Tag Archives: journalism

Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2017

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

[Above:  Header from an 1884 science magazine called Knowledge, led by British astronomer Richard Anthony Proctor. Its tagline reads: “A magazine of science: plainly worded – exactly described.”  Image via Wikimedia Commons & public domain.]

Late January 2017 saw a shift in science journalism so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you make your living writing press releases. I happened to be interning in the press office of a prominent family of scientific journals that publishes basic research almost exclusively, so I felt it. And since our press office tracks the coverage of all studies from its journals, I saw data, too.

What we noticed is coverage of our papers in the first half of January 2017 looked a lot like the first half of January 2016. But on January 20, 2017, coverage of our journals’ papers saw a drop. Our February 2017 coverage stats were below our February 2016 numbers, both in terms of the percentage of studies covered and in the number of outlets that covered the popular studies. The numbers improved since then.

We’re biased, but we think it’s unlikely that our press releases suddenly got worse. The journal family is focused basic biology and chemistry (y’know–octopus RNA, flu-killing peptides in frog mucus, stuff like that), and it seems that science journalists, in aggregate, weren’t writing as many stories about basic research as they did in February-early March last year.

That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, and it may be the standard science journalism community response to a new administration, regardless of party. But in my mind, it raises the question: How do we decide what counts as “science writing”? Where do we draw the distinction between “health policy” stories and “science of health” stories? Is there a distinction to be drawn at all?

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Best Shortform Science Writing October-December 2016

Best Shortform Science Writing October-December 2016

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

[Above: A fish-eyed view of a newsstand in Paris. Photo by Mark Mitchell via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0 License] 

Science writing at its best doesn’t just impart facts; it has the potential to change the way we think about issues and phenomena. And yet, the vast majority of pieces on science writing–especially the short news stories designed to be consumed on a daily basis–simply focus on telling stories to people who are already interested in science.

The shortforms–the daily news briefs, front-of-book blurbs, and succinct blog posts– are the training grounds for emerging science writing writers, but they’re also underused as a place for experimenting with new ways to convey science, environment, and health stories to the public.

So my writing New Year’s Resolution is to experiment more, both in my blogging and in the sorts of stories I nominate for the 2017 @SciShortform round-ups. I hope you’ll join me by carrying out some experiments of your own and sharing them with the shortform editors.

You can nominate stories via this Google form or simply by tagging us at @SciShortform on Twitter. (Be sure to include a link to the piece you’re nominating in your tweet!)

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Best Shortform Science Writing April-June 2016

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

The online science news ecosystem teems with blog posts and videos about animals doing interesting things. And why not? Animals are fascinating, adorable, and beloved by the science nerds who frequent science news websites. Many of those stories are well-written. So when you’re sitting down to choose “standout” shortform science writing, how do you choose between them?

News judgement”–the journalese terms for “ability to spot impactful stories”– was the subject of a lively Google Hangout debate amongst the Best Shortform Science Writing editors: Did we want to highlight the articles with the cutest and cleverest turns of phrase? Did we want to focus on the stories with the most potential to change readers’ minds? Or feature the ones that explain new developments with the most accuracy and nuance?

The hangout included returning editors Sarah Lewin (staff writer at Space.com) and Jennifer Caitlin Welsh (editor-in-chief of Wonderhowto.com), new recruit Amanda Alvarez (writer at RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan), and me (freelancer for hire). Collectively–along with fellow editors Shahla Farzan (UC Davis PhD student and reporter at KBBI Public Radio in Alaska) and Christine Scaduto (PhD student at Brown)–we’d gone over almost 200 short science stories from around the internet and were trying to narrow down a dense pack of “news-length” honorable mentions down to a select few.

“So this CRISPR mushroom story,” Jen began. “Does it really make you feel that the story’s important?”

“Hmm…Well, I’ve got a soft spot for fungi,” I said. And besides, gene editing policy is important.

However, covering an interesting topic isn’t the same as showing–rather than telling, or worse, assuming–the story’s impact, Jen countered. At the same time, judging based on practical impact crowds out a lot of well-written stories about studies that are just, y’know, interesting.

In the end, we decided to prioritize impactful stories–especially for the News, Investigations, and Opinion sections. But since Best Shortform Science Writing is a crowd-sourced project, our audience will ultimately drive the evolution of these round-ups. Send us the sorts of stories you want to see recognized via this submission form!  

Also, if you’re interested in joining the project as an editor, email me at diana@dianacrowscience.com.

Enjoy our picks from April, May, and June:

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How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 2]

[Illustration by Fredik Walloe via Flickr & CC 2.0] 

A few days ago, I posted Part 1 of an informal guide to rocking interviews with journalists about your science. That post covers what to do before an interview; this post focuses on the During and the After.

Step 5: Invite Co-Authors Along.

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[Photo via UBC Learning Commons on Flickr & CC 2.0] 

Science writers know that grad students and post-docs carry out most of the experiments, not lab leaders–aka “Primary Investigators” aka “The Profs Who Do the Paperwork, Presenting, and Mentoring” aka “Boss Scientists”.

If you are a lab leader, looping in key co-authors is not just good manners; it shows that you’re giving credit where credit is due.

Not to mention that the post-docs and grad students who carry out the bulk of the experiments may have some cool stories of their own to share.

Step 6: Be a Good Listener.

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[Photo by Britt Reints via Flickr & CC 2.0] 

Scientist-journalist interviews start off like any other conversation, with a quick “Hi! How are you?” and confirmation that you’ve got the right person on the phone.  A journalistic interview is just a conversation, except for the fact that both parties have very specific goals.

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Best Shortform Science Writing January-March 2016

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

[Photo above by Raúl Hernández González via Flickr & Creative Commons]

How short is a shortform piece of journalism? Under 250 words? Where does that leave all the pieces clocking in at 500, 700, or 1200 words? Those were the first questions that reared their heads when I decided to attempt to compile a list of “best” shortform science writing from the first quarter of this year.

Creating a taxonomy of short non-fiction seemed to be the way to go, but doing so proved tricky. National Geographic’s Phenomena bloggers write posts on the latest studies that are about the same length as newspaper pieces on healthcare policy, but stylistically, the two genres are quite different.

And although almost every print magazine sports a collection of short “front-of-book” stories (in its front pages, naturally), the lengths of front-of-book pieces vary wildly by outlet. The Atlantic’s front-of-books, for instance, are usually at least twice the length of Popular Science’s. Where to draw the line? And then what do you do with different styles of reporting?

Where does a riveting “As-told-to” like Ebony’s “I Survived a Heart Attack at 33” by Meliah Bowers Jefferson, as told to Tiffany Walden, fit into the science and health journalism landscape? How do we classify the blogs and listicles that increasingly are the public’s main sources of information about science, environment, health, and tech?

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