PR Stays True to Science

Science writers are in the business of communicating real, worthwhile, exciting science — working either as science journalists or public information officers. It's not about the job title; it's about communicating new scientific discoveries to the intended audience.

This was the overriding message delivered at "Switching Gears: Journalism to PR," a workshop session at the recent meeting of the National Association of Science Writers in Spokane, Wash. Speakers included Glennda Chui, Doug Levy, and Lee Siegel, all career newsroom journalists who made the switch to public relations.

"I don't feel like this is a bad thing to be doing," said Chui, who edits symmetry, a magazine on particle physics published by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University Linear Accelerator Center. "It's not bad if you can believe in it." Levy and Siegel, who also work for nonprofit organizations whose work excites them, whole-heartedly agreed.

"What's the most exciting thing about being a journalist?" Levy asked the audience. "Finding out something really cool and telling people about it. We do the same thing in our PR organizations." Levy, who is the director of communications for the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, explained that he uses the same skills in his current position as he used as a journalist -- selecting worthwhile science discoveries and translating them for nonscientists. "We're all still doing science communications," he said, "but now I can have an impact on what people need to know."

The speakers explained their decisions to make the switch from journalism to public relations, offering several reasons, including an overwhelming sense that news outlets across the country are increasingly hesitant to cover good science in their news reports.

For example, Chui's former employer, the San Jose Mercury News, recently cut its science section and laid off reporters one by one, a move that Chui said was "demoralizing and dispiriting" to workers. Siegel, who covered science for the Associated Press for more than a decade, said his "editors were getting increasingly allergic to science stories." And, he added, he was frustrated by working with what he described as inexperienced public information officers.

None of the speakers regretted the decision to switch career gears. "This job is more fun than any job I've had before," said Siegel. "Putting out a good news release and seeing how you can get it to go all over the world if it's a good enough story is fun."

Krista West is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks, Alaska, with her husband and two sons. She specializes in writing science reference books for young adults and has a passion for biology.

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