Module JD130

Science Journalism

Module author

Thomas Hayden

Stanford University

Learning objectives After you have completed this module, you will be able to:
  • Understand the history of science journalism, and what distinguishes this beat within the broader world of journalism.
  • Appreciate the scope and range of science journalism, including the different types of outlets, audiences, and stories that make up the ecosystem of science journalism.
  • Identify potential science stories and refine them into clearly defined story ideas, complete with a news peg, relevant sources, technical context, and a sense of their importance to your audience.
  • Accurately and efficiently report science stories, including those based on journal articles, scientific conferences, social and political developments, and breaking news events.
  • Craft clear, coherent, engaging articles based on your reporting. These include news articles based on current events and journal articles, in-depth feature articles that capture longer-term developments, and profiles of prominent people in science.
  • Construct a strategy for your science journalism career, including pitching stories to editors, blogging and self-publishing to build experience and reputation, and using social media to engage with colleagues, sources, and your audience.
  • Manage the complexity and uncertainty that underlie much of the source material for science journalism.
  • Avoid the pitfalls of reporting on controversial and contested areas of science, including climate change, biotechnology, vaccinations, and evolution.
  • Envision the future of science journalism, including the emergence of new platforms, reporting and storytelling technologies, and business models.

Chapter One: The Origins of Science Journalism

Chapter Two: The Scope and Range of Science Journalism

Chapter Three: Science Journalism as a Beat Apart

Chapter Four: Finding Science Stories

Chapter Five: Reporting Science Stories 1: Conducting Interviews

Chapter Six: Reporting Science Stories 2: Journal Articles and Scientific Conferences

Chapter Seven: Writing Science Stories

Chapter Eight: Digital and Social Media

Chapter Nine: Dealing with Complexity, Uncertainty, and Controversy

Bonus points 2
Preview Science Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Science Journalism is important

Science journalism is a challenging calling. While all journalism involves a degree of translation between the specific knowledge the writer has to something the reader can understand, this task is particularly difficult for science journalists. Scientific research is so advanced that people spend many years in education before they can even start doing it, and journalists are expected to take the most cutting-edge results from research and communicate them to the general public. Science journalism is especially difficult because the different areas of science are so diverse that it is almost impossible to master enough knowledge of more than one of them so that you can cover new research in different fields.

Despite the difficulty of effective science journalism, it is a necessary service that is in high demand. It is important that the educated public understand the current state of scientific endeavor, both for their own curiosity and so that they can make informed decisions about public policy related to science.


Why study Science Journalism?

This course will prepare you to be an effective science journalism in several ways. First, you will learn about the history of science journalism and its distinctive aspects. You gain a detailed understanding of the inside workings of scientific journalism, the types of stories and audiences that scientific journalists encounter, and where science journalism gets published. You will also learn the complete process of taking a new scientific breakthrough or trend and crafting it into a well-written story. A central tenet of science journalism is accuracy- how to capture the details of science while staying true to the original intent and also avoiding losing the reader. You also need to be able to tackle anything from current events to old streams of literature that tie into ongoing work, and understand the main figures in your area of science. Working in science literature has an element of strategy to it as well- you have to learn to sell you work to the reader, to the editors, to fellow writers, and anyone else who is important to the connection between you and the audience. Modern science journalism demands an openness to freelance work like blogging as well so that you can raise your visibility. Mastering the scientific material is an endeavor in itself- you will need to put in a lot of time and energy to boil down the science to key points and ideas. The science isn't always easy to talk about, either- topics like climate change, evolution, genetics, and vaccination tend to be controversial, and a science journalist must be able to handle that. And just as science is a process of pushing the boundary of human knowledge outward, science journalists must continually redefine and adapt to the new tools and approaches of modern journalism, like social media and the death of print. It is a comprehensive class that aims to provide extensive training in scientific journalism.


Module overview

The module is divided up into nine chapters, and each chapter focuses on a broad area for the student to learn. The first chapter is about the origins and history of scientific journalism. Science is a central part of human progress, but without people to disseminate the research scientists do, that research can't enrich people's lives. Scientific journalism is a way for scientists to indirectly, through the journalist, explain why their research is important and how their results could affect the common man. The process of reporting on science is old, and it has undergone many changes over time. It is crucial to understand the origins of scientific journalism in order to know how the field has evolved and where it is likely to move next.

The second chapter concerns the scope and range of scientific journalism. What topics should scientific journalism report on, and how much responsibility do journalists have to seek out scientific stories? The scientific journalist needs to know what constitutes an appropriate topic and what "scientific journalism" really means. The definition of the topics that constitute scientific journalism as well as the style in which journalists report on them has changed, so an appreciation for history helps students with the second chapter as much as the first one.

The third chapter gets into the nitty gritty details of what sets scientific journalism apart from other types of journalism. It is a sufficiently different practice that it requires a different skillset and attitude, not to mention preparation and training. Scientific journalism is no better or worse than other parts or journalism, or more or less worthy of reading, but it is simply different. Understanding what separates scientific journalism from other kinds of reporting is an important step in understanding how to actually do scientific reporting.

The fourth chapter is a practical one. It deals with finding scientific stories. In scientific journalism, writers tend to get attached to specific fields. This is because understanding science and research is so difficult and so time-consuming that it is very hard to switch from reporting on, say, advances in genetics to reporting on new results in robotics. Therefore, scientific journalists need to build up connections and credibility within their field of choice. This has the additional benefit of cluing you in to potential new stories in the form of big papers or new research projects. Being closely connected to the scientific community gives you access to the buzz around upcoming research, and following that buzz is a good way to find a story.

Chapter 5 is the first of two chapters about reporting. This one deals with interviews. Just about all scientific journalism pieces have at least some input from scientists. It is a delicate balance to secure quotes and information from scientists involved in the research and balance them out with opinions from researchers in the same field, but who weren't involved in the project at hand. That gives the reader a set of different expert and informed opinions about the same subject. Performing complex, technical interviews with busy scientists is not always easy- they are wiling to share their work with the world, but time demands and their own worry that you might misreport their findings means it will not be easy to get what you want. This chapter will contain the tools and techniques for conducting useful interviews with researchers.

Chapter 6 is a follow-up to chapter 5. It discusses the specific locations where scientific research is found: in scientific journals and conferences. Different fields vary greatly in the respective importance of publishing in journals as opposed to presenting at conferences. Similarly, within fields, different journals and conferences have vastly different reputations and areas of expertise. Understanding how to find good research articles, how much to trust them, and what it means for a given result to be published or presented in a certain place are essential institutional knowledge for scientific journalists. The conferences and journals are where scientists discuss research, so it is the best place for journalists to observe that conversation and turn the most important or interesting parts of it into stories.

Chapter 7 concerns the nuts and bolts of writing science stories. Sitting down and actually turning a pile of notes from interviews and readings into a readable story is far from easy. It takes skill, practice, and understanding of both what readers know and what is most important in the science to make a science story interesting. There are many subtle ways to bridge the gap between the bleeding edge of science and the knowledge a typical reader has, and this chapter will cover them in detail.

Chapter 8 takes a look at social media and digital publishing. These are new advances that every journalist will encounter: they are displacing and disrupting the way journalism has operated for most of the 20th century. Coming to grips with social media and digital tools is the most important way a journalist can make themselves relevant, and relevance is a problem about which scientific journalists need to be particularly aware. On the other hand, the science journalist is more likely than average to be open to new advances and innovations simply because of their training and background, so science journalists are a naturally good choice for people who would be good at adapting to digital evolution.

The ninth and last chapter is a difficult one. It concerns how to tackle complexity in scientific issues, how to communicate uncertainty, and how to deal with controversy. New scientific research is a complex process with complex results, and turning those results into a few paragraphs that anyone can read risks glib summaries that lose the important facts for the sake of readability. As for uncertainty, all scientific research has a degree of uncertainty- no scientist can ever be sure that their results are true. Communicating this to readers without undermining the result is a challenge. Finally, controversial science needs delicate handling. You need to balance impartiality with the risks of giving a platform to an opposition viewpoint that might lack scientific credibility.