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How to write science stories

Science journalism

The Conversation (UK) has been running for nearly 10 years now, providing informed comment and news analysis across arts, business, education and more. However, presenting expert insight and academic studies in a way that is accessible and appealing to a general audience isn’t easy. 

In the world of scientific journalism, this can be even more difficult with technical terms and concepts to explain and analyse. JournoResources recently held an event with Miriam Frankel, science editor at The Conversation, exploring how to communicate those science stories clearly, creatively and accurately. So, if you are an aspiring science journalist, then check out the advice from Miriam below: 

Keep it Simple 

The perception might be that when it comes to writing a scientific article that you need to have lots of technical terms and phrases in there to explain a particular concept. However, that isn’t the case. It’s best to avoid technical terms, jargon and acronyms and if you do really need to include one then a brief explanation of what it means will suffice. If it’s a more abstract concept that you are talking about then a simple example is the best way to explain it. You want to make sure the language you are using is simple and easy to follow but the ideas or theme of the article doesn’t have to be. 

This all helps with achieving clarity for the reader. A further example of this is when it comes to using numbers in your article. You need to consider how they will appear in your piece as they can be misleading if you don’t present them in the right way. It’s good to spot narratives and links in your data but always bear in mind that statistical coincidences can occur. The best thing to do is to consult the expert you are interviewing to clarify that you are interpreting the numbers in the correct manner. 

Structure and Angles 

It can be tricky sometimes to know where to start with an article or how to structure it. When you are writing a science article, if it’s based on a scientific paper then the best approach is to present the paper in reverse. Scientific papers will generally begin with background and methodology before moving onto results and discussion. Readers will want to know what the results and implications of a study are so starting with this is more likely to grab their attention. You can always add a line or two about the background and methodology further into the article. 

The angle or viewpoint of a research paper might also not be the best one for a wider audience. A small change in the methodology will interest a researcher but not the general public. They will want to know if certain illnesses can now be treated or when a new medicine might be available. You will need to find this angle in the research. Even then, it isn’t guaranteed to engage or interest everyone and therefore you might need to add another layer to it. For example, involving someone famous that is suffering from the disease or if it is something that affects you make it more personal or if there is a popular trend in this area that you can mention or relate it to. Always consider what angle will appeal to the most people. 

Trusting your Sources 

Misinformation online and within the media is an issue that all journalists have to deal with and it’s no different within scientific journalism. It isn’t immune to bias or prejudice. The best practice in this regard is to find out where the money came from for any piece of research. If, for example, a study says that ‘sugar is good for you’, but it was funded by a sugar company, then there is likely to be bias or it will at least require more research. You need to be sure that you trust your sources, and, furthermore, it needs to be of good quality. A survey of a few people is not the same as a controlled trial with hundreds of people. 

The most trustworthy sources will be peer-reviewed and one place to find scientific papers and studies is Google Scholar. You can easily search for keywords, publication dates, review articles and much more. Once you find a good paper then it is often worth looking at the references. This will highlight the research in and around the topic and will offer opportunities to find more papers or people to interview. There is also Meta-analyses, which are reviews that sum up the state of a field by evaluating hundreds of papers to help back up your findings. Finally, talk to the top researchers in a particular field to find out the most important papers in that area. 

As well as all the above advice, you can also find scientific experts and spokespeople via the Journalist Enquiry Service. Try it out today by filling in the form here. 

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