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All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Communicating science is all about telling stories. A few days ago at the World Science Festival, a stellar panel of science journalists and writers sat down to discuss the ways in which the Web is shaping and changing how those stories are told.

Moderating the "Telling Science Stories in Print and on the Web" discussion was journalist Cristine Russell, who began by noting "it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times – so what the Dickens is going on here?"

Author and journalist Carl Zimmer, environmental reporter Andy Revkin, blogger extraordinaire Bora Zivkovic, author Seth Mnookin and Columbia’s director of digital journalism Emily Bell proceeded to explore a constellation of topics regarding our ability to tell science stories in a rapidly changing media landscape. They covered everything from journalistic innovation to dealing with science (and anti-science) controversies, the role of science blogging to problems with peer-reviewed literature and pay walls, the changing nature of news consumption to the meaning of "story." Here are some highlights from the whirlwind tour.  

"A major change that’s taken place in the last five years is in the kind of options that you have to tell a story as a science writer." – Carl Zimmer

Zimmer recounts how, just in the past week, he wrote a traditional print story for the NY Times, a column for Discover Magazine, a wow-this-is-so-cool blog post on a virus that makes insects explode, and an explanatory blog post about chronic fatigue. The fact that he could write in so many formats and for so many purposes goes to show just how much journalism has changed.

"When I started out, my job was to write 300-word articles in a certain style and particular format, and that was it. I didn’t have any options – now we have lots of options," he said.

And lots more words. "People have assumed that new media means short media, because we all have short attention spans, and that’s just not true," Zimmer said. Sites like Slate have found that their longer pieces actually get more emailed and more read, and a number of companies (the Atavist, Byliner) have science stories 20-30,000 words long. These are quality pieces that didn’t exist before.

"When I’m in a good mood," said Zimmer, "I like to think about all the options we have now."  

"If you’re not pushing the limits, you’re missing audiences; you’re missing opportunities." – Andy Revkin

After calling the New York Times "a big old super tanker," Revkin talks about how hard it can be to innovate. The same walls he sees in academia also exist between newspaper editorial departments. A story has to be either a business story or a national story or a science story – but sustainability stories are often all of the above.

Things did change while Revkin was at the Times, thanks to a few people who were open to some unorthodox ideas. An editor finally let Revkin bring a video camera to the North Pole. "I figured if we’re spending thousands of dollars sending me to the ends of the earth, if I just go with a pen, a pad, and a computer, I’m being irresponsible as a communicator," he said. He shot as much as he could, capturing the sounds of the North Pole ice, the visuals, the sun going in circles. "Those were all vital elements of what I wanted to tell people, and if I just did that in text, forget about it."

On another trip to Greenland in 2004 he tried filing daily dispatches (there was no blogging at the Times yet). Those snippets included photos, notes, or thoughts about anything he ran into. Showing his steps along the way was crucial. "One thing that’s really important about telling the story of science is process. I think journalists do well to show the process of reporting, just like scientists," Revkin said.  

"Don’t just think of [blogging] as an outflow mechanism, this is a tool which will allow you to find collaborators, allow you to shape ideas and disseminate them as well." -Andy Revkin

Revkin thinks that many environmental blogs set up a sort of comfort zone for people, with nice couches and free drinks for liberals over here, libertarians over here, and then everybody else over there. He created his Dot Earth blog to be more of an interrogatory mechanism and a journey – follow me and you’ll have a rough idea of what we know about environmental issues.

The blog’s commentary has also led him to aspects of climate stories he never would have focused on. "I spent 20 years writing about the bio-geo-physical aspects of the climate question, and not about the sociological or psychological ones, until I started blogging," he said. It’s a two-way street, and there is so much to learn from other people.  

"I am frustrated by how little I am able to have productive interactions with people who disagree with me." – Seth Mnookin

Mnookin’s recent book The Panic Virus and his blog address the anti-science movement, specifically the controversy over vaccines and autism. And there’s nothing like controversy to get people commenting. A post on his blog might get hundreds of comments, but they’re usually from a pretty small group of people on both extremes – accusing him of killing children or thanking him for saving the universe by promoting vaccines.

"Neither of those are the people that I’m interested in talking to," said Mnookin. In online interactions, people without very strong opinions are the ones who are least likely to inject themselves into the conversation.

But the potential for different types of interaction is significant. For Mnookin, the most beneficial types of interactions have started over email – a format that has the ability to spark much longer conversations. For example, he had several long phone conversations with an NIH epidemiologist who disagreed with a point in his book. "That is not a conversation that would have happened 10 years ago," he said.  

"I do sleep." – Bora Zivkovic

This affirmation by the incredibly prolific blogfather set off a collective gasp from the audience and quite a flurry over Twitter. Zivkovic (@BoraZ) established himself early on in the science blogging community – he admits – by taking on the role of provocateur.

"In some ways those provocative analyses put me on the map as someone who thinks about the relationship between the Web, science, and the media," he said. Eventually Scientific American took him on to lead their blogging and social networking efforts.  

"A whole new generations of science bloggers have entered the field." – Bora Zivkovic

Science blogging has really evolved over the past six or seven years. Zivkovic notes that most prominent early science blogs came from a political blogging background, so there was a lot of creationism bashing or defending against pseudo science and medical quackery.

Since then, the scope of science blogging has expanded to people who have all sorts of backgrounds and different ideas about what to use blogging for. Zivkovic thinks that a strong sense of personality is one of the most important aspects of these new blogs. People read blogs not just to get information, but for the personal stories of people really excited about science. The traditional media has noticed this, and new blog networks are providing even more visibility for those voices.  

"It might be harder to get jobs, but it’s the most extraordinary time to be doing this." – Emily Bell

A London native, Bell feels at liberty to take the words of Charles Dickens and change them slightly: it’s the best of times and the best of times.

She recalls how when she started out as a print journalist, she got her stories by landline phone, wrote them up on a typewriter, and researched by going the basement where someone would hand her a file of newspaper clippings. Things are pretty different now. But they may be reverting back to a different kind of journalism.

"We’re back to a profession that is much more about really having a vocation to find out and to explain," she said. "It’s not an alternative career to investment banking, nor should it be."

Bell is particularly impressed by the speed, accuracy, variety and extraordinary depth of coverage that is possible right now for news events. Take the coverage of Fukushima – every morning you could read another detailed piece, delivered from experts, about millisieverts or anything else you knew nothing about. If you wanted, you could also look at an interactive graphic that actually showed what happened in detail. 

On the international level, Bell thinks that this is also an extraordinary time for countries that don’t have a developed press or the freedoms that exist in the US or in Europe. The Web is going to be a platform for the increasing interconnectedness between the free world and the not free world.  

"Another arena that’s shifting in the same way as print journalism is peer reviewed literature."  – Carl Zimmer

There have been a slew of recent examples of high profile papers that initially got a lot of traction in the mainstream media, but were eventually exposed to be full of errors. While the blogosphere can quickly act as a corrective, traditional science journals are still "ossified in their response," said Zimmer.

For example, take the arsenic-bacteria controversy. NASA scientists published a paper in Science about bacteria that supposedly used arsenic to build their DNA – an unprecedented alternative form of life. The media coverage went through the roof, but many scientists thought the paper was nonsense and shouldn’t have been published at all. A few of them took to the blogs and started "venting their spleen" about everything wrong with the paper, and the whole thing snowballed on Twitter. Even with all this criticism, NASA scientists refused to respond, saying it could only be done via the peer-reviewed literature.

"Basically they didn’t want a conversation, and we are in a conversation type mode now – it’s no longer one way," said Zimmer. "If you take the attitude that ‘I’m giving my press conference, and I’m telling the story the way I want you to write about it, and no other questions please,’ that’s ridiculous."

Six months later, Science finally published a formal critique. By that time it was old news – everyone had read about it on the blogs months ago. Bad papers are being de-frocked more quickly now, said Mnookin, because of a sort of hive mind corrective that could not and did not exist before. The discussion of science has shot forward, said Zimmer, and eventually he hopes it will be nearly open peer review.  

"The proprietary nature of science is going away, collaboration has many more merits." – Andy Revkin. "That’s what’s happened to journalism as well." – Emily Bell

The sense of ownership over scientific ideas and discoveries will be sacrificed for the benefits of collaborations and sharing of data, said Revkin. Traditionally, it’s been a few researchers at a university wanting full credit for their findings, rather than opening it up and seeking out every data set in the world related to their particular topic.

"There is an opportunity to reach out through the Internet to find out who is working on different problems," said Revkin. Exactly the same process is going on in journalism, according to Bell.

"Exclusivity used to be everything, you protected your story until publication and then it was yours, and once it was published it never changed," she said. Now stories operate in a much wider network, and in a much more collaborative way.   

"It costs you 30 bucks to get access to a [peer-reviewed journal article] for 24 hours.

But if you want to go read a made up story in a made up journal, that’s free." – Seth Mnookin  

Pay walls drive Mnookin crazy, especially when dealing with a topic like vaccines and autism. Major studies with millions of children debunking the link are extremely hard for the general public to access. On the other hand, someone can create the freely accessible Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which sounds a lot like the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, it’s a journal that wrote about how Obama won the election by exerting mind control over Jews and intellectuals. Yeah…  

Mnookin thinks that working scientists have a responsibility to interface with the public, and that it’s actually easier now for them to do this than ever before. But he sees a huge delay in the evolution of scientists’ thinking about this interaction.

Revkin gives an example regarding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gearing up for it’s fifth assessment on what we know about global warming, the leadership sent out a communication primer to scientists about what to say and what not to say. One of the words they advised scientists not to use – because the public apparently has a different definition – was "uncertainty".

"So their solution to the public misunderstanding of scientific uncertainty is not to talk about it," Revkin said. Oh dear.  

"One thing you’re going to have to be as an effective journalist in any area, and science is at the top of this list, is really transparent." – Emily Bell

Echoing Revkin’s emphasis on process, Bell thinks that showing what your interests are, how you’re funded, who you’re working for, your partnerships, etc., all establish your trust as an individual. While journalists used to be able to carry that trust around with them like a badge – oh, I work for the NY Times, trust me – it doesn’t happen that way anymore. Now it’s: look at what I’ve done, look at all my interactions, look at everything I’ve ever published, look at where I’ve been corrected and how I’ve responded, and now trust me.  

"Somehow scientists never actually get any education in writing – you’re supposed to just figure it out as you go." – Carl Zimmer

There’s both a need and a demand among science graduate students to learn how to write, yet it’s a skill that is almost totally absent from their education. Writing takes practice – it’s as if you went to graduate school to become a geneticist and your teachers said, well, along the way you’ll figure out how to do statistics. Sequencing DNA? Oh, the stuff’s over there, just look it up. Zimmer thinks that the more scientists get involved in the communication process, the more they need to be able to write clearly and eloquently. Training in writing needs to become a part of how scientists are brought up.  

"The word "story" changes meaning depending on who is talking about it." – Bora Zivkovic

On a panel all about stories and story telling, it seems appropriate to end with a closer look at what we mean by "story." Zivkovic emphasizes that the word story can be understood in two very different ways. In the vernacular, "story" is a narrative that builds up slowly and has resolution at the end. The default is fiction, and you have to say "true story" to make sure people understand that it’s based in reality. But for journalists, a story is a filed, fact-checked, 400-word inverted pyramid with the punch line in the title followed by the most important stuff.

The traditional journalist’s story is now in demise. Zivkovic sees it going in two different directions: the river of news and the explainer. On one hand you have the Twitter model, where short bursts of information tell you immediately about what just happened. On the other hand, for those people who want to know more about what those nuggets of news really mean, there are links to explainers. These are articles that provide the narrative and the context for people just tuning in to a story. And explainers really work – Zivkovic said that the explanatory posts published about Fukushima on the Scientific American blogs broke all the traffic records. People were clearly looking for scientific information and explanation of how earthquakes happen, how nuclear plants break down, etc.

Zimmer also sees a rise in explanation for the sake of explanation, particularly in the blogosphere. When news events happen people often just want to step back and have someone explain the bigger picture. Previously it’s been hard to find that kind of story in the newspapers, but it’s becoming much more common online.

Cartoons: Perrin Ireland

Photos: from World Science Festival

About the Authors: Lena Groeger [left] is a graduate student in New York University’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program. Before moving to New York she worked as a graphic designer for Brown University Health Education, and before that studied philosophy (the obvious choice for a science journalist). You can check out her Web site, follow her on Twitter, and find more of her writing on Scienceline.

Perrin Ireland [right] is a graphic science journalist who currently serves as Science Storyteller at AlphaChimp Studios, Inc. She uses art and narrative to facilitate scientists sharing their stories, and creates comics about the research process. You can find more of Perrin’s work here, and follow her on Twitter at @experrinment.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American. 

Related: More coverage of this panel can be found on the Nature Network and the WSF11 blog.

Update: See also coverage at Mother Geek.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. denysYeo 5:38 pm 06/6/2011

    Science writers are doing an amazing job of "bringing" science into the world of ordinary people like me. I think Carl’s point is a good one, assume we enjoy depth and quality – not that we have short attention spans. Keep up the excellent work!

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  2. 2. Pachacuti1 11:57 pm 06/6/2011

    For science to have an influence on major global issues (climate change, nuclear related health issues, nano-tech, GM, the planet’s carrying capacity, etc) it must enlighten the mass public to a degree where the science of such matters is accepted with sufficient confidence to motivate behavioural change. On most issues, this is not happening or at least not happening fast enough.
    The Pachacuti Project seeks to accelerate the process of shifting public perception by employing entertainment media as a vehicle for the message, in particular, feature film, television series and interactive ‘second world’ creations. By using interesting story-lines, (reality based fiction as opposed to Avatar-style fantasy) the general public and most importantly the consequential youth of the world can be better informed. Self funded entertainment has an added advantage in that it is possible to create honest informative material free of corporate, political and religious influence.
    The project is currently promoting material for screen that deals with many of the topical issues of climate change and sustainability, providing a great opportunity for scientific truth-telling where it can do the most good – the mass public arena. Further info can be accessed on http://www.pachacuti.com

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  3. 3. Nina_Becker 6:14 am 06/7/2011

    Concerning the example given about the IPCC; I would like to comment that rather having been told to not talk about uncertainty, the IPCC gives guidance to its authors on how to talk about it in order to prevent misunderstandings. With this, it also draws consequences from the independent review of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Council undertaken in 2010.

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  4. 4. Biocomicals 7:10 am 06/7/2011

    As a scientist and cartoonist, I also believe that so many things can be done by cartoons and explain them in a more fun way, and I do this at Biocomicals (http://biocomicals.blogspot.com)
    I would say, telling science by that way is the combination of arts and sciences.

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  5. 5. ludo hellemans 10:57 am 06/10/2011

    Once when I was a little kid (maybe four), I was very frightened by shadows moving on the wall of the room where I slept. The branches of a tree in front of the window were moving in the wind, and a full moon was projecting their shadows through the the half open curtains of the window. And the effect was rather spooky – I became almost hysterical with fear.
    But then my grandfather understood what was frightening me, and he cured me very effectively. He took me in his arms and explained at length and in detail what I was seeing: how the moonlight projected the shadows shadows of the moving branches on the wall next to my bed. Then we spent a long time experimenting: making shadows ourselves, making shadow shows with the help of a desk lamp. This experience – overcoming fear by finding out the natural causes of spooky things – has positively changed my life. It is one of my most cherished memories.

    I think that many children lack such liberating experiences. Many kids grow up in anti-intellectual environments where magical thinking is promoted at the expense of naturalistic thinking. I am convinced that this interferes in a negative way with the healthy growth and development of such basic mental powers as curiosity, sense of wonder, rationality and common sense. Religion, faith, pseudo-science often strive to turn the innate inquisitive powers of kids towards magical and supernatural narratives and ‘explanations’. And that is very harmful, I think.

    I think science writers can do much to counteract such mind-mutilating influences. But how? By doing what my grandfather did for me: by telling stories based on a naturalistic worldview, explaining natural phenomena, showing causes and effects. Not only to adults or young adults but to kids, and even to very young kids. So many people are prejudice-ridden about the intellectual capacities of small kids, and so often their mental abilities to understand basic principles of naturalistic epistemology and scientific methodology are underestimated.

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