Panel discusses importance of science writing in the media

Samantha Sigler

Scientists and science writersdiscussed the importance and challenges of writing about science with staff and students during a panel Nov. 13 in Riley 201.

The panel included science writersValerie Brown and Virginia Gewin, and scientists Anne Kruchten, associateprofessor of biology, and Janet Peterson, associate professor of health. Dr. Susan Sivek, assistant professor of mass communication, moderated the panel.

Sivek began the panel with stunning facts about science writing, including mentioning that about three quarters of scientists surveyed believed that a major problem for science was that news media did not distinguish what was a well-founded scientific finding in research.

“Another good reason for us to talk about this issue right now is that we just finished an election cycle,” Sivek said. “During which science was often politicized.”

Science writers and politiciansoften contact scientists, such as Kruchten, who researches cancer in her laboratory at Linfield, as a source for news stories.

“I’ve worked with political agencies, either lobbying agencies that were trying to come up with materials for government policy information or with legislatures themselves who try and get some information about how this science works,” Kruchten said.

Often times, scientists become accustomed to talking and working with other scientists, and a common language and set of standards is formed. Because of this, it is difficult at times for scientists to communicate to science writers in a way that most people would understand. Therefore science writersoccasionally need to take steps to write an accurate story that is understandable to everyone.

These steps include researching ahead of time online and identifying the best sources for a story.

“I do a lot of internet searches for appropriate sources and lots and lots of scientific databases,” Brown said.

Although science writers do become accustomed to the common language of scientists, they do their best to acquire the best quotes that explainthe science at a level that everyone can understand.

Gewin explained that she often asks scientists to explain it like they would to their grandma so she has words that mean something to somebody.

“You can have a deep conversation that’s jargon free,” Gewin said.

As a scientist, Peterson has a blog and does her own writing to discuss scientific topics that she’s an expert in. After doing a few interviews, Peterson began to feel that she could write stories and get her point across better than other science writers.

“I like to make my argument and provide the evidence I know,” Peterson said. “I like to provide a different angle.”

Kruchten asked the audience to pull out its smart phones or any technologyit had during the lecture to demonstrate the science that everyone carried at any given moment.

“Think of how much technology and science you have in your pocket,” Kruchten said. “It doesn’t matter what major you are or what you’re going into, you have to deal with science all the time.”

For science writers, Brown explained that the smartest thing to do is major in science as an undergraduate and gain a master in journalism with science writing type journalism.

This pathway helps people get into the science-writing world because everyone needs to be able to talk the talk to some extent, Brown explained.

“It’s a difficult conundrum,” Peterson said. “But we do need to educate the public.”

Samantha Sigler

News editor


Samantha Sigler can be reached [email protected]