Covering Science in Cyberspace

March 14, 2007

Getting Personal

Making a story personal is hard, especially when it’s about the newly discovered oceans of methane on Titan, as Adam Frank pointed out.  But it seems like everyone agrees that relatinga topic to a reader can make it better.

“There is a collective yawn out there,” Matt Crenson said, “so how can we shake them up?”

As groups present their projects this morning, there has been an emphasis on how best to draw people in to their sites through personal narratives.  One group proposed to feature families affected by global warming by allowing them to blog about their experiences.  It could feature a family from Antarctica, who is literally at the icy edge of the controversy, and a farming family in middle America, whose crops may be suffering. 

Matt Crenson suggested including an “interactive-build-your-own-story-assembler,” feature about stem cells.  The website would include primary resources, like the original science article describing the breakthrough, and audio files of interviews with a source.  The reader would be able to take a quiz, and their responses would go into a story.  Correct answers would be written in black, and incorrect answers would be red.  Users can then rate other user’s story, which takes advantage of people’s competitiveness.

Even though stories like Titan’s seas can’t be easily personalized, their inherent beauty can carry them.  While relating stories to people can be a great hook, we should all remember that on a basic level, people do care about science, and some things are just too cool to not write about.

March 14, 2007

The Central Resource (how to make it)

A running theme of this symposium seems to be that there’s a need for supplemental content online - a central resource of sorts - that will keep readers coming back for more information. How might such a site be reasonably implemented?

It seems to me that there are two possibilities: each publication could create several sub-sites for consistently hot issues, or there could be some non-partisan (non-profit? Governmental? International?) site to which many different publications could link.

Several sites already have sub-sites dedicated to particular issues. The New York Times, for example, has a sub-site dedicated to climate change . Of course, it seems that the last time it was updated was in 2001. It seems a good idea to put all the related articles from a publications archives into one place, but there may be practical barriers to this.

A central issue is that it’s costly to produce supplemental content (as Vicki Valentine and others pointed out in yesterday’s web technology show-and-tell session).

One solution to this might be found in another idea that’s floated around today: the idea of responding to hot topics.

The second group suggested that their site might somehow respond to whichever stories were most-clicked on Yahoo! or Google news. They also suggested that the most-clicked topics on (or portions of) their site could change colors (which I think is an excellent idea).

Because of the high price (in money and time) of fancy supplemental material, it might be practical for sites (either within a publication or at a non-profit) to wait a minute before developing such content. That way, they could add bells and whistles selectively to those stories that actually generated interest. Or they could add fancy video side bars to stories they thought needed more attention.

The issue with non-partisan resource sites is: How could you get Science, Nature, the New York Times, the USA Today, Discover, National Geographic, and all the rest (sorry if I didn’t hit your publication) to link to the same page?

Who would they all trust to accurately portray all the information on the issue, when they all rely for their survival on being known as the Best Source themselves?

March 14, 2007

He Said She Said versus The Facts

Your assignment is to do a story on a life-time smoker dying in the hospital.

Do you talk to the patient and the clerk who sold him cigarettes all those years?

A tobacco company representative and the man’s doctor?

Or should this be avoided and you do a story based on scientific facts? The statistical inevitability of this man’s death, his suffering, the cost to society and to his family?

There is a debate in science writing that journalists tend to go for the he said/she said convention out of convenience while this may not be what is best for the story.

Now, global warming, stem cells, eugenics…which approach is best when scientific things are very much human?

March 14, 2007

Websites for Ethical Improvement

by Andrew McGregor

Yesterday, the journalists were divided into teams and given the task of conceptually developing a new science news website employing the interactive and graphic potential of the internet.

This is a stab at an emerging venue of journalism and a profound statement on the current state of journalistic affairs.

Television news is largely an overwhelming sensory experience with viewers pinned to their seats by slick graphics and sound effects selling what is not normally considered news.

If people were really interested in Anna Nicole Smith beyond pathological voyeurism they would not need to be sold by graphics.

This conference has been floated on two conflicting notions of the America public: one being that the American public wants journalism that cannot see above the tabloid and that the writers in this room somehow need to trick their editors into allowing them to do stories the science writers find innately fascinating.

The other notion is that the American public is actually being estranged and neglected, that when media moguls point to high ratings for scandalous content and all the advertising lucre that comes with it they are selling a huge lie; a grand part of a self-replicating delusion.  In this model journalism is identical to entertainment, it serves no other role than to make money for its owners and its greatest virtue is in being so false that it upsets no one and can be completely forgotten as background noise.

This model is very successful.  CNN and Fox News are indistinguishable reflections of each other, mouthing accusations of political bias while running partisan opinion as news and filling 24 hours of airtime.

Personally speaking, every time I tell someone that I am a graduate student in journalism they ask me why journalism is so bad, so stupid, so untrustworthy.  They feel betrayed by an institution that is supposed to be handling something sacred.

Why have an interactive website? Why is it necessary to have blogs and viewer responses if the reporters have done their job and the story is great?

It is necessary in part because trust in journalism has been lost so that instead of being overwhelmed by graphics viewers would like to explore issues on their own.  It may be that cynicism is the impetus for curiosity, and if so the scientific news websites discussed in the room should have a pleasant future.  Innovative websites with strong user involvement and intellectual rigor are auspicious portents for what journalism can be like in the future; that they are unequivocally necessary is a damning comment on the condition of the fourth estate.

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This blog was written by prominent science journalists and science communicators who attended the Knight Digital Media Center Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace seminar.

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