ABSW Science Journalism Summer School - session reviews, resources and coverage
Read all about the summer school in this storify account by ABSW Chair, Mico Tatalovic.
Find out what the Summer School student scholars thought about their experience in this piece by our sponsors Taylor & Francis Group.
For more on our speakers see our speaker biographies
Introductory remarks by Pallab Ghosh, Honorary President, ABSW and science correspondent BBC news
For those of you new to the ABSW we are what it says on the tin – and association of science writers, journalists and communicators.
We have training events like the one today, we run awards for science writing and broadcasting and most important of all - we are a community.
We help and learn from each other. We do what we can to help others.
We also stand up for critical coverage of science.
With the world so full of science propaganda, of corporate and personal agendas, of campaigns and hype and of downright misleading information and fake news, what people need more than ever before is for us to our jobs as well as we can.
Our job is to be independent, honest and unbiased. Our job is to challenge the information we are given. And our job is to report it clearly, accurately and to the very highest standards of journalism.
No one else is doing this.
And this at a time when there’s less money to support Science journalism and more to support science propaganda and vested interests.
For science to truly benefit society – it has to be tested by critical science journalism done to the highest professional standards.
Science and society needs us more than its needed us before.
So come and be part of the ABSW and help us to make that difference.
Get involved and help us shape what we do.
And so on to today. There’s a fabulous line up and great set of talks. So it’s going to be a great day. And I have to say that for me the best part about it all is that its been organised by fellow science journalists and the talks are being given by fellow science journalists all of them giving their time and expertise for free for the benefit of fellow science journalists!
And that makes me so proud to be a science journalist, and so proud of my fellow science journalists who have made this day possible!
Finally our slogan is “Transforming Ideas”
We transform scientific ideas into something that benefits society: to help us understand the world around us, to reveal what politicians and vested interest groups are doing in our name and for us to make important decisions about our own lives.
And by so doing our work itself becomes a transforming idea.
New media trends: Where are our audiences? The latest insights about digital news consumption from the Digital News Report 2017, Nic Newman, research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and lead author of the digital news report
Resources: Digital News Report
The role of critical science journalism in the fake news world, Alok Jha, Science Correspondent, ITV
Media Trends: Critical science journalism and building trust in the ‘fake news’ era by Tania Robledo Retana (Summer School Student Scholar)
People interested in science tend to think that facts are more important than anything else – but they are wrong. That’s what Alok Jha (@alokjha), science correspondent for the UK’s ITV channel, told the Association of British Science Writers Summer School. There, he talked about media trends. He pointed out that when it comes to having a positive effect on the population, the use of information is not just related to the facts, but instead, how the people will relate to them.
Fake news and misinterpretation have happened as long as there has been news, Jha explained. But, previously, news mostly came via an anchor or reporter. The main difference is that now stories can be spread in seconds. Once they are viral, it is sometimes difficult for the public to track all the sources and verify how reliable they are.
When facts are the essence of the news, how stories are written and targeted to the public can change their impact, Jha said. Therefore, journalists should know who they are writing for. If we know how to attract the public and present the information, it will be easier for them to trust and understand the facts. That in turn will probably give stories greater impact.
Nowadays, the spread of information is more interactive and writers can get feedback from their readers and measure impact. Another way for journalists to know their audiences could be writing for specific journals or blogs that people will use regularly as their source of information.
A question from the audience asked how a journalist can target their public if they don’t know which people will read them. Jha said that providing a story about how those facts or deeds affected someone’s life could help readers to put that information into a new context, which they can relate to.
Jha cited Trump’s presidential campaign as an example. Most people thought he wouldn’t win, because he was promoting racism and anger among citizens. But he promised to solve the most common problems among American population, like the lack of jobs and economy. Hence, they related that information to their lives and believed that it would be possible for him to solve those problems for them in short term. So, they voted for him.
Since news is spread by the media, Jha highlighted different bullet points that should be important for every journalist, one of which is trust. Journalists should be reliable and able to challenge the ‘facts’, as well as offer different points of view, trying their best to be critical and objective. This will make it easier for the audience to be critical about all sorts of topics and question science. It is important that people do this the same way they question other things, since nothing – according to Jha – is completely absolute, not even science.
The era of fake news – a global problem by Shelley Whitmore (Summer School Student Scholar)
It was a glorious summer’s day in central London at The Wellcome Trust, the venue for the Association of British Science Writers Science Journalism Summer School 2017. The morning got underway with a session from Nic Newman, of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, focussing on new media trends. He gave the audience an insight into the various demographics of news consumers.
Following on from Newman was Alok Jha, ITV News science correspondent who spoke about how the global rise of fake news is not a new phenomenon for science journalists. He explained the importance of critical science journalism to combat it.
Every day there is a barrage of fake news published throughout the media, and it is becoming more difficult for the public to differentiate between fact and fiction, Jha said. But why is this? He suggested “people have lost trust in organisations”, and don’t know which experts to believe anymore. This is due to contradictory and confusing advice given to the public, he explained. He used dietary advice as an example, when you find one newspaper feature saying one type of food is good for us and another saying the exact opposite.
So how can science journalists and communicators regain the trust of the public? We need to be able to connect with people, Jha explained. This may sound obvious, but it is imperative that we connect with the right people, and that we deliver the facts that are important to them. Journalists need not remain impartial when delivering news - it is okay to be critical when identifying facts, and connecting with the population. People are more likely to trust you, if you are honest.
Jha concluded saying journalists must spread news as far as they can. As Newman explained, different populations prefer to get their news from specific media formats.
Jha’s advice, personal experience, and above all, his honesty, were well received by the room. Fake news is a global problem and we need to do our utmost as current, and future journalists and communicators, to tackle this issue head on.
Pitching skills - how and where to sell you story ideas
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Aisling Irwin, acting editor, SciDev.Net
Laura Greenhalgh, assistant policy editor, Politico
Helen Thomson, freelance science journalist and consultant for New Scientist
Joshua Howgego, features editor at New Scientist
Successful Pitching for Science Journalists by Charlotte Harris (Summer School Student Scholar)
For freelance science journalists, producing an engaging pitch is a key skill.
However, ‘most pitches are bad’ says Mico Tatalovic, Environment and Life Sciences Editor at the New Scientist.
News article pitches are rejected for many reasons. But among the most common is the a lack of in-depth understanding by the writer, or the fact that the story has already been reported.
‘Editors need you to make them look good’ says Mico, by presenting them with an idea that will interest their superiors. That makes it simple for to commission and use the piece.
Mico was speaking at the ABSW Science Journalism Summer School, where budding science journalists had the opportunity to get some advice from the editors themselves about what makes a good science story pitch, and what will make you stand out within the science journalism community.
Helen Thomson, a freelance science journalist and previous editor at New Scientist, listed a handful of clear points that make a good pitch.
Firstly, is it new?
One of the ubiquitous pieces of guidance given by this session’s panel was that a good pitch needs to be relevant and most important - exclusive! With new research being published every day, the scientific world has the capability to move on leaps and bounds very rapidly.
‘New research can be old news within a matter of hours’ says Laura Greenlaugh, assistant policy editor of Politico.
Secondly, is this story relevant, and doe it move science on?
‘Editors are not omniscient’ said panel member Aisling Irwin, editor of scidev.net. She made the point that editors do not know all the goings-on of the wider scientific community. She explained that it is important for writers to be clear in their pitches about why their story is important right now and why they should be the ones to write it.
Multiple members of the panel also suggested that adding any form of graphics and multimedia, as well as targeting more specific science expertise, can help make your pitch stand out and may qualify you to write a story over other writers.
The structure of pitches is vital. They should be short and clear, around 50-100 words long, clear and concise, whilst also having the wow factor.
‘Ask yourself, is this a story I would tell to my friends down the pub?’ says Helen Thomson.
The best pitchers know their editors and can tailor their pitches to different media outlets and their readership. In order to continue writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, it is important to establish trust. Mico also explained that the best journalists take advice on board and do not repeat errors.
For longer features, the story needs to be compelling, and more offer more of a narrative than shorter news articles.
‘You need to make people want to invest time into reading the story and keep them entertained’ explained Joshua Howgego, features editor for New Scientist.
Finally, research is key. It is not enough to just write about a new piece of science. You must also have a broader understanding of the field of research involved.
By first learning to pitch stories well, journalists have a chance to critically analyse science and report it in a clear, unbiased and honest fashion, so that it may truly benefit society.
Resources: New Scientist guide for freelancers
Why investigative journalism matters, with examples from science, by Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
How we uncovered Google Deep Mind's secret NHS data grab by Hal Hodson, technology reporter at the Economist (previously New Scientist), and Will Douglas Heaven, freelance (previously chief technology editor at New Scientist and editor of BBC Future Now).
The challenges of investigative science journalism by Shelley Whitmore (Summer School Student Scholar)
The investigative journalism session at the ABSW Summer School was divided in to two smaller sessions; first, Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism - or simply the Bureau, second, Hal Hodson and Will Douglas Heaven, both formerly of New Scientist.
The phenomenon of fake news is one major problem facing the media. Another is the ongoing funding crisis. Newspapers used to pay their journalists, and finance expensive investigations, with their considerable income from advertising, Oldroyd explained. But now most advertising revenue goes to Facebook and Google. News organisations chase clicks for a dwindling return. If you add to that the unyielding demands of a 24-hour news cycle, you create an environment where slow, expensive investigative journalism gets squeezed out, so where does that leave the investigations that can take months to research and report, she asked?
Time is key for investigative reporting. The quickest of the Bureau’s recent investigations have taken six weeks, others up to four months.
The Bureau is philanthropically funded, with donations from individuals and large foundations and has doubled in size over the last two years from having one funder to 10. This means it can continue to carry out time-intensive investigations, Oldroyd said. But this model will not be the salvation of investigative reporting, she cautioned. It’s vital there are a variety of different methods for financing expensive but vital investigative reporting.
Hodson and Heaven followed Oldroyd with a fascinating explanation of how they landed a major investigation into Google, an NHS trust’s patient data, and artificial intelligence (AI).
Both clearly still proud of their efforts, they detailed the process they went through to publish an intricate and potentially legally sensitive story about a data-sharing agreement between London’s Royal Free NHS Trust, and Google’s giant’s AI project, DeepMind.
The scoop stemmed from a seemingly innocuous press release that landed in front of Hodson. It said the Royal Free had given patient data to DeepMind in the hope the tech firm could produce a new tool to help medics monitor patients with kidney problems. But Hodson – then technology editor and reporter – had taken an interest in AI, which led him to dig a little deeper into this announcement. He worked away on it, finally turning up a copy of the data-sharing agreement between the hospital trust and Google. He found their deal went a lot further than had been publicly declared.
It was a contentious story that required a lot of time to report and edit properly and a lawyer to look over it, to avoid the magazine venturing into legal trouble.
Hodson’s investigation consumed a lot of his time, taking him away from his beat. It took up a lot of Heaven’s time too, guiding his colleague and sometimes ensuring Hodson had the time and space to keep digging. It is sometimes difficult for a commercial organisation to justify this kind of expenditure.
But it also demonstrated the value of science journalists trying to invest their time in investigative enterprises, Oldroyd said. Science journalists are beat reporters, they are the people who have the deep knowledge base to be able to pick apart threads and find deeper stories that might elude their general reporting colleagues.
The intricacies and potential for legal trouble in Hodson and Heaven’s story was seen as an example, by some in the audience, of how investigations can be too daunting to take on. Several people raised questions and comments from the floor on this point, how can freelancers or small specialist publications take on such intensive and challenging stories?
Oldroyd suggested science journalists with a story, and their specialist knowledge and contacts, could take their potential investigations to people who are equipped to develop them. Freelancers or staffers on small publications could go to the Bureau, Sunday Times, Guardian, BBC, where other reporters and editors are used to landing contentious stories, she said. Rather than pitch a story and asking for payment for words, freelancers should pitch their expertise and ask to be taken on as a contractor for the duration of the story. Collaboration is a growing concept in journalism – small media organisations could try to co-publish with another outfit with investigative experience.
Data journalism skills, Jonathan Stoneman, Freelance trainer in Open Data
Finding stories by ‘interviewing data’ by Tania Robledo Retana (Summer School Student Scholar)
The race for trending news is getting more complicated as the worldwide news feed changes every second, emphasised Jonathan Stoneman (@stonepeople), an expert data journalist. Data can therefore be important to develop and differentiate a story, he told the Association of British Science Writers Summer School.
Stoneman explained that data journalism is not the same thing as statistics. All the numbers in data represent stories, and it is important to know how to ask them the right questions. He recommended the use of some free databases. Governmental ones can easily be found on Google by just typing ‘free gov databases’. He also added that all databases need to be checked to make sure the information is reliable. He called looking for stories in the data sets ‘interviewing your data’, which involves three steps.
The first step is to group the information, for example as the biggest, the smallest, or by time and type of the events reported. The second step is filtering, which will narrow the information. That lets us know what is represented by those numbers, be it a group of women, men, children, regions, countries or states. And the final step is ‘pivoting’ the information, creating a ‘pivot table’ that represents the amount of time each event is repeated in the database.
Stoneman then recommended the use of software like 3D maps that could be produced in Microsoft software to visualise that data. He showed one 3D map with the number of car crashes in London depending on time. It was impressive to see how the charts grew as the time passed, proving how a graphic representation can help to attract the public, and highlight the shown data.
This was just the start of the story, Stoneman stressed. He should now go to the places where the crashes occurred, and research the reasons that lead to those numbers. All this work could produce an interesting breakthrough story, hiding under huge amounts of numbers that are just waiting for someone to discover them in one of these databases. And as some of them are available to download for free, developing skills that will unwrap databases could be one of the greatest sources of information for journalists – and not necessarily scientific journalists, but all kinds.
Powerpoint Presentation by Jonathan Stoneman: Lightning introduction to data
EurekAlert!’s science news service and media survey results, Brian Lin, director of editorial content strategy at EurekAlert!
Mark Peplow, freelance science journalist
Max Glaskin, an award-winning journalist and the author of Cycling Science
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
How to be a successful freelance science writer by Charlotte Harris (Summer School Student Scholar)
Writing is the key skill for a science journalist. But what does it take to be a successful writer?
Science journalism is one of the hardest trades to break into. For many, freelance writing is their main source of income, or an important part of it.
During the Science Journalism Summer School hosted by the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), budding science journalists had the chance to kick-start their careers with some first-class advice from seasoned professionals.
During a session on successful freelancing, a panel of three experienced freelanced science writers, Max Glaskin, Inga Vesper and Mark Peplow, were able to give advice to those interested in turning their hand to freelance writing, based on their own experiences of this highly variable field.
Utilise your time
Max Glaskin, an award-winning freelance science journalist and author, explained how freelancers need to optimise the use of their time between writing articles and pitching, as well as making themselves flexible to multiple publications. Max writes exclusively about science and cycling - as he said, anything from buttock rash to graphene tyres.
This point was reiterated by Inga Vesper, a freelance science journalist, who also made the point that ‘as a writer, you need to be strict with yourself, find a rhythm, and also be careful of not working all the time – try to find a work-life balance’.
Mark Peplow, also a freelance science journalist, highlighted the vital need for science news writers to work to the time and length of an agreed piece, explaining that working to deadlines allows publications to build trust with freelance writers and ultimately want to work with them again in the future.
Experience is essential
This point was emphasised by Inga and Mark, who both have experience working within a news room, whether it is through formal training, education, blogging or volunteering.
By becoming a staff writer first, budding freelances can get an idea of how a news room works, as well as being trained to produce a vast output of articles in a short amount of time. It’s all about working under pressure to combine speed with quality.
Network, network and more network
The science journalism field is tough to get into and highly competitive once you are in. Networking, making friends and building relationships within the industry, can give a writer a major advantage.
‘Widen the field of subjects you can write about’ suggests Inga, highlighting how smaller, more niche publications may be easier to pitch to if you have a deeper understanding of a highly specific subject.
Rates of pay are also a topic of interest for the majority of science writers.
‘It’s okay to be a little cruel – don’t sell yourself cheaply’ Inga adds. Whilst pay should not be the first discussion you have with a new publisher, it is definitely something that can be negotiated once a relationship is established.
However, all members of the panel highlighted the point that wages can be expected to fluctuate widely if freelancing is taken on as a full time career, and so it is also important for earnings to be tracked monthly.
So whether you wish to write to inform, because you’re good at it or just through a passion for science, if done well, freelancing can be a great, fulfilling and independent way for writers to gain experience and make money.