Tips for Public Radio Science Reporters: How to Start Covering Something You Know Nothing About

Williams, Loretta

Few of us have had more than high school biology, chemistry or physics, yet we are called upon to explain such wide reaching topics as epigenetics, exoplanets and the workings of solar energy. Fear not. Like any beat, science reporting is more about knowing where to look and whom to call, and less about personal expertise. This Tip Sheet offers some ideas on where to look when faced with a science topic you know nothing about.

Don’t reinvent a Google search, start with those who have come before you:

When faced with a new topic, perform a targeted search. Reporters for the New York Times Science section have had to explain science to a smart but general readership for years. Ira Flatow has been doing the same on NPR’s Science Friday for two decades. If you start your search at those sites, you’ll go further faster. The information is trustworthy and the explanations will be clear enough to give a good toehold into the topic.

Next try science magazine websites. Scientific American, Science News, and Discover are all written for a lay audience. Wired and Technology Review, while more focused on technology still do interesting explanatory articles on a wide range of science topics.

Don’t ignore the economic and business side of science. The Economist doesn’t. You can find articles and blogs about a wide range of science and technology topics at the Economist website: The business pages of major newspapers also regularly cover science stories.

If you are doing a story based on a specific piece of research, you should read and understand the associated journal article, however many journal articles are behind expensive pay walls. Resist the urge to just go with the press release. Contact the PIO of the affiliated university or institute and ask for the journal article. Read the introduction and the conclusion. If you can’t understand the results it’s time ask for help.

Hopefully you’ll have already signed up for the public discussion group NASW-talk on the National Association of Science Writers website. If your beat is the environment, join The Society of Environmental Journalists and subscribe to the SEJ-Talk listserv. Both organizations are full of experienced writers, reporters and editors. SEJ members are particularly quick to respond when someone has a question.

Make use of the PIO’s who call you all the time to ask if they have scientists in their academic ranks that don’t mind acting as casual advisors. You want folks who will call you back and will help point you in the right direction and steer you away from the wrong direction when you are on deadline.

If you want to know how well other journalists are covering a particular science news story check out the MIT-Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The Columbia Journalism Review has The Observatory that also analyzes trends in science journalism, and if you are interested in reading how other science journalists do their jobs try following the posts of The Open Notebook. The blog’s tagline is “ the story behind the best science stories.”

Stay Informed.

Subscribe to RSS and/or Twitter feeds. It’s the easiest way to have a flow of information come to you.

For a daily taste of what’s happening in the science-sphere, try one or more of the RSS feeds at Science News.

Search Twitter for your topic. A good feed will regularly send links to news in your topic of interest. Look for ones curated by a science reporter, scientist or academic institution you already know. If you are new to Twitter try the American Scientist twitter feed for starters.

Google Alerts are good if you want to know about more obscure sightings of your topic on the web or if you are following a topic that doesn’t have a lot of news.

Prefer hardcopy? Subscribe to Scientific American or New Scientist. They are monthly publications and if you feel guilty about killing trees you can buy Scientific American as a digital download. Both have online archives, and on the Scientific American you can find a good combination of concepts, background and reporting on current research. Neither is free but the cost is low enough to be worth the expense.

Deep Background, General Science Reading

Peer-reviewed science journals include the heavy hitters, Nature and Science. Both have some free content and some articles, such as their editorials, are fairly easy reading and often will illuminate the questions swirling around a science topic. If your search is in the biological realm try the Public Library of Science Online, a free peer-reviewed collection of online journals.

If you are going to regularly cover a specific science topic, find out which peer-reviewed journals you should be reading. Universities and colleges have access to an impressive number of science journals, (usually online). If you are working a specific story you can often find articles that show how another scientist approached a related or similar research question.

Take in a free lecture through the open courseware now offered by many universities. MIT, Stanford and Yale, are just a few of the schools that put their lectures online or offer them through iTunes. Academic Earth is one site that aggregates some of the best lectures in one place but many more are available at individual schools.

Look for books written by scientists for a lay audience. Books can give you the history and context of a topic. When I worked on a documentary about why Earth‘s climate was suitable for the evolution of life, I read Venus Revealed by David Grinspoon which helped me understand how scientists used the data received from the Magellan probe in the early 90s to understand the climate here on Earth. Library databases such as InfoTrac, are good sources for official reviews of recent books in your subject area, and of course Amazon entries often include both published editorial and informal reviews.

Loretta Williams has been a producer and editor for NPR and is a former managing editor for SoundVision. She has reported on topics ranging from wildlife issues to infectious disease. Her work been recognized with many national honors.