Covering basic science in not so basic ways

By Huanjia Zhang

Early-stage science advances, often developed in animal models, are not as frequently or veritably reported because of their lack of clout. This can be a problem because incremental advancements are an important part of science that galvanize major scientific breakthroughs.

An experienced panel of journalists and public information officers (PIOs) convened at the Science Writers 2019 panel “Of mice and media: Rethinking how we cover basic science” to share their insights and tips for reporting on basic science or early advances.

“It is not that scientific communities don’t want these findings out there, they just don’t want them to be overstated or over-sensationalized,” said panel mediator Michele Berger, science news officer at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The key is to develop a story that can fill the translational gap,” said Karen Kreeger, director of communications at Monell Chemical Senses Center and former senior science communications manager at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Kreeger offered strategies such as blending pre-clinical lab work into a larger story, focusing the press release on incremental studies, and deploying multi-media platforms, such as images and videos, to enhance communications of basic science research.

Painting the big picture
For Alexandra Sifferlin, a deputy editor at Medium’s health and wellness publication Elemental and a contributing editor at Medium’s science and tech publication oneZero, covering basic science effectively entails communicating a broader trend.

Sifferlin rarely isolates one basic science study to cover. Instead, she reports studies in concert to construct a bigger picture of certain scientific fields. When composing stories on drug development, for instance, she takes the opportunity to educate the public on the fundamental science behind developing a drug. She poses questions to scientists like: “Why is it so hard to develop a drug?” or “Why do you study a specific pathway?”

For Vanessa Wasta, communications manager for basic science at Johns Hopkins Medicine, translation is key to delivering basic science news to the public. Wasta and her team sift through a high volume of basic science studies from three institutions and more than 250 faculty members and identify studies that need to be covered.

“I can’t necessarily make people interested in basic science,” Wasta said. “However, I can make people interested in good stories.”

In order to compose good stories, science writers need to provide ample context to the audience to help them to understand the science behind the story, Wasta said. They can also use narrative tactics, such as developing interesting ledes or adopting vivid analogies, to make the stories more readable.

Ron Winslow, a freelance writer and former health and science reporter at The Wall Street Journal, emphasized the risks and rewards involved in covering early science innovations. To that point, he shared two anecdotal stories from his WSJ career: his reporting efforts on an early drug development that failed clinical trials, and his coverage of tinman genes, a notable scientific advancement.

Despite the risks of covering early science development that may eventually fail, Winslow still encouraged science journalists to “pull those strings and see where they lead.”

Huanjia Zhang is a Pennsylvania-based freelance science writer and a recipient of a 2109 NASW Travel Fellowship. Folllow Huanjia on Twitter @huanjia_zhang.

Nov. 15, 2019

2019 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism