Written by Ria Parikh & Catherine Xu
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have developed a dependency on the health and science news section to communicate the progress of the pandemic, resulting in an abundance of health related topics in the breaking news. However, this abundance of stories doesn’t necessarily equate to accuracy, creating a plethora of misinformation that can be a danger to public health.
With this in mind, we have developed a few guidelines for beginning science journalists, with the help of Kat Eschner and Aneri Pattani, two health and science writers, to avoid these mistakes and translate complex health ideas into understandable and accessible news. Kat Eschner is a Freelance Science and Business Journalist. She is a contributing editor of Popular Science magazine, and has also contributed to Fortune magazine, Smithsonian magazine, CNBC, The Guardian, and other publications. Aneri Pattani is currently working as a correspondent for Kaiser Health News, focusing on mental health and substance abuse. Having previously worked in a variety of fields of journalism, she landed on doing health journalism during a summer internship in Texas. Health and science writing, to her, “made what often seemed like abstract policy conversations that the legislature had really concrete”.
Science writing is intimidating. It’s vast. It’s jargony. The word “science” encompasses a myriad of fields and each field carries its own set of terminology and nuances. The nuances within science include confounding factors such as race, gender, or socioeconomic class which can change the way science affects an individual. Communication must acknowledge complexities within a certain topic and while simultaneously maintaining consciousness. To address both of these issues, Eschner recommends scouring a paper for only the most important angle—even potentially writing multiple pieces on the same topic to address others, rather than overcrowding one piece. “We probably know more about the paper (than necessary to report), so find key takeaways,” Eschner said. “We can drill down on those and find angles within those takeaways.”
For sensitive topics, such as mental health, capturing the complexities of the topic is especially crucial. Pattani, who frequently writes in regards to mental health, stated that, instead of trying to cover the broad area of mental health in one article, she breaks up the topics she wants to cover in smaller pieces to get more into the subtleties. As an example, she mentioned the topic of suicide. “There are racial disparities in a lot of different areas with suicide”, she stated, “but I can break it down into suicide for adolescents or for people who die by suicide versus people who attempt suicide”.
For the general public, science is about impact. Science is used to validate claims and to help people make effective decisions regarding food, drugs, cosmetics, and so much more. The most beneficial information for a general audience delivers conclusions, results, limitations, and translational applications rather than techniques or methods. To get to the core of a paper, Eschner asks herself the following questions: “How many people would this affect? When would you get this [drug or vaccine] in the doctor’s office ? Should people be concerned about it? What should you tell them if they are concerned about it?” In other words, what would people not interested in science want to know?
A common concern in science communications is jargon. Often, when ideas are pulled from academic journals so dense in their own terminology, information can get lost in translation. The language varies so much between the two audiences that accuracy can dissipate in the overgeneralizations and oversimplifications that commonly occur. One tactic Eschner uses to avoid this is by spending ample time talking to scientists about their work and repeating her interpretations back to them before putting them on the page. Eschner said she often asks the question, “Can you explain your research to me as if we met at a party?” to encourage scientists to talk about their research using more common language.
It is inevitable that these conversations will take more time, but they are essential to communicating the right information. Eschner recently wrote a piece for Popular Science magazine about health complications due to the high number of experimental COVID-19 treatments. During the interview process, she said that she spent “10 hours on the phone” with a physician—her source for the piece—listening and repeating back his information in her words. She would tell him, “I am going to repeat back to you what I think you just said,” until her summarized interpretation in her own words matched the idea her source wanted to convey.
For a beginner in science journalism, talking to the actual scientists may seem intimidating. Another alternative, that Pattani provided, was talking to editors and other reporters. Because Pattani mentioned that with her editor, she will talk through the piece as if she’s a teacher explaining the article. With this tactic, she found that she will use simpler language that still makes the correct point.
Although there are techniques writers can use to navigate this jargon, some responsibility also falls on the scientist serving as a source for a piece. Scientists can contribute to the success of a piece by being willing to explain their research in simpler terms and by being prepared to send additional resources such as other papers, reviews, or explanations of techniques. Eschner said that in many cases, scientists can facilitate the communication of their research, simply by taking their time. “Most people are generous with their time, which is the only thing that matters,” Eschner said.
Even if science writers are fairly knowledgeable about the topic, Eschner said, it is important that they are prepared to learn. Starting at the knowledge level of an average reader can help encourage the scientist to approach the interview as if they were teaching. “A lot of scientists are teachers”, Eschner said. Though it may be covering up some of the knowledge a writer may already have, asking basic questions, and asking to follow up with a scientist are vital techniques to making sure that the piece is to a reader’s understanding.
Language, however, is not everything. Science communication is a collaborative effort, and unfortunately, can involve discussing the limitations of a certain study. If a scientist is reluctant to discuss these limitations at length, as many are, this can negatively affect the accuracy and transparency of science journalism. Limitations of a study not only allow other scientists to learn from an experiment, but they also offer transparency regarding the translations of their findings. A scientist’s willingness to be open about the limitations of their work can help writers and the general public understand the true impact of their work.
In addition to limitations, it is worth noting that science is an incredibly ambiguous field. There is a lot of gray area in research, which can be uncomfortable to digest. Just because data is significant or insignificant, it does not mean that the answer to a central question is easily yes or no. “Research builds on itself”, said Pattani, “there are going to be contradictions in the process. Not acknowledging the uncertainties inherent in research can be easy for many writers to fall into the trap of. ”
Within science, there are always confounding factors and alternate perspectives to consider, which can make communication difficult. Difficult to convey and difficult to understand. The difficulties of this field cannot be underscored enough, and it can reasonably deter writers away from science communications.
Navigating these difficulties is not easy, but Eschner said that time, transparency, and seeking collegiality can go a long way. To aspiring science writers, she said, “Don’t let people talk down to you. You are there, you are learning. Provided you come with preparation, you deserve to be there.”
Edited by Wamia Said