Journalists talk science writing

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

On Friday afternoon in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, four science writers addressed the challenges and importance of spreading scientific knowledge.

The discussion, “Breaking it Down: Writing about Health and Science,” emphasized the need for accurate and concise science writing accessible to the general public. Drawing from their own careers as writers, bloggers and reporters, the panelists — Randi Epstein and Lisa Sanders of the New York Times, Yale English professor Anne Fadiman and Curtis Brainard of Scientific American — reflected on the gaps they see in both medical and scientific journalism.

Panel moderator and editor of Yale Medicine John Curtis asked panelists on how they decided to cover science and how they make their writing comprehensible to the general public. Most panelists cited science’s unpredictability and their general fascination with nature and medicine as draws to the field.

Epstein, who covers medicine for the New York Times, National Public Radio and Science News, said she chose to write about science because every story contained a new disease, a new issue or a new concept. Epstein added that medical writing involves both continual learning and teaching.

As an undergraduate, Fadiman entered Harvard intending to major in history and literature. Her interest in science writing began after she covered a solar astronomy expedition.

“I really didn’t know anything about solar astronomy,” Fadiman said. “But my complete lack of knowledge would actually be an advantage. If I could understand, I could make it comprehensible to others.”

Brainard, who serves as blog editor for Scientific American, said a journalist’s job is to become immersed in science that needs to be covered. For instance, fully understanding a field allows a journalist to put a new publication in the context of a larger body of research, he said.

All panelists agreed both journalists and the public should be wary of claimed scientific breakthroughs, as truly novel discoveries are rare.

“Anyone who declares that their work is brand-new is probably speaking from their imagination,” said Sanders, who writes the New York Times health column “Diagnosis.” “That’s just not how science works. It’s not how medicine works. Very few things come out of nothing.”

When asked for advice on how to start a career in journalism, Brainard said unpaid internships are important for gaining experience. Brainard urged young writers to be “indispensable” to editors—for instance—by coming up with innovative story ideas.

The talk closed by addressing the politicalization of science writing, including the recent public debate over climate change. Epstein said many writers claim to report objective news about climate change while in reality pushing a political agenda. Moreover, Brainard also noted that journalists often source experts without considering those experts’ motivations.

Sarah Eckinger ’15, co-president of the Public Health Coalition and a former photography editor at the News, said that the talk reminded her that while writing about science is a challenge, science writing performs an important public service by spreading awareness of new discoveries.

“It can be really satisfying when you find a way to accurately communicate the findings to your audience in an appealing, readable way,” Eckinger said.

Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Journal of Public Health Meredith Redick ’14 said one of the challenges of science writing is providing the ideal amount of technical background information without overwhelming readers.

The talk was sponsored jointly by the Yale Public Health Coalition, the Yale Scientific Magazine and the Yale Journal of Public Health.

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