Hit the streets: How to bring non-scientists into science stories

By Sarah Witman

Without the perspective of non-scientists, the 1982 film "Blade Runner" would have been a basic explainer about bioengineering.

While expert sources are necessary to add credibility and nuance (and, ideally, personality) to the writer’s interpretation of a scientific concept, they might not effectively tell the whole story.

Non-scientists — a young stroke survivor, a bereaved parent, a victim of water contamination — can provide more context and emotional depth. They put a face to the data, illustrating how people are being affected.

In "Hit the streets: How to bring non-scientists into science stories," moderated by freelance journalist Julia Rosen, panelists discussed how to find these sources, and the value of including their perspectives, as well as tips and pitfalls to avoid.

To get in touch with potential sources, freelance journalist Liza Gross recommends starting online, such as with patient support groups on Facebook. For a story she wrote for the Washington Post, she started by contacting the administrator of a closed Facebook group for young stroke survivors, asking to post a message to the group.

When one woman was responsive, they "did a lot of chatting on Facebook Messenger," Gross recalled, noting that because of the cognitive damage that is often caused by stroke, she tried to be extra sure that the source recalled consenting to be interviewed.

"I told her I knew it was probably a difficult time for her, and I wanted to make sure she was comfortable talking to me," said Gross.

Freelance journalist Brendan Borrell prefers shoe-leather reporting tactics when covering international environmental issues.

"I love pounding the pavement," he said. "It’s like a scavenger hunt … you meet someone and then they tell you someone else to talk to."

Borrell often relies on a local scientist or non-governmental organization (NGO) employee to help navigate an unfamiliar culture and language.

Freelance journalist Laura Beil, who primarily covers health, warns reporters that relying on a doctor to connect with patients raises ethical questions. Since there is a "power imbalance" between a doctor and patient, she explained, the patient may feel beholden to talk to a journalist when they might not otherwise.

"Only if I'm desperate will I go through a doctor," said Beil, adding that she will try contacting patient advocacy forums or public information officers first.

Another place to get help with sourcing, as well as tracking down public documents, said Beil, is a law firm.

"Lawyers can be your friends," she said.

All three panelists emphasized that journalists must be extra-sensitive to the fact that civilians may be unaware of what they are agreeing to when they speak to a reporter, especially since they may be revealing embarrassing or painful elements of their lives.

This becomes ever more important in the age of Google. Tara Haelle, a freelance journalist in the audience, shared her own experience with maintaining sources’ privacy.

"If [granting anonymity] means I won’t have the anecdote I want," so be it, Haelle said. "I think editors are becoming more understanding of that … Maybe ask to use a middle name, so it’s not as searchable."

Above all, the panelists stressed the importance of empathy — from the point of contact to making final editorial decisions.

This process has "made me more diligent and transparent in how I deal with everybody," including experts, Gross said.