There isn’t enough diversity in science communication online. Whatever that word diversity means to you, there isn’t enough of it. And, yet, at the same time, there is a staggering amount of science content online.
The internet has been the great democratiser of just about everything we can think of. But perhaps news, journalism, and writing were the ones to fall furthest and from the greatest height when the playing field was levelled. In this information age, we are now forced to become digital natives. Everything has to be framed for the Internet—search engine optimization, 140 characters, and all. While in the “good old days” of print, journalists and writers competed for the frontpage, now they compete for clicks. The more eyeballs, the better. In order to adequately communicate science online, one must acknowledge this situation before attempting to do something about it.
“Editors and journalists should stop rushing to cover the same stories as everyone else and start spending more time on developing original story ideas, including those that various interest groups would prefer not to be told.”
This quote is more specifically about the press release epidemic, but the message held within applies here. What does it mean for science and the way it is communicated online? More often than not, science stories that attract the greatest number of eyeballs are of the “wow science” kind. As a consumer and reader of science this is great. But as a writer of science, you might feel that the bias and tidal currents are against you if you don’t cover the “wow science” beat.
Nevertheless, there are numerous science writers who focus on other beats. The bloggers and journalists on the internet whom I read the most are those who cover the topics that aren’t told anywhere and everywhere else. They show us that we don’t have to limit ourselves to a few eyeball-friendly niches. The SA Incubator blog, Mind the Science Gap, and others in that style, go a long way to highlighting the different points of view and stories we, science writers, should seek.
Seeking those stories and the broader picture is probably step one in finding your niche. This may seem contradictory but knowing the landscape will help you navigate the waters. Big things have small beginnings and the scientist working on a small amino acid in a short biochemical pathway in a tiny little parasite has implications for people, societies and continents. To put vaccines, miracle drugs and parasites in perspective, it’s a necessity to read from a wide foray of sources: from Sarah Boseley at the Guardian, to Parasite of the day, to Body Horrors, to SciDev.net... the list goes on. In short, you should learn to love your RSS feed. And your Twitter feed. And every other information delivery system short of an intravenous drip attached to your vein.
Then comes the task of actually finding the stories out there you would like to tell. A writer’s personal curiosity is always the first spark to ignite a story. While press releases, conferences and scientific journals are often cited as places where science writers should go to find their stories, a certain amount of “I wonder how x works...” can be a great driver. “Follow the money” is good advice, “follow your curiosity” is great advice.
I don’t recall who said it or where I read it, but the phrase “global health is the brocolli of science news” is an apt metaphor. I suppose the umbrella term “global health” can loosely be applied to the type of things I write about, and to the stories I love to read. Global health is my niche. Writing about global health makes sense to me given my background as a parasitologist. It is my way of telling people about the science that eventually goes on to affect lives: vaccines, miracle drugs, tiny disease vectors, the tiny parasites they transmit, and the societies that live among them.
Looking for your niche and following your curiosity factor into the “Beats and obsessions” and wicked problems debate. It’s a topsy-turvy kind of problem. As a writer who writes about specific themes and topics, knowing what’s out there will provide you clues as to where the diversity starts lacking. When your curiosity leads you to such lack of diversity, you’ve probably found your niche. And finding your niche will help you write the stories that no one else is writing.
Looking broad allows you to go small. Perhaps that’s the secret.