Making science spectacular online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative in Science Journalism

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

Capture

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

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

Keep

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

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

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

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

Content

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

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

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

Reproducibility in Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an ideal world, I would fully agree.

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

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

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

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

Matthew Gwynfryn Thomas can be found at matthewgthomas.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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