there were many several high profile papers that people struggled to replicate. In 2002 a paper was published in Nature, he says, that showed adult bone marrow cells being capable of doing anything embryonic stem cells could do. But the papers were looked at, and people said that the data could not have been collected in the way that was described. “Everybody was all over it. The reason was it was a political big deal in the US,” he says. He is worried that falsification of data and scientific misconduct is more common than we are aware: “I suspect it’s quite common. I think there’s probably a lot more of this than we think there is.”
He makes it clear that journalists should not be cheerleaders. Journalists need to look at science and scrutinise it. He says that journalists need to be aware that the scientific literature may not be perfect, and should be prepared to do the extra research and interviews.
Ginny Barbour is the Chair of CoPE (committee on publication ethics). She asked just how common misconduct was, and found that image manipulation is one of the worse areas. J Cell Biology found 1% of their papers contained image manipulation.
“The more high profile an area is, the more likely that findings are going to be false,” she says.
But journalists can do something about this – they shouldn’t just find the biggest story, they should find the good stories. She says: “One key part is to be a critical friend, not just a critic.”
Journalists should work alongside scientists to improve scientific conduct, instead of just exposing scientific misconduct. She says: “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”
They sum up.
Peter emphasises that there is a need the image manipulation version of cross check in order to reduce image duplication, falsification and plagiarism.
Ginny says that the scientific literature is not perfect. We all need to be critical friends. Don’t accept anything in a non-questioning way.
Steve says: “The story is in the fact that there is misconduct. That’s a great story.” He says that he thinks that journalist’s role is to go after the institutions. He says that journalists should talk to institutions and ask who is responsible for their policy and teaching people that misconduct is not acceptable.
Journalists cannot routinely do investigative work into research misconduct, says Peter Aldhous, they need to be aware that scientific literature is not perfect.
We need an image version of Crosscheck to detect image manipulation.
Dave Mosher, Christine Ottery and Laura Wheeler were our hosts through a whirlwind ride of useful software for science news. First up is Evernote, a place to aggregate links, tweets, voice notes, anything you could possibly want to attach to a certain topic, it is popular amongst journalists for the ease in which you can sort by stories.
If this then that (ifttt.com) is a handy online tool to link up all of the different online services you use and develop ‘recipes’. A sample ‘recipe’ would be one which immediately posts a tweet linking to your blog as soon as you post it on blogger, or one which sends you an email once you miss a call on Google voice, a service from Google which gives you cheap overseas calls and a hilariously bad transcript of voicemail – voice recognition has a way to go.
Then we come to Smartsheet, a rather clever spreadsheet that can be set up to email you when a certain deadline approaches, it’s a collaborative online service – useful for a group who have lots of different deadlines. One I think we will use at Bang! Science Magazine if we can get the publisher to pay for it.
Scrivener is a way of writing a long article or a book, it is easy to split a work into sections such as chapters and attach different bits of research and notes or plans to each separate chapter, great if you have the patience to sit down past 500 words. Storify was my favourite of the show, it’s a really easy way of creating stories around twitter posts, so gauging reactions to particular stories and making them interesting and fun to read. It also accepts embedding of videos, songs, other websites, basically anything the internet can offer.
Topsy made me feel sad. As one of the twitterers at this conference (@JoeyMFaulkner) I was excited to see my name up in lights as the program showed the tweets done on a certain topic, in this case #ukcsj. Apparently computers are smarter than that. Topsy realised that I was rubbish and no one really cared about what I thought, so decided to ignore me and instead show us the tweets of people who were clever and witty. I don’t like the 21st century.
A great talk, if only I was good enough for it.
We need to think like journalists, we can’t be cheerleaders, as Peter Aldhous.
COPE’s guidilines for journalists
There is an enormous pressure to publish and churn out papers , which can lead to misconduct.
A common goal is to have scientific literature we can all trust.
Journalists should be a ‘critical friend’ not just critics of science/journals/editors; understand that scientific literature is not perfect; tell the story when scientists and editors do the right thing; and think again what the story is.
Editors need to be aware of the issue to act – the tools to detect misconduct are out there.
COPE website has a section for journalists telling them where to go for information on misconduct.
Ginny Barbour, Chair of COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) says there is ‘staircase’ of misconduct, cites a Croatian medical Journal paper on the issue
Misconduct probably more common then we think. What would the scientific literature look like if journalists had more time to examine it, rather than just act as cheerleaders for science, asks Aldhous.
Some universities don’t investigate papers suspected for misconduct that are too old.
A small story on flawed data in stem cell research went viral, says Peter Aldhous, San Francisco Bureau Chief, New Scientist.
A few corrections followed and they pushed on with more articles looking at manipulated images in research papers.
Then the tip-offs started trickling in.
Yentis ends his presentation, but without many pointers to how science journalists can help uncover misconduct.
Steve Yentis, Editor in Chief, Anaesthesia, talks about the big cases of research misconduct in the field of anaesthesia.
Richard Fisher starts off our talk, the features editor of New Scientist. What his talk is based on is his move from News to Features, there is a common misconception, he says, that a Feature is just a long news piece. A good Feature is a story, people are more likely to be convinced by a story, he adds the practical point that when you’re talking to a scientist, you don’t want to tell the reader about how their beard looked, “pointless colour” should be avoided. Humanisation could come in the form of how they told you what they told you, are they wistful? Is there a regret?
A good story needs a protagonist, an inciting incident and a goal, the details should be about the successes and setbacks – and we can apply this to science journalism. Does science follow the “there are 7 story structures” theory? We’ll leave that to another talk. Something I need to mention is that of all of the example features he showed, I was annoyed I couldn’t hear more, a good demonstration of his craft.
Tom Levenson follows, a professor of science writing at MIT and the author of 4 books. He believes that character is important, but not in the traditional sense – humanizing scientists is boring, they’re just people. How you should humanize a scientist is by getting inside their mind as they do what they’re recognised for, how did they feel when they won the nobel prize? Scene is important aswell – not the physical description of the place, but how what happened was affected by where it was. Tom says that in science we have the privilege of making Nature a character, what did the star do, and how did we find out about it? It is a fantastic way of framing and moving along a story.
Manjit Kumar, the author of ‘Quantum’, comes to us with his story of how he got his inspiration. Quantum Mechanics, due to its experimental absurdity, has been covered massively by popular science books. What Manjit believed wasn’t probed enough was the relationship between Bohr and Einstein, first seeing the 1947 conference with the household names of QM including both of the protagonists, what happened at that conference and how did it feel?
To really get the reader in this conference he decided to start with a brief story of the picture and then explored from where each of the main players found their seats. The structure he decided on defined the scope of the book and then the scope of the book then defined what he had to research – the book became its own producer, a fascinating glimpse into the method of an author.
PR and journalism are often seen as two different sides of the same fence. As the news model is changing the lines between PR and journalism are seeming to blur.
Andy Williams, lecturer at Cardiff University, talks about the problem of churnalism. He believes that journalists don’t have enough time now to fully check their stories and looking at all the facts – as they are now expected to do more work with less time. This leads to the dangers of simplification and hype – although these have been with us for some time.
Martin Moore, Director of Media Standards Trust, believes that the business model for news journalism is in trouble. He says that pointing to finger and blaming each other is not productive: “Stop saying it’s your fault, no it’s your fault.” Similarly to Andy Williams, he says that journalists have been given a lot of space to fill, and not a lot of time to do it. But the question he asks, is not whose fault this is. But instead: “How can we better serve the public?”
He believes that science communicators should adopt more journalistic values, in order to avoid misinforming the public. He talks about someone who sent out false press releases to see just how fragile the system is. One such release was a chastity belt with an alarm that goes off when the wearer is about to “misbehave.” It went out practically unchecked, and was picked up internationally. Once something gets into news agencies it is easy to get them into the system. This fragility is one of the reasons why he believes that there needs to be more transparency of sources in news stories. He believes that more journalists should link to their sources.
Ruth Francis is the Head of Press at Nature Publishing Group. She argues that public relations haven’t really changed, there are just new tools, “but we’re still doing what we’ve always done,” she says. Ten years ago she says that she would fax out 1000 press releases for a charity events. Now she can contact 4000 journalists by an email almost instantly. “Pace has changed rather than our skill set.” She believes that the same is happening with journalists. Journalists use Twitter not only to crowd source, but also to promote their own writing. Newspapers have always relied on selling papers and advertising. Nothing has changed other than the tools she believes.
She says that PR fills a void, and that void has been created by a changing model. There is a difference between PR and journalism which is becoming less obvious, but she isn’t worried: “I don’t think the public are stupid, I think they can tell the difference between PR and journalism.”
Science progresses when we have really good problems not lots of money and the best labs, says Jay Rosen, media critic, writer, and professor of journalism at New York University.
The best problems are often wicked problems, and he says: “You don’t understand the problem until you have the solution.”
How to fund public-service press is a wicked problem. Climate change denial is another one.
To address such problems he suggests a beat managed not by individual journalists but by a network of people – the beat itself would reside in the network. Instead of the little books with expert contacts that journalists are so precious about, we need a network, where everyone is a publisher and could contribute to solving wicked problems.
Wicked beat “can’t rely on experts”, it is a learning machine – getting smarter itself over a time.
And journalists should realize that their “readers know more than I do.”
Alternating between global understanding and local solutions is the way forward in solving such wicked problems.
Consensus never happens in solving such problems, but there is a need for understanding of starting points of different stakeholders.
Science journalists, bloggers and publishers are “all the same game”, making a good progress in the digital age.
How would we fund such a networked beat to figure out wicked problems? Rosen doesn’t have an answer.
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.
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?