This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They – at least some of them – have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
Raleigh, North Carolina is home, but now I live in Chapel Hill finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina. I’ve also spent significant time in Florida, Arkansas and Nicaragua.
How did you get into science and how did you get into writing? And how did these two trajectories fuse into becoming a science writer?
I got into writing first — at age 15 I decided journalism was the job for me. But when I came to college, I really didn’t have an idea of what I wanted to write about.
My first internship was at the StarNews, an outstanding (then) New York Times-owned paper on the North Carolina coast. My editor had just been promoted from spending years on the environmental beat and his old position wasn’t replaced, which meant despite my original request to cover health, I ended up mostly as an environmental writer.
Writing as a science journalist for a large general newspaper was very different than the kind of science journalism that I’d been reading. Local relevance is so essential to what gets written, and Wilmington isn’t exactly a research hub. But being a coastal town meant there was a plethora of interesting environmental stories that you wouldn’t have anywhere else.
I had to think in terms of what your average reader cares about, whether or not they like science. It meant I wrote a lot of stories about animals. I wrote about drought effects on wildlife, the Carolina gopher frog and I think seven stories about sea turtles. By the end of my internship, people were calling the newspaper asking to speak to me personally, because they had sea turtle story ideas.
I’ve long said my favorite thing about journalism is that you’re effectively paid to learn. Every story makes you a temporary expert on whatever subject, and you gain at least a shallow knowledge on hundreds of topics.
Well, I really liked learning about these animals. I really like knowing that if “sea turtles” is ever a category at trivia night, it’s in the bag for me. I really like talking to scientists. I really like science, and despite coming from a liberal arts background, there could be a career out there for me somewhere.
What professional experience you have had so far—publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
I’m a metro intern for the News & Observer, an excellent McClatchy paper in my hometown. It’s more or less the newspaper that made me want to be a journalist, so I’m very happy to be working there.
Previously, I’ve spent many, many hours at the school newspaper the Daily Tar Heel, and I’ve interned at the Wilmington StarNews, Durham Herald-Sun and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Though I’ve definitely been following the metro-reporter track as far as my experience goes, I’ve had some great opportunities and education at developing beats, data journalism and real investigative work, which are integral to good science journalism.
How do you see the current and future science media ecosystem, how it differs from the past, and what role will new, young science communicators like yourself play in building it and making it the best it can be?
The Internet is making so many things so much better (and a few worse). Everyone’s worried about their Google presence these days, and so many scientists are afraid to talk to the press because it can end up in search results for their name. But I love that the Internet provides such an avenue for good niche media. One of the big challenges health journalists face is that sometimes something that is a really, really good story with great science isn’t always newsworthy because people tend to care about what they immediately deal with. Rare conditions rarely make front pages. But with the Internet, no matter what bizarre disease you have, there’s probably a blog for it, written by some equally passionate science journalist.
One thing that I love about science journalism (that I think is a problem with a lot of other media) is how incredibly diverse the reporters are, in so many ways. With an extraordinarily bad economy, we’re also seeing more Ph D.’s in science turning to science journalism. You have people from all backgrounds, from experts to enthusiasts. I’m not sure if so many academics will still be around the media landscape if the economy picks back up, but I like to think so. I mean, the reason journalism can get away with underpaying everyone is because it’s so much fun.
As for the role of the young communicator, I think we’re in a tricky spot. With the media landscape changing every second, we’re constantly being told to simply adapt. At my job in Arkansas, I was hired to be a metro reporting intern, and within the first week they were teaching me how to edit video. We’re going to try new forms of storytelling without knowing if they’ll be successful to our audiences, but trial and error is just part of it.
Do you write a personal or science blog ? How much do you use social media networks, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube etc., to promote your own and your friends’ work, to learn and to connect?
I write about a variety of topics on my personal blog (although I don’t write in it as much as I should right now). And social media is what it’s all about! I’m constantly tweeting anything that interests me, and I’m obsessed with the science communication community on Twitter. Tweetups are great, both for networking and for getting story ideas. Facebook I tend to use for personal reasons, and so I keep privacy settings high.
How do you find stories to report?
I think because I come from a metro background, I’m very driven by traditional news values, like proximity, timeliness and financial impact. But I think some of the best stories are driven by their pure fascination value. Every so often I’ll just search PubMed for “North Carolina” (or whatever my coverage area is) and find a study that’s interesting, especially one that hasn’t been widely reported on. It’s usually not that hard to find a time peg you can tie it to, even if they story itself is a couple of years old. For example, what are the implications of the study as more Americans become insured through the Affordable Care Act? Is money being wasted on treatments that reputable science hasn’t proven successful? If I have more questions about it, my readers probably do too.
No, thank you!
Previously in this series:
Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Mary Beth Griggs
Amy Shira Teitel
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien