What is the mission of a science journalist? Entertainment? Education? Guarding democracy? That depends on your client, according to science journalist Martin Angler, author of Science journalism, an introduction (2017). If you work for a glossy magazine or free online news medium, you will probably see yourself mainly as an entertainer or educator. Employed by a critical national newspaper, you will probably see yourself mainly as a watchdog.
Yet everyone who calls themselves a science journalist should have a shared mission, according to Angler. And that is that you should add your own value or perspective to scientific findings. If you never add something special, he writes, your stories can no longer be distinguished from the growing number of stories that university PR services disseminate, nor from the stories on blog sites that more and more researchers are writing to reach their audiences directly.
So how do you add value as a science journalist? Angler presents a very extensive toolbox in his book Science journalism, an introduction. For example, he explains how you build a news article. First the lead, then some background, then the findings (including how the research is done), then some comments and then an outlook. By emphatically giving a place to comments, the science journalist is encouraged to critically examine what he or she should include in the comment. Are there other findings that compete with the one presented? Are the findings really as useful and important as has been claimed? Many news and press releases do not really include comments, at least not beyond those of the researchers themselves.
Angler also sees possible added value from the science journalist in being able to tell an exciting story. He devotes an entire chapter to narrative techniques that can bring emotion into a story. You can do this by focusing on a conflict, suddenly bringing up something problematic, or, for example, by taking a frustrating search as a thread (the reader should be kept wondering whether it will end well). Another technique he presents is the use of colourful metaphors . Why not describe a cell as a ‘fried egg under a microscope’. News stories are mainly for people to learn from, writes Angler. There is usually little emotion involved in this, but exciting stories can serve two missions: they can entertain and the reader can learn. In addition, of course, stories are needed in which the science journalist denounces abuses and fulfills the watchdog role. Angler also devotes a chapter to this.
All in all, the book is a must for early career science journalists, because basic techniques such as interviewing, finding a story and pitching are well explained. The many pitfalls that stand in the way are also described in detail. The author also devotes an entire chapter to how to build a career in scientific journalism. (Tip: grow an elephant skin to survive the rejections of your pitches). As a beginner I would, however, skip a good number of the presented techniques, to avoid becoming overwhelmed. It seems to me quite difficult to use advanced storytelling techniques such as flashforwards (anticipating what happens and then going back to the story), or nested stories (telling stories within a story). Writing for search engines, to increase the chances that your stories will pop up, is also not easy. But for the experienced journalist, these advanced techniques are interesting, because with these you can really distinguish yourself.
Martin Angler, author of Science journalism, an introduction (2017). Routledge
This blog is also published on the website of SciCom