From scientist to journalist

A couple of weeks ago I came across a Wellcome Trust blog post by Kathryn Lougheed, a microbiologist who writes entertainingly about her experience (through the British Science Association’s media fellowship scheme) of spending a few weeks at Nature News to find out how science reporting works. Her observations touch on a couple of things that reminded me of my own journey from research scientist to news writer — working out what’s news, for one thing, and writing about things you know little about.

Though in my experience, writing about something you know a lot about can be just as challenging, for different reasons: being able to see your subject in all its detail makes it harder to outline the essentials that will make a story that’s brief and easy to follow. I’ve dealt with that in different ways, depending on the story, but on the whole I would say that what works is to marshal just the knowledge that’s essential to tell the story in a way that adds depth and context for the reader. If using some expertise helps in framing a question, or navigating nuances in the writing, then that’s where expertise becomes an asset rather than a burden. The trick is to let the story show the way.

The journey from scientist to journalist (or writer and editor, in my case) takes some adjusting. You have to be prepared — or even better, keen — to step back and away from the narrow niche of your work, and look at it through a wider lens; reading more extensively will help give that peripheral vision. You can hold on to your specialist knowledge at the same time, maybe even develop it into your ‘beat’.

You have to be willing and able to write differently — there is a way to do it without sacrificing complexity, something I write about in a Nature letter. And you have to think about your readers’ needs more than you do about your colleagues’. Empathy for non-scientist readers is one of the decisive factors in a scientist finding success as a journalist according to John Wilkes, Director of the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, writing in an informative and insightful essay published in EMBO Reports earlier this year.

The journey from scientist to journalist is also one that brings new understanding about how the world of science works, particularly if you choose to delve into policy. You may or may not want to join in with a sceptical — or even cynical — media that assumes most scientists will put self-promotion ahead of a balanced take on the story on hand. But a little scepticism goes a long way in helping to work out what’s news; through experience, this feeds into an ability to make quick judgments on topics about which you don’t have specialist knowledge.

New perspectives and skills aside, there is the sheer satisfaction of seeing your work published and read widely; the satisfaction, too, of biting a chunk out of evolving knowledge about the world and turning it into a story, a narrative. There is freedom in that — I remember, years ago, reading about environmental pollution in popular magazines with a mix of admiration and envy because the writer could put knowledge alongside yet-unproven theories in an insightful way that links science with real lives (and that, for valid reasons, the scientific paper simply does not allow). Of course, with that freedom comes the responsibility to write with integrity; but misrepresentation and sensationalism are dangers of which scientists are, in general, very much aware.

Taking the leap into journalism isn’t for everyone. But scientists can get better at communicating their work and interacting with the media without full-on journalistic training. Programmes like the British Science Association’s scheme are a great way to get a taster, and there is guidance available online.