Science journalist shares reporting experiences

By AKEIRA JENNINGS | November 21, 2019

Effectively communicating important and complex information to the public is not an easy task. However, students and visiting guests were able to learn firsthand from award-winning science journalist Erik Vance how they can use the craft of writing to disseminate scientific information all over the world.

The event “A Science Journalist Abroad” was hosted on Nov. 14 by the Hopkins Science Writing Masters program, where Vance also serves as a faculty member.

Although the event’s informal interview with Vance and Washington Post Senior Editor Elias Lopez primarily focused on Vance’s experience creating dynamic content abroad, participants were given information on what being a science writer is truly about: viewing the big picture ideas.

“When you’re thinking about a story, when you’re writing, putting something together is being able to step back and say, ‘Okay, what are we really talking about, what is the scientist too close to see?’” Vance said during the discussion. “It may not be the first thing a scientist says, but that’s our job, that’s what we’re supposed to know.”

Science writers often cover a variety of fields and topics, ranging from astrophysics, climate change and biology to new advancements in genetics.

Hopkins offers Science Writing as a master’s program for students. Although its full-time graduate program was discontinued in 2013, the part-time program has allowed students from all over the world to combine their passion for writing with their interests in various fields of science.

Students and alumni of the program have published writing in many prominent science and mainstream media publications, including National Public Radio (NPR) and The Washington Post.

“It’s a tough field,” Geoff Brumfiel, a NPR reporter and 2001 graduate from the Science Writing program, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “The people who come into these programs are smart people.”

As politics and societal issues involving science become more intertwined, the need for writers who can effectively translate and research complex scientific information has become more prevalent.

Research on climate change has led to many heated discussions and confusion within the public. Researchers Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol wrote “Communicating the Science of Climate Change,” an article for Physics Today about the importance of communicating the facts about climate change to the public.

In the article, the researchers list several reasons why there is so much confusion among the public, including disinformation campaigns, inexperienced reporters, religious beliefs and scientifically illiterate public figures and leaders. However, one of the foremost reasons for the confusion is how climate change is framed in the narrative of the media as a controversy with equally credible sides. 

As a result of the misleading content, many Americans have reported that they do not entirely trust their primary news outlets with scientific information.

In a 2017 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 28 percent of Americans believe that news outlets that cover a range of topics post science stories that are completely factual. 

An article by The Guardian about the importance of critical science journalism noted that much of today’s science journalism could be categorized as “infotainment,” a cross between entertainment news and information. 

In recognizing the issues of trust and the sensitive nature of complex or politically charged studies, many science writers urge readers to be vigilant and not just fall for click-bait. 

“I’m worried that the stories that are getting clicked on the most [aren’t] being written by the people who can tell that story well,” Vance said. “If people read... good writers for the Times, they wouldn’t be confused.”

Vance has taken his love of science and information and crafted stories domestically, in Asia and in Latin America.

“Good reporting is something that takes time,” Vance said. “In journalism you hear a lot about, ‘What is the narrative?’ And when we’re traveling or reporting overseas, we frame that narrative all the time. That is the discipline. You’re constantly [asking], ‘What is the story now? What is the story today? What was the story yesterday? How is it changing?’ And that is basically the greatest challenge for foreign reporting.”

For Science Writing graduate student Annie Greene, hearing Vance’s stories about his work covering complex issues, like the extinction of a tiny species of dolphins in Mexico and aqua cultures in China was an eye-opening experience.

“I’ve never spoken to anyone or heard of anyone who travels to do their journalism,” Greene said in an interview with The News-Letter. “That’s kind of a whole other world of how that’s done, as far as getting paid for it or how do you start. It was really interesting and informative.”

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