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The Unwritten Rules of Journalism

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

In the same way that many children naively assume adults are infallible, I grew up with the fantasy that anything in print must be true. This created some logical conundrums in the supermarket checkout aisle, where I’d see the Weekly World News and wonder, “But if aliens haven’t abducted Elvis, how can they print it?”

I mean, if journalists don’t hold themselves to standards of accuracy, why would they take the trouble to print an Errata column for the few minutiae they happened to miss? “In last week’s issue,” such a column would say, “we mistakenly identified the smiling man in the photograph as Nathan Daniels of Ballwin, Missouri. In fact, while he is indeed Nathan Daniels of Ballwin, Missouri, what we called a smile is more of a tempered grin. We sincerely regret the error.”

Don’t think of what you’re doing as 'dumbing down' science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.

If that’s the kind of error a newspaper regrets—and sincerely, no less—surely the major facts behind any story are watertight.

But the Errata are a trick, and not even a new trick. I use the same trick to ingratiate myself to my wife when I realize I’ve neglected to do something important for our 1-year-old daughter. “I remembered her shoes and socks,” I’ll say, “but I couldn’t find the pink sippy cup, so I brought the green sippy cup.” By apologizing for this lesser transgression, I’m hoping my wife won’t notice that I’ve forgotten to arrange for our daughter to wear pants.

Want to learn more about Adam Ruben? Listen in to this interview with Science Careers's own Donisha Adams.

In reality, journalists make mistakes. And nowhere is the problem more prevalent than in science journalism.

When I was in grad school, a student in my lab named Stephanie Leavitt discovered an aspartic protease in the SARS genome. At the time, if a scientist even mentioned SARS, he or she was given a full-page story in every newspaper in the world (a practice that brought inadvertent fame to many astronomers before journalists realized they were actually saying “stars”). It was as though a cigar-chomping editor had slammed his fist onto every reporter’s desk and demanded, “Print something, anything—Now!—as long as it's got words in it.”

The news reports poured in, and as we read them, our disillusionment grew. One article said she had found a cure for SARS. Another said she had worked on the original SARS genome project. One said—seriously—that the protein was called Stephanie Leavitt.

I don’t blame science reporters for flubbing facts on occasion. Science is difficult to understand, and scientists famously lack communication skills.

But the problem extends beyond simply misunderstanding the science. In fact, science writers appear to obey a collection of unwritten rules when trying to convey science to a mainstream audience. Such as:

Credit: Hal Mayforth

• Start your article with a personal anecdote, even if it’s narcissistic or tangential to the rest of the piece. For example, talk about the tabloid headlines in your childhood supermarket or your daughter’s sippy cup.

• Put the reader at ease by discussing at length the small details of the day you met the scientist. Did you have coffee? Who ordered what? These elements are just as important as the details of the scientific discovery. Remember that a reader should be able to sum up the important points in your story in one sentence, such as: “Dr. Anderson, who showed up 5 minutes late and ordered a medium cappuccino, discovered something about cystic fibrosis. Or maybe anthrax. But definitely cappuccino.”

• Relate the research to readers’ everyday lives. For example, avoid writing, “Studying dung beetles like these teaches entomologists a lot about dung beetles like these.” Instead, write, “Studying dung beetles like these might help lower gasoline prices!” If you truly find yourself unable to determine the relevance of the research, do what the researchers themselves do when asked to write a grant application: Pretend it’s about cancer.

• If the science you’re describing in any way resembles an element of a popular movie, mention the movie. In fact, lead with it and then pack it into every sentence. “Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak,” you'll write, “and soon, so can you! Harry Potter Harry Potter Harry Potter something about bending light waves at the atomic level Harry Potter Harry Potter.”

• All stories benefit from the human element, and the human of interest in your story is the scientist. So be sure to describe the scientist physically in vivid detail. Scientists love that.

• Remember that ordinary people cannot understand units of measurement. Therefore, you should always explain measurements in relation to familiar objects, such as the length of a football field or the number of something that would fit within the period at the end of this sentence. You can also ask your reader to picture how many times things would circle Earth when laid end to end, describe how many would fit on the head of a pin, talk about weight in terms of school buses, or impress everyone with the number needed to reach from the earth to the moon. Just make sure you’ve applied the proper simplifying calculation; otherwise, you’ll find yourself explaining that neurons can grow to be as long as 0.00011 football fields. (You can rescue such an error by adding an exclamation point to the end of your sentence: "A neuron can grow to be as long as 0.00011 football fields!")

• Don’t think of what you’re doing as “dumbing down” science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.

• All science is boring except when you can spin it as a harbinger of things to come. This month, Chinese scientists teleported a photon over 60 miles. That’s, um, the whole story. Which is why you have to jazz up that boring old teleported photon by talking about teleporting people! Star Trek is one step closer to reality! What if you could beam to work? That would sure beat taking the subway! To what far-flung corner would you beam your mother-in-law? Ha! Remember, the word “potential” is your magic passport to write about whatever crap you want to.

• If you can find someone to make a nice infographic, you might as well stop writing your article right now.

• You are required to use one of the following adjectives when describing a new scientific result: “breakthrough,” “landmark,” “game-changing,” “innovative,” or “revolutionary.”

• Always probe scientists, forcing them to unwittingly reveal more than they’re comfortable revealing. Remember, the most interesting application for any scientific discovery is the one that makes the scientists shudder the most.

REPORTER: What could I do with this new type of robot?

SCIENTIST: Well, we’re still in the theoretical stage, but if we can miniaturize the circuitry, we can improve the printing of certain protein microarrays.

REPORTER: Okay, sure. But could you train the robot to make you a pan of brownies?

SCIENTIST: [Literally explodes, painting the laboratory ceiling with pieces of scientist.]

REPORTER: Pan of brownies it is.

• Exploiting the equation “one dissenter = controversy,” include in your article the views of at least one dissenter. Think scientists have settled whether Earth is round? Think again: A random ichthyologist in Jamaica drank too much Red Stripe and insists Earth is shaped like a helmeted basilisk lizard. Controversy! Now you can write, “Scientists continue to argue whether the Earth is round.” Oh, those scatterbrained scientists. Won’t they ever make up their minds?

• Give your article a dramatic note of doom by switching tone halfway through and writing, “But not everyone is thrilled with the results.” Controversy!

• Finally, the best ending for your article is always—always—a cutesy ending. If you’re writing about a new species of dinosaur, for example, end by saying, “Just don’t invite him to dinner!” This allows you to demonstrate common cause with the reader, showing him or her that you realize that you both slogged through a boring science article, but now that you’re through it you can wink at each other on the other side. Remember, they hated reading the article as much as you hated writing it, so by the end, you each deserve a little chuckle. Imagine inviting a dinosaur to dinner! Ha! But it’s a dinosaur!

The result, unsurprisingly, is that mainstream science articles have become formulaic. And it’s never more obvious than, say, when you read an article about a bold new advance that promises to cure something or fix something or spell certain doom—and then you realize you’re reading an article that’s 20 years old and none of those things happened. (You might have realized this earlier if you’d looked at the bottom of the page and found the ad for the new New Kids on the Block cassette.)

For this reason, I hereby say to all science reporters: If you ever come to interview me about my research and find any part of it mundane, write it that way. If the implications you want to tack onto my work are far-fetched, don’t write them. If what I do fails to generate legitimate controversy, maybe it just isn’t that controversial. You may not win any prizes for science writing, but rest assured that your friends and relatives have never heard of those prizes anyway, so who are you trying to impress?

And don’t invite me to dinner! Ha!