Technological Help-Seeking Behaviors in the Science Newsroom Environment

Here I am in the newsroom at the AAAS meeting, the most important scientific meeting in the country and perhaps the world, sitting shoulder to shoulder with giants of my profession. Well, not literally. There's a couple of yards between me and the editors of the two largest science journals in the United States. It's not a good time to pull up a YouTube video of yo-yo-chasing kittens. It is a time to be a true professional.

Professional science journalists, like scientists, look for good questions and the answers to them. As I sat down at my newsroom computer station, I was struck by a compelling question: Are professional science journalists any better with computers than the average Joe or Jane?

Literally struck, that is. I ran into the corner of the computer help desk, which, is thankfully, rounded and padded with a thick curtain. Michael Weisman sits behind the desk, and he was kind enough to act as an expert for my investigation.

Weisman's own observations suggest that the subjects may be confining their computer usage to relatively simple software, thus explaining the relatively low frequency of requests for help. I would add that many science journalists are themselves scientists, and have a generally higher level of technical knowledge than society in general, which ought to translate into relatively high computer literacy as well.

Weisman noted, however, that the frequency of inquiries at the computer help desk increases with perceived reporter fatigue. That is to say, as the AAAS meeting plods on, and the reporters hustle to meet deadline after deadline, the frequency of questions such as "How do I print?" increases.

There are four large laser printers along the wall immediately to Weisman's left.

A pilot analysis suggested ample evidence to support using reporter posture as a marker of fatigue, as Weisman suggested. The obvious outlier visible in the third closest chair is an editor whose outrageous workload, politeness, and near-flawless memory for people have led many of my colleagues to suspect that he is not entirely human.

Even with a few posture problems, though, the newsroom contains a pretty good-looking bunch. One would suppose that there is normalizing selective pressure on journalists to maintain a fairly attractive, yet seriously intellectual appearance. They are in the business of getting scientists to talk to them, and I doubt many scientists would open up about their research to either a dazzling hunk or a hunchbacked ogre

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Sandra Chung

is an environmental scientist with soft spots for appropriate tech, low-tech, high-tech ... and robots.