In the series, "From The Writer's Desk," I'll describe what I do for a living as a writer and ideas I have for advancing my craft.
The mission of a journalist is to get answers to questions. What I've been intrigued by recently is how one can get new types of stories by asking new questions. Let me talk with you about the questions I think science journalists typically ask, the kinds of unspoken questions I think bloggers might be answering as they write, and some questions I'm now asking to create new ideas for stories.
So to start, here is the standard list of questions that I and I daresay most science journalists ask people for the average science news story:
- What do you personally find most surprising or exciting or important about your work?
- What specific directions do you think your research might or should go from here? What obstacles do you foresee in future research or development?
- Are there any specific questions or criticisms you feel others might have about these findings?
- What specific potential applications might this research hold?
- How did you become interested in this idea to begin with?
- What difficulties did you run across in your research? How did you surmount those challenges to reach your current insights?
- Could you describe the research a bit -- anecdotes about the field work, for instance? What did things look, sound, taste, smell and feel like?
- Is there anything else you would like to say? Are there any questions you would have liked to answer that I didn't ask you?
- Are there pictures, videos or audio associated with your research that you could provide me?
- Is there any research of yours that journalists have not reported on yet that might be interesting for a story?
These questions don't include ones that might pop up during the course of research over points I need clarification over. There are also a number of questions I generally don't ask during interviews that I hopefully would have answered myself during the course of research before an interview:
- How is this newsworthy?
- Who is involved, what did they do, and when, where, how and why did they do it?
- Can you provide some context for me to understand these findings? (Incidentally, a lot of times in science blogging, you have specialists in a field commenting knowledgeably on their area of expertise — as such, they often focus a lot more on answering this question than most science journalists.)
With these questions in mind, go and look at pretty much any typical science news story, and you'll see it try and answer most or all of them. The questions essentially serve as the backbones of the stories, and some might even criticize many as being formulaic.
I taught a science writing course earlier this year, and during a discussion with students I began seeing that a major way bloggers differ from journalists might lie in how they ask different questions. The idea of finding new questions to ask to become a better journalist was one I found very exciting.
Of course there is extraordinary diversity within blogs, and one can't typify blogs or bloggers. I'll simply focus on what merits I think blogging might have on first principles as much as possible.
Conventional journalism attempts to present facts much in the form of a logical argument, I think, stating the gist of an argument up front in the lede or in a nut graf and presenting information in a structured manner to support the argument. Brevity is preferred, not only due to traditional constraints of space on a page but also because digressions generally weaken the thrust of one's argument.
Blogs typically involve commentary and analysis. They may or may not mention all the details of what they are discussing, as they can simply link to other articles and then comment on that content. In this sense, blogs reminds me a lot of the rewrite desks one might find at a newspaper, or of analysts or commentators one might find in newspapers, magazines, television and so on. (This is not to say that blogs do not do original reporting — some do.)
As such, although a blog post can employ the conventions of a logical argument, it is not bound to do so. So what else can blogs turn to? Emotion.
Bloggers often openly express emotion and seek to evoke it. This might be one of the many reasons traditional journalists balk at blogs, I think, or at least it's one of the reasons I initially balked at blogging — it goes against the straight "just the facts" attitude they are used to. Now this is not to say that blogs are not logical — just that blogs can rely on tricks besides logic or not even use some of the standard tools of logic if they do not want or need to.
With that said, if one wanted to consider emotion more in writing, one might ask:
- How do I feel about this?
- How do I want others to feel about this?
- How can I be cool, or funny, or provocative?
- How might I fly in the face of standard journalistic "objectivity" and openly voice my opinion and judgment? (This question is a paraphrase of a comment from science blogger Ed Yong.)
The questions I just brought up bring up another way that blogs can differ from standard journalism — the use of first-person.
Not all blogs are first-person. (Really, it's probably impossible to typify blogs in any way.) But they can use first-person in a way that standard journalism often does not. Journalism shies away from first-person for a number of very good reasons — for instance, news should be about the story, not the person delivering it. Still, there are first-person accounts in journalism when warranted.
In terms of questions bloggers might to bring more of a first-person angle into stories:
- What can I share about myself?
- What have I learned about myself?
- What mistakes have I made?
- What lessons have I learned?
- What experiences have I gone through?
For a number of reasons — largely constraints of time and space — conventional journalism does not delve into all the tricks used in storytelling seen in print, theater, cinema, television and so on. This includes flashforwards and flashbacks, playing around with tense and person, "zooming in" and "zooming out," fades and cuts, experimenting with meter and euphony, unreliable narrators, etc.
Long-form journalism and non-fiction writing can and do play around with these techniques, as do more quirky outlets. Blogs can and do play with these all the time.
So one should probably ask:
- What storytelling tricks can I use?
- What can I create that is new or interesting?
- What novel tangents can I go on in the middle of a story?
- How can I make what seems like a digression help improve a story?
The personal nature of blogs can go both ways — not only is the writer more of a personality, but the audiences are, too. Blogs often thus feel more interactive than regular news.
So one can ask:
- How can I incorporate what my readers say into my material?
- What conversations can I have with my readers?
Blogging was often not accepted at first by the mainstream media (MSM) and conflict is still regularly seen between the camps, with a lot of blogs seeing themselves "as counterpoints to crap mainstream media coverage, and — without descending into an 'all MSM is crap' straw man — that's a valuable role," science blogger Ed Yong said to me in a discussion over email earlier this week.
Taking a different tack from the crowd has long been good advice in journalism. For instance, consider the JFK assassination. Rather than crowding around JFK's family like everyone else did, renowned journalist Jimmy Breslin interviewed the gravedigger instead.
The question there might be:
- When everyone is zigging one way, how might I zag the other?
- As Ed Yong notes, "How will the MSM misinterpret this?"
New questions, new frontiers
With all these questions in mind, it began to occur to me that if I could develop new questions, I could generate new kinds of stories.
My first experiment in this line of thought was "Too Hard For Science?" There have been a lot of stories over the years as to what the current unanswered questions in science are — my question was "What might the unanswerable questions of science be?"
In coming up with this new blog, I was challenged by our blog network's godfather Bora Zivkovic to come up with a couple of series so I could post something new every day. (Or at least that's how I hazily remember it — I was filing about five stories that day at a conference, I think, and my mind was all over the place.) It did lead me to come up with another question, "What technology would I like to see that is not around yet but seems doable?" that serves as the backbone of "A Modest Proposal."
Not only do I have two new types of stories because of the new questions I am asking, but I also get to be more proactive with my writing. Journalism is typically reactive — journalists unsurprisingly often have to wait for news to happen before they can report on it. A lesson that I learned from Scientific American head honcho Mariette DiChristina nearly a decade ago when I interned at the magazine, however, was to try and be more proactive with journalism. Scientific American is a monthly magazine, so for it to break news before news outlets that come out more quickly, it gets to news before anyone else knows about it, asking leading scientists about work still in progress.
What other questions do you think bloggers ask that I didn't mention? What new types of questions might one ask to create new types of stories?
You can email me regarding From The Writer's Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org.