Here is our magazine: ‘The Scope’!

During Fall 2016, the students in our Science Journalism course wrote news stories about research at VCU. Those stories were published in an online magazine called The Scope, hosted on the VCU Libraries’ Scholars Compass website.

The way the magazine is configured, each article is a separate PDF. However, our designer, Joe Woods, has combined all of the articles into a single file:

Click here to download The Scope

We then had the magazine printed so the students and other people at VCU could have a copy.

Final exam & Jeff Elhai’s presentation

Here is our final exam.

Here is Jeff Elhai’s presentation:

Or click here to download the presentation.

Here is a recording of most of Jeff Elhai’s presentation:

Earlier in the semester, I mentioned that I am a big fan of a free service called I can uploaded the audio file to VoiceBase (either m4a or mp3, or other formats), and VoiceBase produces a transcript. It’s not a particularly good transcript, in part because I was recording Jeff from across the room. Still, the transcript gives me some words from almost every sentence. And when I click on those words, VoiceBase plays me that sentence — so I can hear exactly what Jeff was saying then. Here’s what the VoiceBase transcript looks like:


Now, Jeff did not say “high growth train”; when I play that, it’s clear he said “high-growth strain.” Still, the VoiceBase transcript can be a good way for you to identify the juicy quotes that you may want to use in your story. And then, of course, you’d play that segment of audio to get the exact words.

The penultimate class

You’re famous!

How one baby’s brief life touched many more through the power of organ donation

Status of other stories

Final book presentations:

Malik Diop-Hall (“Playing God”)

Kirby Farineau (“Pale Blue Dot”)

Riley Murtagh (“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”)

Vanessa Gleiser (“Animal Factory”)


Final exam

Sara and I will distribute the final exam at 2 p.m. on Thursday; we also will email it to you.

The bulk of the exam (at least 50 percent) will be to write a story based on a mock press conference that will be held during Thursday’s class. The press conference will feature Jeffrey Elhai of VCU. He will discuss research he is planning regarding the genetic engineering of crops. Jeff will give you a presentation on this subject and then answer your questions. This will take place from 2:15 to approximately 3 p.m. on Thursday.

The remaining part of the exam will be to answer some short essay questions.

You will have until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 13, to complete the exam. The exam will be open-book, open-notes; you may use online resources to write your story and answer the essay questions. However, there are two stipulations: 1) You must not collaborate with another student in the course on the exam; and 2) you must not contact Jeff Elhai for follow-up information. If you feel you need additional information from Jeff, make a note of that in your story. The length of your final story should be at least 500 words. You don’t need to shoot photos for your story, but we will ask you to describe a picture or two that you feel would best illustrate your article.

You will email your completed exam (one document that contains both your story and your essay answers) to Jeff South by 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 13.

Let’s hang out with Will Harlan

Will Harlan, author of Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island and editor in chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, will speak to our Science Journalism class from 2 until about 3 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1. You can engage with us live here or on YouTube. If you’re watching in real time, you’re welcome to suggest questions that we can ask Virginia. You can do that by posting a comment here or on YouTube.

Untamed won the 2015 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Will has written for National Geographic Adventure and appeared in Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal and on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

More about Will Harlan

Presentation about “Untamed” by Chris Rubis

Agenda for Thursday, Nov. 29

From Rebecca: 9 Tips For Communicating Science To People Who Are Not Scientists

Joe Palca, NPR: Some Assembly Required: New Space Telescope Will Take Shape After Launch

Book reports:

  • Jessica Mayfield (“Starstruck”)
  • Ryan Carstons (“Just Six Numbers”)
  • Chris Rubis (“Untamed”)
  • Nicole Nelson (“Under A Green Sky”)

Story #2: Status reports

Next classes:

Dec. 1 — Google Hangout with Will Harlan, winner of the 2015 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists

Dec. 6 — Malik Diop-Hall (“Playing God”), Kirby Farineau (“Pale Blue Dot”), Riley Murtagh (“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”) and Vanessa Gleiser (“Animal Factory”)

Dec. 8 — Final exam exercise (interview / press conference)

Agenda for Thursday, Nov. 17

Book report: Joseph Forcier | Bears without Fears

Recapping parts of our textbook:

Part 2 — Choosing Your Market — by Carey Goldberg, health and science reporter at the Boston Globe (and a big fan of Bob Nye the Science Guy). Aimed at people who want to become science writers. Memorable quotes:

In my not-so-humble opinion, science and medicine are producing the most exciting and significant news in the world today. Presidential campaigns, Mideast wars—so much of general news
moves in cycles. Science moves in more of a vector forward, and that progress toward knowledge is the closest thing there is to humanity’s job description.

Readers must be seduced into reading a science story—just as with any other kind of story, only more so, because they’re likely to have to put in more work to understand it.

Good science stories need two things: significance (“explain early and often just why this scientific news is worth your audience’s attention”) and “juiciness” (“What you write must be appetizing in a human way—the characters must be somehow colorful, the action compelling—and it must be well squeezed, with loads of pulp thrown away”)

Then this section walks through:

Small newspapers (Chapter 7) — By Ron Seely of the Wisconsin State Journal (weekday circ. 95,000). A science reporter must be a generalist (science, environment, medicine, technology) and maybe even a general assignments reporter. Look for the local angle, and think about the local audience.

Large newspapers (Chapter 8) — By Robert Hotz of the LA Times. Discusses covering a press conference in 2003 by Spanish archeologists who said they had found an ax in an ancient burial site. It supposedly was 250,000 years older than any other evidence that early humans honored their dead.

Questions every science writer must ask before doing a story: They center on the validity of the work, its importance to the general public, and whether independent scientists can vouch for it. There also are practical considerations. How much of a reporter’s time is it worth? How quickly can the story be turned around? Is there enough material for a graphic? Can we get a photograph? How much space does it deserve? Does it have a chance of getting on page one?

“a gatekeeper to sort the sense from scientific nonsense”

“At my first newspaper—a country daily with a circulation of 11,000 and an editorial staff of 10—I was expected to write three or four stories a day, then take obituaries over the phone or type up wedding announcements. At the L.A. Times, a reporter sometimes can spend weeks or even months on a single story, able to pursue it with a tenacity and depth beyond what a smaller paper can
usually afford. In particular, the science writers at the L.A. Times have considerable latitude in choosing their assignments. The Times employs about a thousand reporters and editors, more than two dozen of whom specialize in coverage of science, technology, medicine, or the environment. The science editor reports directly to the managing editor and attends the daily meetings where story play and space allocation decisions are made.”

Hotz describes his reporting process (using a digital recorder, searching full-text databases for background) and the editing process. His lede:

NEW YORK—To the primitive hands that deftly shaped it from rose-colored quartz 350,000 years ago, a glittering stone ax may have been as dazzling as any ceremonial saber.

It was found in the depths of a Spanish cavern among the skeletal remains of 27 primitive men, women and children—pristine, solitary and placed like a lasting tribute to the deceased whose bones embraced it.

For the archaeologists who unearthed this prehistoric blade, the unique burial site is a compelling but controversial glimpse of arguably the earliest evidence of humanity’s dawning spiritual life.

But then space shuttle Columbia blew up.

Popular magazines (Chapter 9) — by Janice Tanne. Parade, Reader’s Digest, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Woman’s Day, Health, Prevention, Men’s Health, Fitness, Shape … as well as Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover, and Wired.

Writing a query letter

“I’m offering this to you exclusively. Because of the timely nature of the story I’d appreciate a response by XXX. If I don’t hear from you I’ll assume I’m free to pitch it elsewhere.”

Get a contract. Understand what rights you’re signing away.

One way of organizing is starting in media res (in the middle of things, as the Romans said).You begin at the crisis point and then you go on to explain to the reader just what led up to the crisis, what happened next, and how it was resolved.

Another popular method is to begin with a touching story to engage the reader. I call this the “Mildred, a 34-year-old mother-of-two lead.” Then you explain how common Mildred’s problem is, what the warning signs are, and how it is diagnosed and treated, and include some tips on finding expert help. A variant of this opening is to mention a current news event or a historical discovery,
then explain why it happened and what it led to.

You should be paid upon acceptance, not upon publication.

Kill fee

Fact-checking. May ask for notes and tapes.

Trade and science journals (Chapter 10) — Colin Norman of Science magazine. Science, Nature — or Chemical and Engineering News … “Writing for a scientific journal can certainly be intimidating. A fraction of your readers will know a good deal more about the topic than you do, and a larger fraction will be quick to jump on any mistakes.” People used to think that only scientists could write accurately about science. Not true; journalists bring a sense of timeliness, objectivity, context, and clarity.

Problems peculiar to writing about science for a scientific audience:

Some of your readers will be experts and you’ll lose them if you pitch the story too generally, yet the bulk of them come from other disciplines and may need some explanatory background. Slip in definitions as asides rather than labored explanations, as if you are simply reminding the reader: “Two teams of researchers announced that they had created a type of matter known as a Bose–Einstein condensate—a cluster of particles that acts like a single, enormous quantum-mechanical object.”

Your readers will hold you to a very high standard of accuracy. Keep asking questions until you have it straight, and don’t be afraid to keep going back to your sources to clarify points, check facts, and get responses to new information that comes up in your reporting. Mistakes will be pounced on.

If accuracy is paramount, should you ask a source to read a draft of your story? That’s a question that can generate some strong opinions. At Science, reporters check facts with sources and sometimes ask them to read a draft, with the express understanding that the draft is confidential and that we are asking only for a factual check.We generally find such reads helpful.

Broadcast science journalism (Chapter 11) — by Joe Palca of NPR. The best writing for broadcast, both radio and television, involves telling a story. Stories are engaging. They give you a structure. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have characters. They set up a conflict, which helps you see a scientific issue in a more exciting way.

Keep your sentences no longer than 10 words each. The typical radio piece alternates narration and sound bites, or actualities.

Freelance writing (Chapter 12) — by Kathryn Brown. Flexibility but responsibility. Gotta be an entrepreneur. Tips: Diversify (both topics and clients). Negotiate. Manage your money.

Science books (Chapter 13) — by Carl Zimmer. Proposals, contract, research, writing, finishing and selling.

Chapters 14 and 15 about the Web (popular audiences and science audiences). “We’re all Web journalists now.” Be direct in your writing. “Chunkify” long stories. Accessorize (sidebar elements, graphics, videos, interactives, slide shows, quizzes).

Chapter 16 (science editing)

No class next week


Revise your stories after you receive edits from me

Readings by and about Will Harlan, author of Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

About Will Harlan

Remaining class meetings:

Nov. 29 — Jessica Mayfield (“Starstruck”), Ryan Carstons (“Just Six Numbers”), Chris Rubis (“Untamed”) and Nicole Nelson (“Under A Green Sky”)

Dec. 1 — Google Hangout with Will Harlan, winner of the 2015 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists

Dec. 6 — Malik Diop-Hall (“Playing God”), Kirby Farineau (“Pale Blue Dot”), Riley Murtagh (“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”) and Vanessa Gleiser (“Animal Factory”)

Dec. 8 — Final exam exercise (interview / press conference)

Agenda for Tuesday, Nov. 15

Trellis — Public Engagement with Science | AAAS

A discussion to follow: What’s next for (science) journalism?

Book report: Shawn Scornaienchi | Physics of the future

Writing styles as we discussed during Thursday’s class

In pairs, let’s look at these science-stories.docx.

Match each story with a style:

Deadline writing

Investigative reporting

Gee whiz

Explanatory writing

Narrative writing

Science Essay

Story #2 — progress reports

A plan for wrapping up the course

Agenda for Thursday, Nov. 10

Book report: Joe Johnson will discuss War of the Whales.

From the Field Guide:

Part III: Varying your writing style

6 chapters about different kinds of writing. Commonalities: Emphasis on good, clear, clean, original prose. “Explaining the strange in terms of the familiar.” Keep the reader paying attention and longing for more. “They’re counting on us to make our stuff worth reading.” To develop your style, read everything — sci-j articles but also novels, short stories, even plays. Develop an ear for language and pace for storytelling.

Deadline writing (Chapter 17) — Gareth Cook, science reporter at Boston Globe. Won 2005 Pulitzer in Explanatory Reporting for coverage of stem cells. Discusses science reporting on 9/11. Think like a reader. Develop a list of questions that readers want answered. Explain the story to a friend. List your sources; triage them (put out calls early to the most crucial sources; later to less crucial or West Coast sources). Keep updating your list. When you have zero sections to prepare, ask:

  • What is new about this? What’s not new?
  • What is the significance, and why?
  • Who will disagree with this?
  • What is the evidence this is based on?
  • Who funded the research?
  • What will be done next?
  • Who else should I talk to?
  • What is your connection to this, and why did you get interested?
  • How can I reach you later?

Science is inherently difficult to understand and write about. You need to understand it first before writing.

B-matter (background): You can start writing in advance or as you go along. (Then focus on A-matter — the lede, nut graf, quotes, new stuff.)

Context: Why the news matters, and why it matters now.

Accuracy: “Terrifying but true: You can’t make a mistake, and there are thousands of ways to make one in any article.” Edit on a printout.

Ending: “Try to end the story in a way that will give the readers a sense of completion.” (Quote, look ahead, circle back to the lede.)

Investigative reporting (Chapter 18) — Antonio Regalado, science reporter at Wall Street Journal; described as more of a detective than a reporter. Most science reporters are concerned with explaining science to a general audience. They can be too trusting of scientists’ good intentions. Investigative reporting means telling stories that don’t want to be told. (Regalado blew the whistle on a biotech company that was cloning fetuses for their organs.)

Follow the paper trail (patents). Or show that some research “findings” aren’t warranted (salt). Investigative reporting on science: “It’s not about uncovering the conspiracy or following the money. It’s about do the data really mean what the scientists think they mean?” WaPo story about a death in a UPenn research lab (which the university said was a tragic accident but the reporters showed involved negligence). Always ask scientists if they have a financial interest in research outcomes.

How to use FOIA (see guide from Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press; and from George Washington University).

FDA — documents and data

Gee whiz (Chapter 19) — Robert Kunzig. “A lot of my peers consider the gee whiz approach outdated, naive, a little lap-doggish.” But there is a place for gee whiz stories — about the truth and beauty of scientific discoveries. “Little nuggets of joy and delight.”

Don’t be afraid of scientists. While they know more about science than you do, you write better than they do.

Keep your brain open (always looking for story ideas).

Ideas are as interesting as people. (Black holes)

Beautiful writing. Metaphors; phrasing. Read your writing aloud.


Be skeptical, too.

Explanatory writing (Chapter 20) — George Johnson, NYTimes science writer, author of several books; started as a cops reporter for Albuquerque Journal. “Nothing so complex that a reasonably intelligent person cannot comprehend it.” As a teenager in a garage band, figured out how a guitar amplifier worked by taking it apart, looking at the tubes or circuitry, tracing the way electricity flowed. “Any device can be understood on many different levels of abstraction.” He then applies this to how a brain cell (neuron) works. “Create a mental picture of the basic mechanism without scaring off too many people.”

Scientists have long believed that constructing memories is like playing with neurological Tinkertoys. Exposed to a barrage of sensations from the outside world, we snap together brain cells to form new circuitry-patterns of electrical connections that stand for images, smells, touches, and sounds.

First, provide a verbal picture: Superstring theory is “a kind of mathematical music played by an orchestra of tiny vibrating strings. Each note in this cosmic symphony represents one of the many different kinds of particles that make up matter and energy.”

Then, peel back another layer: “To give the strings enough wiggle room to carry out their virtuoso performance, theorists have had to supplement the familiar three dimensions of space with six more — curled up so tiny that they could be explored only with an absurdly powerful particle accelerator the size of an entire galaxy.”

Don’t explain too much too soon.

Look for analogies. Explain the strange in terms of the familiar.

Use math, but make it relatable: a supercomputer that would occupy 750 trillion acres — roughly a trillion square miles. That would bill the surfaces of 5,000 Earths.

Narrative writing (Chapter 21) — Jamie Shreeve, graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop; has written books and contributes to magazines (Nat Geo, Atlantic, Wired). The power of narrative — of a story — to grip a listener’s attention. Brain is hard-wired to remember information better if it is transmitted in narrative form. Exploit this propensity whenever the opportunity arises.

Narrative: a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end. It’s endemic to science itself (how the universe was created; an insect’s life cycle).

Good narrative writing requires more than a beginning, middle and end: It requires characters and scenic context. Developing character and building tension require space (hence, longform articles and books). But even short articles can benefit from narrative writing, especially in the lede.

You need a compelling beginning to “create a disequilibrium in the mind, an itch that can only be resolved by burrowing deeper into the story.” Examples:

JENNIFER KAHN | Wired Magazine | 03.01.03 | STRIPPED FOR PARTS

Organ transplants are a brutal business. Just ask the donors. Our reporter spends a dark night with the living dead.

The television in the dead man’s room stays on all night. Right now the program is Shipmates, a reality-dating drama that’s barely audible over the hiss of the ventilator. It’s 4 am, and I’ve been here for six hours, sitting in the corner while three nurses fuss intermittently over a set of intravenous drips. They’re worried about the dead man’s health.

Atul Gawande | New Yorker | May 5, 2003 | DESPERATE MEASURES

On November 28, 1942, an errant match set alight the paper fronds of a fake electric-lit palm tree in a corner of the Cocoanut Grove night club near Boston’s theater district and started one of the worst fires in American history. The flames caught onto the fabric decorating the ceiling, and then swept everywhere, engulfing the place within minutes. The club was jammed with almost a thousand revelers that night. Its few exit doors were either locked or blocked, and hundreds of people were trapped inside. Rescue workers had to break through walls to get to them. Those with any signs of life were sent primarily to two hospitals—Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital. At Boston City Hospital, doctors and nurses gave the patients the standard treatment for their burns. At MGH, however, an iconoclastic surgeon named Oliver Cope decided to try an experiment on the victims. Francis Daniels Moore, then a fourth-year surgical resident, was one of only two doctors working on the emergency ward when the victims came in. The experience, and the experiment, changed him. And because they did, modern medicine would never be the same.

Show, don’t tell: “Gawande’s cool, unadorned style conveys the horror and intensity of the fire that night much better than if he were to start throwing around words like ‘horror’ and ‘intensity.'”

The Neandertal Enigma (by Shreeves)

I met my first Neandertal in a cafe in Paris, just across the street from the Jussieu Metro Stop.

Collect details: 95 percent of the details and observations you have jotted down probably won’t be used. Never mind: The act of collecting the information will give authority to that other 5 percent that brings your characters to life and keeps the reader turning pages.

Secure a fly-on-the-wall position without sacrificing your journalistic independence; Establish a rapport with as many of the people as possible. (What Shreeve did in researching The Genome War, about the race for the human genetic code between the government Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics, a private company)

If you can’t, interviews participants for the details you need to reconstruct the narrative events and character interactions. Stop asking questions and let them tell you the story. Substantiate these recollections with those of other participants in the action and with written records, such as meeting agenda and transcripts.

Writing: one advantage of narrative is that the mere chronology of events provides at least the basis of your story structure.

the most difficult problem may be selecting which scenes to include and which to leave out. What are the threshold moments in the action—meetings where decisions were made, encounters in hallways or on street corners that had repercussions farther up the narrative path? What interactions best reveal the personality and motivation of your characters? Where is the story’s natural climax? Can you work back in time from that point to help select the material that best leads up to it?

Remember to pace the reader: Dole out clues cunningly; drip-feed developments.

keep your writing vivid with strong verbs, good metaphors, and keen detail. Your readers may end up so entranced with your story they don’t even notice they’re learning at the same time.

The Science Essay (Chapter 22) — Robert Kanige. The science essay can be formal, even stately. Or amusing.  A small gem or a long memoir. All writing relies on both the outthere of datum and fact, and the in-here of the subjective, the eccentric, and the personal. The essay gives freer rein to the latter. We know the enemies of good science reportage—flat leads, turbid prose, out-and-out inaccuracy. As a science essayist you face all these, but others, as well. Like not letting enough of yourself into the piece. Or imposing too much of yourself and so indulging in empty solipsism. Or coming to premature closure—not essaying, not grappling, but settling on the first easy answers that flit across your brain. Or never quite getting your hands around what you’re trying to say. Or deluding yourself into thinking you have more to say than you do.