Good and bad advice on science journalism

Black and white

The local Guelph chapter of Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) is quite a going concern. Last night we met at the Red Papaya for drinks and our monthly meeting. One of our topics was “dealing with feast and famine.” In the end it raised an important ethical question.

I’ve received a lot of encouragement and valuable advice from other members. Last night, after I mentioned my goal of doing more science writing, someone said, “Van, let me give you a tip.” She is a ball of energy, always eager to help, a corporate writer who does a lot of work for agricultural publications.

First she suggested contacting research departments of local universities and asking to be added to their media lists. This was great advice. I live within 30 minutes of four important Canadian universities—Guelph, McMaster, Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier—a resource easily tapped. She pointed out that these departments have a mandate to communicate their work to the media, so I would be doing them a service.

I need to start attending symposiums.

Then she talked about developing relationships with researchers. Along with some other points she said, “Let them read your article to check for accuracy.”

I heard a sharp intake of breath from the travel writer next to me.

I said, “No, as a journalist I could not do that.”

I was trained as a journalist, but worked in public relations for five years long ago, so I understood where she was coming from. Her client is her source; mine is the person who buys a magazine or newspaper or clicks a link online.

I am not a spokesperson. Public relations people are valuable to me, but we are not the same.

My job is to ensure the reader receives accurate, balanced information. I cannot avoid personal biases, but I do my best. I don’t have any trouble bouncing a specific point off an interviewee to make sure I understand. I don’t have any trouble asking them about a conflicting point of view to get a rebuttal. But thorough research and good fact checking are not the same as letting a source influence how I write the article.

In many stories I write it will not make a difference, but a time will come when it does. Then I must know with certainty where I stand and where my integrity is rooted.

As our meeting drew to a close, the corporate writer continued to argue why I should show them. The travel writer didn’t say a thing, but paid her bill and left. I smiled and listened. My eyes must have been glazing over by the time the speaker stopped.

Now I just need to vent: No no no no no!

This moment clarified my goals in coming back to magazine writing after all this time, and who I am writing for. I hope I haven’t offended any corporate writer friends. I am inspired by the collective passion and energy of all the freelancers I know, and how many endure uncertainty and make sacrifices to do what they love. We are all in this together in a way, and we all have jobs to do.

Just don’t try to convert me and we’ll be fine.


Comments

Good and bad advice on science journalism — 6 Comments

  1. Great topic. I can see where the PR person was coming from — she made the suggestion so whatever copy you turn in would be accurate. But there are ways to ensure accuracy that don’t involve letting a source read your copy before it’s published. For starters, when you do interviews — whether in person or by phone — you can stop the source periodically to review what they just said. I’ve done interviews where I stopped a doctor or therapist after every sentence to basically read back to them what they’d just said in order to make sure I understood it. In these types of circumstances, you can’t get enough detail, because the more detail you get, the better you’ll understand the subject. Recording interviews also helps, so you can listen to what the source says over and over. Worst case scenario: you can always follow up by email or in a quick phone call to say, I’m writing my story and want to confirm that when you said blah, blah, blah, it meant blah, blah, blah.

    Michelle

  2. I am glad you still have integrity in a world where it is sometimes lacking. You have much to offer through this kind of blog for the general reader like me. I am married to a scientist and I think most researchers prefer sharing on paper. After all they write enough of them. I find a retired scientist (in Guelph) is more open to talking about his work and other topics than he used to be.
    The quality of your writing and your own viewpoint will always have merit.

    • I don’t know whether I ever expected to receive praise from my grade four teacher on this blog. 🙂 Thank you, Mrs. Buttery.

    • In a world where the money for magazine writing is disappearing, I see many colleagues crossing over to corporate writing for security. I can’t blame them. In fact it’s tempting, but that isn’t why I wanted to be a freelance writer. It’s important to remember there’s a difference.

  3. As a scientist and researcher, I have to say I agree with your colleague’s advice. I don’t know how many times I have just shaken my head at the ‘interpretations’ of various science journalists. More often than not, important details are glazed over, but sometimes they’re just blatantly changed, knowingly or not, seemingly to ‘sweeten’ the tale. At least you have a background in biology, so you might have a bit of a leg up. What gets tricky is when you venture outside of your background.

    I think there are ways to go about this without getting ‘bias’ from a source. You don’t even have to use ‘a source’ (by this I assume someone you interview specifically for a piece of writing work)–someone, anyone in a particular field would do. In fact, most people are happy to share thoughts and ideas about their particular field of work. I would argue there’s less personal bias than you would think–most are so willing to talk about their fields of study because accuracy of reporting means the particular field might get legitimate attention, even if for a brief stint.

    And don’t forget–the first time you make a mistake when reporting on a particular scientific subject, it won’t be forgotten. Networks in small fields are strong, and such articles get passed around both for praise and.. otherwise. Just my 2¢.

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