Writing for the Masses: The Fine Art of Science Journalism

The ORT Times - June Issue, 2016


You’ve done your research, corresponded with experts, and written what you consider a thorough and thought-provoking article for a popular publication. Soon, the article is splashed onto your publisher’s website and across the pages of the print edition. Now, you wait.

A few hours later, you find yourself in crisis. The comments are legion and…they aren’t good. They’re scathing, in fact. With horror, you find that this savage criticism was carefully authored by experts in the field you focused your article on, all of whom live and breathe this subject matter.

Nightmare.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician, cancer researcher, and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Emperor of All Maladies, recently found himself in a similar, terrible situation. In the hours and days following the publication of his May 2, 2016 article, “Same But Different,” in The New Yorker—an artful exploration of epigenetics—Mukherjee experienced tremendous backlash from the scientific community, particularly those privy to current research in the nuanced epigenetics field. His central error: oversimplification. The debacle makes clear the fine line separating academic rigour and reader accessibility; the line science journalists must walk daily.

  “Same But Different” by Siddhartha Mukherjee in   The New Yorker

“Same But Different” by Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker

Moving Parts

"Epigenetics is complex stuff, and Mukherjee simplified it to the point of error,” writes Aleszu Bajak, a senior writer at Undark.

The mutable and fast-moving science of epigenetics looks closely at the control nurture (our environment) can have over nature (our genes), and how these effects might be passed through generations. Mukherjee wove an unarguably gorgeous tapestry as a backdrop for his explanation, describing the divergent geographical, temperamental, and physical paths his mother and aunt—identical twins—took from their tandem birth. Where he erred, experts say, was in his description of epigenetics’ moving parts. Rather than highlighting transcription factors as central characters in the drama of gene regulation (the prevailing theory), the doctor focused most of his 6,000 words on the regulating action of DNA methylation and histone modification (largely unproven mechanisms). This discrepancy drew the rancor of epigenetics researchers worldwide, many indicating that Mukherjee’s writing would never have passed scientific peer review.

But, where is the line? When should popular science writing simplify complex scientific issues, and when should it not? How do writers face the difficulties associated with translating and scrutinizing science for the general public?

The Balance

During a visit to Boston, several outstanding science journalists were charitable enough to share with me their approaches to managing the weighty task of writing science for the masses.

 Aleszu Bajak in Cambridge, MA

Aleszu Bajak in Cambridge, MA

“I don’t want scientists to contact me about misrepresenting their work,” says Lisa Grossman, physical sciences news editor at New Scientist, “[but] there is a balance between packing every detail into a story and deleting the narrative.” Similarly, discussing the aim for each of his articles, Undark’s Bajak says, “First, I want to avoid being wrong, [but I also] want readers to read the whole piece and enjoy it.”

Writing science for popular publications, one might be competing for the attention of audiences who picked up a paper for the latest on the Kardashians or to glance at a concept vehicle of apparent Martian origin. These journalists bear the responsibility of penning an entertaining and approachable read for lay audiences while simultaneously honouring the complexity of the science at hand. 

Hype, Hysteria

 Elie Dolgin in Boston, MA

Elie Dolgin in Boston, MA

Elie Dolgin, a Canadian-born science journalist and a former editor at STAT, warns that bad science writing can be especially damaging in the realm of public health. “Here, you have to be careful to get it right…there are lives at stake.” Media coverage of misrepresented or overstated health claims can come at the risk of inciting “hype and hysteria,” Dolgin says, citing skewed science reporting as the germ of present-day anti-vaccination trends.

 

To defend against slanted coverage of important issues, Joshua Sokol, a freelance science journalist in Boston, says, “It is important to foster a healthy skepticism of your own mastery.” When trying to make sense of new science, Sokol encourages writers to always have an expert by their side. “Remember, there is a difference between being an expert and being a journalist.”

A Critical Eye

 Phil McKenna in Cambridge, MA

Phil McKenna in Cambridge, MA

Phil McKenna, an energy and environment reporter at InsideClimate News, told me that rather than acting as a simple communicator of research findings, his job is to provide a critical analysis of what is being studied and of concurrent media coverage. “The best case scenario for a science piece is one where it changes the debate through narrative and investigation. That is high impact.” The well-informed conversations science journalists can ignite—by mouth, by retweet, by comment, or otherwise—may be some of the greatest value these writers add.

At present, we are able to consume and readily interact with an incredible volume of science media. “Now is a great time to be a reader of science,” says Thomas Levenson, professor of science writing at MIT. With each article aimed at “moving people into [a realm of] understanding,” a rich diet of science media affords readers (and writers) an ever-refreshing perspective of themselves and of the world. 

One Story at a Time

In his response to the “Same But Different” fiasco, Bajak wrote, “…it’s worth asking if [explaining epigenetics from scratch] can be done at all, by anyone, in a popular magazine—the goal of which, in any case, is not to mimic a scientific journal, but to communicate to the general public the alluring frontiers of science.”

In a note to Vox’s Brian Resnick, Mukherjee points out that his original article was nearly twice the length of the final, with a “lengthy historical section mentioning gene regulation.” The author certainly is not oblivious to the mechanisms of gene expression and regulation; Mukherjee’s newest book, The Gene: An Intimate History, dives deep into these matters. Clearly, the choices made in editing this work, optimizing it for the reader, were difficult ones. As journalists, Resnick writes, “We can only tell one story at a time.”

Mind the Gap

Though readers of science are in good hands with today’s formidable cohort of science journalists, what can scientists do to narrow the gap between the elegant storytelling of popular magazines and the relative impenetrability of scientific journal data? Perhaps the answer lies in the assumptions one makes about their audience, and the warm-and-cozy feeling this audience is presumed to have for jargon and acronym cascades.

Perhaps, if researchers worked to express their findings using similar powers of rhetoric to writers of The New Yorker, their papers might be better enjoyed by reviewers, and, maybe, accepted more readily.

Perhaps, if emphasis were placed on reader engagement and accessibility, scientific journals could become viable sources of information for members of the interested lay public, thereby expanding readership and resources in concert.

Perhaps, the research scientist’s focus on language as a tool for inclusion could spur revolution in the public understanding of science.

A level playing field, where creativity reigns and science is truly for the masses.