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)

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