Archive for the ‘science writing’ Category

Science Reporting in Peril?


“Most science reporters tend to behave rather like sports writers: they have chosen their topic out of love for it,” observed sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. Unlike sports reporters, however, this love may not be shared with the general public.

At a discussion this evening on “Science News: The Good. The Bad. And the Outrageous,” delivered at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, David Aguilar, the Center’s director of public affairs, introduced the topic with a dissection of what’s in the newspaper. What’s news, he said, is an indication of what the public finds interesting.


Based on an informal analysis of newspaper content conducted over the past 3 weeks by Aguilar, (results above), 5% of the newspaper is dedicated to science, health and the environment. Peer-reviewed studies have also shown similarly low results. These numbers were unsettling to the scientists and astronomy-hobbyists in the Center’s audience, although there was an obvious bias. The truth is, many people find Britney Spears more interesting than supernovas.

It’s important to be cautious with Aguilar’s data, as well as how we define public interest. If he only counted articles written specifically by science reporters on hard science, then he may be painting a sadder picture than what’s really happening. Especially in this age of climate change and personal genetics, science elements are often integrated into economics, political, arts and even style stories. Also, he only looked at newspapers, which many people buy for the horoscope or sports coverage or read online, so whether or not that is an accurate portray of the public interest is debatable.

Also, what is the quality of that 5%? Are they gee-whiz science stories, meant for pure entertainment or are they important and relevant. Many science articles in the New York Times or the Washington Post discuss how public money is being spent on research – a topic relevant to all readers – as well as scientific or medical issues that affect policy, education and personal health. Those invested in science, who may wish the public shared their passion, can always go to magazines or Websites that specialize in science news.

One reason Aguilar cited for the small percentage of science news is a lack of trained science reporters. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Graduate and certificate programs like the one I attend at Boston University have been around for decades and their numbers are growing. Even without training, journalists don’t necessarily need a science background to produce accurate and interesting science stories.

Is science reporting in peril? No, it hasn’t been. In fact, things should only get better as the Internet allows people to pinpoint information relevant and interesting to them. The key is making sure it exists when they do this search. The job of newspaper editors is to decide what science their readers need to know now, for everything else there are science-specific publications. Aguilar set himself up for disappointment by analyzing a digital age with a traditional media.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: March 20, 2008
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Writing for the Web


Dear Readers,

Thank you so much for joining me in my exploration of blogging these past two months. It’s been a learning experience and I thought I’d take advantage of my recent “technical difficulties,” to share with you some of my observations from running a Website. Perhaps this will help some of you who are thinking about embarking on this journey yourselves.

– Recently, I’ve recommended that my friends, most of whom are writers, develop an online presence. It’s essential nowadays to show up on that first page of Google, especially after an evening of networking. Having a Website is the best way to do that. Develop a brand and plaster your name all over it. Learn how to add your pages to Google and Yahoo. Use Facebook, YouTube, e-mail signatures and your friends to get the word out. You many not have 100 hits a days, but at least when someone is looking for the quality of your work, it’s an instant portfolio.

– A professor of mine once said, the difference between print and video, is that video is timeless. I would argue that is no longer the case. Treat each post like it is an entity of its own. With the way Google and tagging works, you never know which of your essays, articles, podcasts or videos will be searched for weeks, months or years later. A review I did criticizing PBS for airing “The Brain Fitness Program” is my most popular page, and has received more visitors than any other post.

– A Web story is not a print or broadcast story. If there is some way to make it visual, try to find that perfect photograph or illustration. Plus it just looks nicer and gives the post a more professional feel. Don’t just steal an image from the Web either, put that digital camera to work. Size also matters. Your 900-word essay on ethanol may not be as readable on the Web as it would in print. Unless it’s a thoroughly researched story, I aim for 500-600 words per post with short paragraphs. Any supporting evidence is where hyperlinks come in handy.

– Make it useful. This is Rule #1. Give readers a reason to come back. If you plan on using your Web space to talk about how much fun you had over the weekend, stop now. Many online writers are finding specific niches to report on and are able to grow and retain a loyal following that way. This allows you to generate authority, (very important on a blogosphere site like technorati), and find richer subjects to write about.

– Don’t be a techno-addict! It’s very easy to become consumed by your blog. If everything in life turns into a potential post, call a friend and ask for help.

– Look ahead. My dream for Science Metropolis is for a digital and physical Boston science community, one in which visitors go together to local events, and talk to each other on and off line about something they are passionate about. Blogging is very isolating, but it doesn’t have to be. Use it to make new friends. Invite people you know to contribute. That’s the true power of the Internet.

If you have any questions or want someone to bounce ideas off of, there’s a human behind these words and I’m willing to help.

Thank you again for your continued support.

Joseph Caputo

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: March 5, 2008

Technorati Round-up: Boston and Science


Curious to know what else is going on in the world of Boston science? You don’t have to wait for Stephen Smith at the Boston Globe for a relevant science article anymore, just hit the technorati search engines and cross your fingers. Here’s what I found:

ParallelNormal – Mark Baard, a technology columnist for the Globe, links readers to his recent piece, MD to Fight Stress in Second Life, about a Massachusetts General Hospital doctor who will lead relaxation lessons on the virtual community Second Life. He even uses “the lingo” in his piece like in-world, referring to activities that occur in Second Life. I guess this is opposed to the out-world, where bills, family and responsibilities exist.

Betterhumans – Although the purpose of this Website is unclear, they posted a YouTube video by NewScientist (done by BU alum Ivan Semeniuk) on the Obama-Clinton science debate from the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting a few weeks ago.

Boston Phoenix Phlog – While this entry, a 1998 report on animal experimentation at Boston University, isn’t a blog post, it’s still interesting 10 years later. The controversy was whether using and killing rabbits for educational dissections is ethical. Hopefully, the Phoenix will do a follow-up.

Walking the Berkshires – This is a thoughtful compilation of sources about the recent outbreak of white-nose syndrome, which has been causing massive die-0ff of some bat species in the Northeast. Greenman Tim emphasizes that scientists do not yet know what’s causing the epidemic, could it be a fungus, climate change or something new?

TheEnvironmentSite – Another report from the AAAS meeting about Dr. Karen Kidd, an ecotoxicologist at the University of New Brunswick, who “poisoned” a lake in Canada with oestrogen, a common hormone found in sewage, to see its effects. While smaller organisms like bacteria weren’t affected, some of the fish species saw drastic changes to their ability to reproduce.

Nature Network Boston – Corie Lok, (another BU science journalism alum), is the editor of this Website as well as a Boston science blogger. In this post she asks readers for their favorite science videos. Her title is particularly good – Would you Kiss Your PCR machine?

So that’s it for now. If you have any keyword suggestions for the next Technorati round-up, do let me know.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: March 3, 2008
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Post AAAS: The Future of (Science) Journalism


The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, a unique nine-month sabbatical for science writers, celebrated its 25th anniversary this week with a symposium examining journalism’s future. Nearly 200 people attended, many past fellows as well as freelancers, editors and students, all curious (and slightly anxious) to know where the field is heading. The surprise verdict: The future is already here.

For nearly a decade, the Internet has been viewed by print journalists as television was once seen by radio folk – the beginning of the end. We learned from television that multiple mediums can coexist, but the Internet poses the historically unique possibility of convergence, since print, audio, video and more can be accessed in a single space. The intense competition for readers became the least of print media’s worries with the onset of Web. 2.0 whe bloggers and other news aggregators-like Google-have made it impossible for a story to end after it is filed. News today is discussed, dissected and corrected.

This “Digital Age,” as named by Boyce Rensberger, a veteran science journalist and current director of the Knight Fellowship, is an epoch where the journalist is no longer a gatekeeper for scientific information. Now all sorts of facts and fictions are seeping through to a knowledge-hungry public, from the scientist with his own blog, the pharmaceutical-funded documentary or a politician’s book. It is now the role of the science journalist to be an authenticator.

Dianne Lynch, an expert in independent media and dean of journalism at Ithaca College, tried to calm a room of traditional journalists by arguing that journalism is not changing, just the medium “Journalism does not equal newspapers,” she said. “Journalism has never been more dynamic or exciting-it is being conflated with dying business models.” This means the same quality, standards, and dedication to one’s audience will subsist, but the move online requires journalists to frame their work in new ways. This could mean through visuals, graphs, video, podcasts, or 51 other ways to accompany print.

Mindy McAdams, a digital media professor at the University of Florida seconded this train of thought by arguing the 5,000-word piece just does not get read on the Internet. Although there is no data to support this statement, it makes sense. People who go online are looking for specific kinds of information, in particular, entertainment. A science video featuring talking heads does not reach audiences the way an animation or puzzle would.

Not all journalists are ready to accept this news. Carl Zimmer, a freelance writer and widely known blogger, as well as Michael Balter, a contributing writer for Science, expressed concerns that at least one victim of this movement will be writing. They question whether or not the Millenium generation (those 22 and under) are going to absorb the style and content of good writing if they only rely on blogs or short online articles.

Tom Rosensteil, co-author of The Elements of Journalism, was also skeptical. “There is a lot of experimentation going on,” he said. “Lot of risk taking and faddism and some of it is a mistake, overkill or overreaction.” While this may be true, the advocates for new media, those journalists who blog, twitter, Facebook and YouTube are able to earn a decent living, and the explosion of the more successful fads are now defining the Web experience.

To be prepared for what’s to come, science journalism students must be trained not necessarily to produce online content, but to learn how to think digital. They should be able to have a conversation with a graphic artist for a Flash Animation and know the difference between a video for a television broadcast and a video for the Web. Maintaining a blog and developing an online presence is the equivalent to writing obituaries 25 years ago.

Journalism students don’t have anything to fear if they can make this conversion now. Even if newspapers and books are replaced by e-ink and magazines go extinct, there will always be a place for good reporting. Besides, we need journalists for something to blog about.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, science writing  |  Date: February 23, 2008
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People I Admire: Chris Mooney


The first time I read something by Chris Mooney, I was in a college laundry room. He would be on a panel I wanted to attend on intelligent design so as I waited for my delicates to dry, I cracked open his 2005 book The Republican War on Science.It is hard not to like the person Chris Mooney represents. He is young, politically active, a science journalist and successful. After graduated from Yale in 1999, he has gone on to be one of the most recognized and published-writers in the area of science and policy.

In this past week alone I came across three new pieces he published: One on the future of the blogging business in the Columbia Journalism Review, a book review on climatologist James Hansen for New Scientist, and an essay calling for a science debate for the presidential candidates in the newest issues of SEED (There’s no link but here’s a blog entry by him on a similar subject). In addition, he blogs at The Intersection, speaks at national conventions and colleges, and just finished his second book Storm World last spring (Reviewed by the co-director of my program Ellen Ruppel Shell in The Boston Globe).

In brief, he does a lot and as an aspiring science journalist myself, I have to wonder how. It’s obvious he’s well connected but it also seems he writes many opinion pieces and blogs, which while taking a fair bit of research and thought are a bit easier to write than a series of features. I’m guessing he puts the most time-consuming work into writing books.

Chris Mooney also stands out to me because he is an activist for science. For a field that is often so quiet when it comes to politics and society he gives scientists and researchers a voice. This is not to say he is a biased reporter, but in articles where he expresses his opinion, he is not afraid to be critical.

As a reader of his work, I value his opinions because he is so informed and often brings new perspectives into his writing. His are the articles I put down and am changed. His coverage of science journalism in the developing world (In which my professor Phil Hilts is quoted) made me appreciate my first amendment rights and the role of the journalist in society. His SEED piece on calling for a presidential science debate encouraged me to become a supporter of the cause.

After a conversation I had today, I’ve realized how important it is for a writer to be useful to their audience. He does this by encouraging readers to be better journalists, scientists, but most of all citizens.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: January 22, 2008
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People I Admire: Rebecca Watson


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Last Friday, I promised myself a one-day break from my news obsession. For my mental health I decreed a complete ban on newspapers, non-fiction books, magazines and especially the Internet. But after a craving for ice cream led me to a late-night trip to the local Shaw’s, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the last remaining copy of The Boston Globe.Oh the things I might have missed! The identification of all the proteins necessary for an HIV infection, a group of renegade stem-cell scientists with a challenge for President Bush, or most importantly, hidden in the Arts & Entertainment section, a short piece on Rebecca Watson, a local finalist of the Public Radio Talent Quest.

Ms. Watson, a Brookline resident (who loves her local bagel shop), is already known for co-hosting the podcast “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” and as a blogger with a dedicated following at In her posts she takes on everything from scientology and psychics to the separation of church and state. A self-identified skeptic, atheist and feminist, she is a champion against pseudoscience who is refreshingly direct about her beliefs.

Perhaps it is her humor and personality that earned her finalist status in the public radio competition. According to Clea Simon’s Boston Globe article, she was not one of the judge’s picks, but propelled through the competition American-Idol style, because voters like me and you liked her.

Without any supporting evidence, I would guess Ms. Watson’s success is part of a larger trend of people, specifically youth and people in higher education, disenchanted with beliefs they feel are irrational or illogical. After listening to a demo of her radio show (Round 4), she presents herself as someone who will question what she is told. When a Boston tour guide tells her blue spirit orbs sometimes appear in pictures taken of Capital Hill, she tries to find a legitimate explanation. Can’t get more anti-authority than that.

Is America ready for an openly-atheist host of a science-based National Public Radio show? We’ll have to wait a few more months before the final decision. Until then, it’s nice to learn of a person who is brave enough to stand by their non-beliefs and share their curiosity with others of the world as it is.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: January 13, 2008
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Science Blogging 101


In nine days I will be a blogger. To be honest with you, I’m a bit nervous. Like life, blogging doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Unlike life, you can always go back and revise.

The closest thing to an instruction manual I could find was The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006, edited by experienced blogger Bora Zivkovic. With the help of his readers, he chose 50 of the best posts of the year, and is currently working on the 2007 edition.Here are some of the science blogging ground rules I managed to pick up:

– A blog entry is more or less a stream of organized consciousness. It can take the form of a poem, an academic essay, a letter to the editor, news article or angry e-mail, but with a distinctive voice.

– Lengths vary, from a few paragraphs to a mini-thesis. Readers in a rush probably prefer shorter.

– Miniseries work well, as do weekly installments. If you take this route, make sure to remind readers what you last wrote about.

– Diagrams and pictures work well, and can be fun to look at, but not if they’re techinical.

– New content is key. Find another side to a story, do an investigation of your own, share your findings from a day at the museum, provide us with those middle-of-the-night-need-to-write-this-down-or-I’ll-forget thoughts.

– Personal essays or commentaries can be the best writing in any medium.

– Some bloggers aren’t necessarily the best writers, but their heart is there, which makes them readable.

– Pick up the phone or go on an adventure. Blogging is as much about personal enrichment as it is engaging an audience.
– Specialization helps give focus.

– It’s o.k., and encouraged, to make if funny or sexy, as long as it’s in good taste.

I will do my best to follow these rules over the next few months. I’ll definitely slip up. That’s a promise! But hopefully we can get some gems as well.

I look forward to spending more than a few sleepless nights writing for you.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: January 6, 2008
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