Biogeosciences AGU News

From Science to Storytelling: An Experiment in Journalism

From ominous deadlines to Internet trolls, AGU's 2016 AAAS Mass Media Fellow recounts his experience writing for National Geographic as a science journalist.

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I felt good about myself following the Facebook Live interview covering my article on English bulldog genetics. National Geographic had broadcast the interview live on its main Facebook page, and I thought I’d done well in the informal conversation. I returned to my desk to my check my email and noticed a message from my brother. In addition to his obligatory “Nice job, bro,” he had attached a screenshot taken during the conversation. Next to my grinning face, he had highlighted a lone comment in yellow: “This man looks like he smells of dog,” it read. I was being trolled live on Facebook in front of thousands of people. I laughed; I could finally call myself a journalist!

I spent the summer at National Geographic as part of a program that fosters an exchange between science and the media. Participants in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program, mostly young scientists in school or with freshly earned graduate degrees, get valuable communication experience. In turn, they provide media outlets with helpful scientific expertise. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) sponsored my 10-week fellowship after I’d earned my masters in ecology from Colorado State University.

The Life of a Storyteller

As you might imagine, the life of a journalist differs dramatically from that of a scientist. For someone accustomed to the relatively slow and steady pace of research, the pressure and frenzy of journalism came as a shock. The pace is relentless: I wrote multiple stories a week, which was wholly unnerving for this tinkerer and perfectionist. I never fully adapted to the news reporting rhythm, though I did learn to occasionally turn down a story to give myself more time.

On the flip side of this exhausting pace, I always could find intriguing subjects to write about—mangroves in the Persian Gulf, extra toes in Chaco Canyon, extinct, bizarre armored spiders, and threats from climate change to Antarctica’s Adélie penguins, among them—and reveled in learning something new every day. I even had the opportunity to write a profile of my home state of Colorado for the National Geographic Kids website.

These stories took many forms. Some I threw together in a hyperactive scramble of interviews, research, and writing as I tried to get an article out the door in mere hours. Other stories with embargoes, or dates and times before which media was forbidden to break the news, gave me slightly more breathing room but still imposed ominous deadlines; if I missed one, we would be outcompeted on big scientific developments. Then there were the “evergreen” stories, the most enjoyable to write, which had no deadline imposed by an embargo or news trend. I enjoyed the opportunity that each evergreen gave me to explore a topic and dive deep into the research.

Looking back on those reporting experiences, I find it difficult to choose a favorite. But some do stand out.

I most enjoyed covering the discovery of two newly identified extinct marsupials. It turns out Australians give the best interviews—it is always a good day when you get a quote like “You can get a hell of a lot information from a single tooth!”

An article about the drying out of the Pilcomayo River in Paraguay and the wildlife die-off that followed stood out for its challenges. Relying solely on information translated from Spanish, I came to truly understand what “lost in translation” means: Apparently, the Spanish word “canal” refers to both a river’s channel and human-made canals. This homograph quickly confused me because I was researching a story about a river channel and its system of canals.

In every article, I tried to tell a story and reveal the science behind it. It’s tough, though! Not all subjects grab your imagination, and not all interviewees sparkle with wit and humor. But I consider every article I wrote important in that it told a scientific story that might not otherwise have been told.

Moving Ahead

National Geographic has built its legacy on science communication. The organization’s motto, etched in the glass as you exit the fourth floor elevators, reads, We believe in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world.” This statement accurately sums up the value of this fellowship.

We scientists must strive to promote the value of evidence-based thinking and help educate a public that does not always understand or appreciate science. We can do this best through clear and engaging communication, not journal articles or conference posters. I don’t mean “dumbing down,” which I think is an inappropriate phrase, but rather embracing simplicity in our explanation of science to nonscientists. Parsimony stands as a virtue in statistics; we should strive to make it so in communication as well.

I found National Geographic a genuinely inspiring place to spend the summer and the Mass Media Fellowship a truly career-altering experience. Science writing draws on my strengths both as a scientist and as a writer, and last summer’s trial in science journalism opened my eyes to a new world of career possibilities. I have continued to pursue journalism after completing the fellowship, with recent articles for Smithsonian SmartNews and Eos, and I recently attended the National Association of Science Writers conference in San Antonio, Texas. I plan to keep writing and have been scouring the upcoming AGU Fall Meeting’s program for story ideas.

With next year’s fellowship applications now open (through 15 January 2017), I encourage any interested young scientists to apply.

—Aaron Sidder (email: [email protected]), Freelance Science Writer

Citation: Sidder, A. (2016), From science to storytelling: An experiment in journalism, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO062951. Published on 30 November 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0