Many news outlets today don’t have science-focused programs or journalists that specialize in science reporting.
But that doesn’t mean science shouldn’t be covered. Highlighting scientific findings using expert sources can actually deepen an audience’s understanding of local issues.
Tori Espensen is the scientific outreach manager for a nonprofit that connects reporters with scientific experts called SciLine. On Thursday afternoon at the Society of Professional Journalists Convention in Las Vegas, she taught conference attendees how to incorporate science into any story during the “Enriching Local News Stories with a Dose of Science” session.
“To cover your community comprehensively, you have to be able to cover science,” Espensen said. “And even stories that aren’t about science still have scientific angles.”
One of the most important things to understand when using science in a story is the scientific process. Espensen said science is not a body of knowledge, but an iterative process where experiments are repeated over and over.
“The key is not to focus on the findings of science, but to contextualize those findings within the process of science,” Espensen said.
For example, Espensen cautioned against using buzzwords like “breakthrough” because it’s probably not really a breakthrough, just a step in the process. Journalists should also be wary of single studies – which aren’t peer-reviewed – and in vitro studies, which take place outside a natural system.
Once a journalist understands the scientific process, they can go to experts to dive into specific topics.
That’s what Colton Lochhead, the water reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, does. When dealing with science jargon, Lochhead often asks scientists to explain the concept as if he were a fifth grader.
“We don’t have to be the smartest person. We just have to interview the smartest people and then our job is to help them get that message out,” Lochhead said.
Espensen said that also means finding the right person.
“I want to emphasize that this is not a question of finding an expert. This is a question of finding the right expert,” Espensen said.
The right expert is someone who is “deeply entrenched not just in the field generally, but in the specific question that you have.”
That’s because scientific expertise is often narrow, so it’s best practice to reach out to people who are actively publishing. This can also bring scientists of diverse backgrounds into the news.
Thinking about science also provides new angles to typically non-science stories. An example Espensen highlighted during the session was a story about bringing high-speed internet to rural areas. Instead of just the hard news angle, the journalist can instead approach the story from a social science angle about how this will connect rural farmers, or from a healthcare angle about how telehealth could be a possibility.
Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief for the Scientific American, and Nsikan Akpan, the health and science editor for WNYC/Gothamist, also spoke about why general news outlets should cover science. Helmuth said covering science is one of the few beats where journalists can experience a sense of awe, joy and discovery.
“Every single story is a science story,” she said, “because no matter what you’re covering, there’s some research or scholarship or, you know, evidence that you can pull into the story to make it richer, to make it more trustworthy, more factual, and less prone to being manipulated or politicized or weaponized by people who don’t want reality to be reported on accurately.”