Science and the New "Graphic Journalism"

Science was borne from observation and continues to rely on new ways of seeing phenomena. If it's such an innately visual practice, why has science been so difficult to illustrate?

This was the topic of an interactive session on graphic journalism at the October NASW annual meeting in Spokane. Even the best science writing often runs with sub-par art, according to visual journalist Rebecca Perry and editor Rosalind Reid, who led the interactive session.

To demonstrate the value of informational artwork, participants were divided into groups and asked to choose graphic accompaniments for a New York Times article on upwardly mobile water droplets. Still and moving images drawn from the homepage of the scientist quoted in the story, along with a headshot of the scientist, were among the items dolled out to designated groups.

While one group argued over whether or not it's kosher to exaggerate the dimensions of the droplet, another discussed coloring the water an attention-grabbing pink. Group D's frenzied conversation revolved around getting the handsome scientist in on the action. They developed an analogy in which heated water hovering over a laboratory platform was like sweat hopping up a hunk's six pack.

Other groups presented a range of more moderate ideas: cartoon droplets on moving legs, labeled diagrams, videos and interactive graphics for the web, a podcast of the scientist explaining the phenomenon, a photograph of the researcher in his lab.

"All of the proposals were good, depending on the audience," Reid said. "The graphic the Times actually used was more straightforward than some of those presented, but that is because the Times appeals to a certain kind of reader."

And the athletic hunk with sweat crawling up his abs? "I liked this and the cartoon of legged droplets because humor is important in science. They didn't get all the information out, but they were fun," said Reid.

Although "visual narratives" should help describe a concept or phenomenon, the writer must consider where the story will run, who is the audience, and what are the best tools for getting their main idea across. On the Internet, options expand manifold with animation, interactive maps, and sound-bites.

"The range of ideas presented by the groups really showed that writers have the ability to think of big pictures," Reid said.

Reid recommended sketching out ideas while writing, so that when the time comes for a graphic, it's not simply a hurried "Google affair." Think about how a diagram might explain an idea, or how an attractive image might catch the reader's eye. How could these be combined?

In the audience, Alan Brown reminded us to ask researchers for videos and graphics during the interview, as well as to ask about copyright issues before the graphic quest becomes a clerical headache. Finally, Reid added that freelancers might ask to be paid to find a graphic, which can often be a time-consuming process.

Amy Maxmen is a freelancer for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a writing intern at Psychology Today. She lives in New York City and Cambridge, Mass.

Oct. 29, 2007

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