Science writers–do their backgrounds matter?

A scientist/engineer by training I’ve grown accustom to asking, “How is this possible?” or “What does this mean?” whenever I read about a science report in the news. So it is often surprising when friends and family remember the sensational by-lines from science news reports and seemingly overreact. However, their fears/concerns are often resolved when I point out the sometimes exaggerated facts and provide additional information that puts the story into better context. My motivation to become a science writer is to contribute to the public understanding of science news/research/opinions by keeping science in context; more importantly, with explanations that don’t end up causing unnecessarily fear/panic amongst the general public. 

I strongly believe that we can achieve the same goal even through different paths. As such, science writers (regardless of their education background) would aim to help society understand the changes that are going on by explaining complex scientific issues/theories and their impact on the average person. However, the educational background of a science writer inevitable influences how he/she will analyze a story.

In trying to avoid sounding like a struggling freelance science writer, I won’t try to justify who makes a better science writer—one with a journalism background or one with a science background. While the proportion of science-trained reporters is continuously growing, there are only a few prominent science-trained reporters in the media (e.g. immunologist Laurie Garrett at Newsday, physicists Kenneth Chang at the New York Times, and molecular geneticists Rosie Mestel at the Lost Angeles Times) [1]. Science-trained science writers are often perceived as being limited to their field. While this may be true on paper, a good scientist of any background inherently seeks the proof behind any story. Rather than accepting statements as facts, they consistently look for evidence to verify their arguments. Another challenge for science-trained reporters comes from the fact that the majority of editors in newpapers are also non-scientists [1]. From his experience as the Director of the Science Communication Program at the University of California in Santa Cruz, John Wilkes observed that editors often have a preference for hiring general reporters over science-trained reports. Particularly because the former are perceive by the editors to have an approach to a new subject that will likely be newer and better aligned with the reader’s interests.

Despite the obvious challenges of a scientist-trained science writer, the future still holds many opportunities. The popularity of blogging has greatly enabled aspiring writers (like myself!) to have their work exposed to the general public and create their own opportunities to write about science. Nature’s “50 Popular Science Blogs”, lists a variety of science blogs written by scientists, has further increased the popularity of science writing and the profile of science-trained writers [2].

Fortunately in the age of the internet, navigating through an unfamiliar career path isn’t as daunting and isolating as before. Entering “tips for new science writers” into a search engine pulls up pages of advice from seasoned professionals and/or those whom have experienced a similar transition. These words of encouragement and tips on what to watch out for are gladly welcomed. Armed with this knowledge and optimism to succeed, I’m ready to delve into the world of science writing.

———————-

Reference

[1] J. Wilkes, “Training scientists to be journalists,” EMBO reports, vol. 3, no. 11, pp. 1005-1008, Nov. 2002.

[2] Nature Publishing Group (2006). 50 Popular Science Blogs [Online]. Available: http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060703/multimedia/50_science_blogs.html


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One response to “Science writers–do their backgrounds matter?

  1. Hi Cath,

    Really nice blog. your post Science writers–do their backgrounds matter? « Basal Science … is very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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