How do I become a science journalist?

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K. S. Jayaraman gives some basic tips on starting off in the world of science journalism.


Had there been a newspaper in the days of early man, the discovery of fire would have been splashed in the front page. But at that time, of course, there was no need for newspapers. Human society was small, and almost everyone practiced — or at least knew about — the science of fire making.


Today, however, the opposite is true. Society is large and scientific experiments across the world are carried out by a relatively small number of people, usually hidden from public view in their laboratories. What they do affects everyone, yet most people remain largely unaware of how these scientists use taxpayers' money, and how their work impacts on society.


There is, therefore, a considerable need for individuals who can act as brokers between scientists and the general public. This need largely defines the role of the science reporter.


Basic requirements


A detailed knowledge of science is not necessarily the most important requirement. Most editors agree that the formula for a good science writer is 80 per cent good journalism plus 20 per cent aptitude to learn and communicate science.


To quote the late Anthony Tucker, former science editor of the British newspaper The Guardian, "science writers, like all other journalists, must have an insatiable appetite for reading, and the best are endowed with a memory like a filing cabinet."  To that I would add they must also have child-like curiosity about the world around them, and how it works.


Getting started


There is no single designated pathway into science journalism. Great science writers such as Walter Sullivan of the New York Times, as well as many of the current science writers on leading newspapers in all parts of the world, were self-taught, at least as far as their writing ability is concerned.


There are, however, certain recognised ways of getting started. Today, one of the best — and, in some developed countries at least, almost essential — ways to start is through a journalism course or degree at a recognised institution.


This need not necessarily focus on the specific needs of science journalists, although an increasing number of courses are doing so. In India, for example, the National Council for Science and Technology Communication under the Ministry of Science has sponsored postgraduate degree and diploma courses in science and technology communication. These have been started in a few universities.


Recruiters, however, do not always insist on degrees or diplomas in science journalism. They mostly look for a zeal for science writing and the ability to write science stories in a way that the general public can understand.


It also helps if the applicant for a science writing post has written articles about science during his or her college days. Prospective employers like to see what you have written. Keeping a portfolio of your achievements and published work — no matter how small or 'local' the journal or paper, even if it is a student newspaper — could help you get your first job.


Different organisations have different ways of recruiting. For example, the leading Indian news agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI), annually recruits trainee science journalists.


Trainees are selected after a written test to evaluate their writing skills and an interview.


This approach seems to be successful; no one recruited by PTI has left science journalism in 15 years. After gaining experience in the agency several of them have become fully-fledged science correspondents of national dailies, television channels and prominent international science and environment feature services such the PANOS Institute.


Building your own knowledge base


It used to be the case that a competent journalist could cover any story that was put before of him or her. This does not always hold true in today's world, where scientific discoveries that often need a least some understanding to explain effectively are being made every day. Indeed some fields are expanding so quickly that even the experts in that field have trouble keeping up.


How does this affect you as a potential science reporter? Arming yourself with a basic degree in science, providing it is not too narrow, is highly recommended. It gives you a base on which to build your scientific knowledge. A general knowledge of most fields is required on a science beat. Science is not a static field, and new knowledge is generated every day. A good science reporter must be willing to constantly update his or her knowledge.


You will certainly not be able to spot a breaking science story on your own unless you remain up-to-date with what is happening in science in general. On any given day, a science writer may be asked to cover a space launch at dawn, a suspected disease epidemic in the city during the day and interview a visiting Nobel laureate in physics in the evening.


This does not mean you need to be a specialist. But specialisation has its advantages as well. For example, it gives you easier access to scientists' circles. Scientists often feel reluctant to talk 'off the record' to a 'strange' reporter with whom they do not feel comfortable.  They may fear that anything they say will be taken to be the official stance of the company or government institution that they work for. As a result, news from such sources is frequently obtained not on official basis but at a personal level.


One consequence is that if you have specialised in a particular area of science, you may have a better chance of making personal contact with a scientist in that field than a general reporter who may not be able to converse with the same level of background understanding of the way that science operates and the way that scientists think.


Such scientific contacts are usually built up on a basis of personal trust over many years and often involve life-long friendships. This is one of the important aspects of successful science journalism. The sooner you start to build up your contacts, the better it will be for you.


Getting a good story


Some of the best exclusive stories are the result of a combination of an alert mind, an aptitude for investigative work, and up-to-date knowledge about latest developments in science and technology.


A good science reporter must know how to get news, and from where. In Western countries, science reporters are usually flooded with news releases, reports and background material from research laboratories, universities and private organisations. These institutions usually have press officers who are eager to help a reporter who has taken the trouble of contacting them.


Reporters are also invited to scientific meetings and conferences. Also, the Internet makes life even easier; the news is sent directly to your email inbox, and there are a number of search engines and other sources available.


In developing countries, many things are different. Reporters in these countries frequently do not have such resources readily available. This obviously makes the task of collecting news harder. Furthermore new communications technologies may have not made any difference to the way news — including science news — is disseminated, a difference that will impact directly on the science reporter.


Firstly, there are very few organised outlets of science news. The science reporter is unlikely to be handed ready-made science stories. Furthermore, clues about developing science news are not easily forthcoming, due partly to the absence of press officers.


In most developing countries, only a handful of companies have media relations units. Rather than publishing news releases about the hard science going on in their institutions, the tendency is to focus on speeches and inaugural talks by ministers, company executives, and science administrators.


Secondly, a high proportion of research in developing countries is carried out in government laboratories whose scientists are governed by rules of conduct that prevent them from talking to reporters without permission from their 'bosses'. The news usually given out by these agencies is what the government wants people to know.


For example, if the space department for a country issues a news release of a successful rocket launch, information will be readily available. But if you have questions to ask about a failed launch, answers will be less forthcoming.


These two hurdles may not help the growth of healthy and vibrant science coverage by the media in general. But individual science reporters with the initiative and the nose for news can turn these drawbacks into their advantage.


For example, a lack of formal science news outlets, and an inadequate number of press officers, both mean that a lot of science news is just waiting to be picked up and turned into exclusive story by the reporters who find them first.


I once stumbled on a two-line statement in an institute report that said its scientists are working on an "immunological approach to contraception." Further probing revealed that they were using a hormone from placenta to prevent mice from getting pregnant — a potential birth control vaccine in the making. Had there been a press officer in the institute, they probably would not have answered my questions, and I would have lost this exclusive story.


Where to look for jobs


Even in this Internet age, newspapers are still the best bet to look for work. Almost all the major dailies contain science supplements, for which they require a dedicated writing staff. Regional papers are also a potential job market for science reporters. New entrants are usually taken on as sub-editors or junior reporters rather than feature writers.


Another place to look is television. The growth in satellite and cable TV has led to the formation of many independent TV production companies. Although few of these are wholly dedicated to science programming, most produce the occasional scientific programme, usually for a mainstream audience. These companies generally employ journalists who also double as researchers, writers and producers.


Radio journalism is a third avenue that is worth exploring, although it has been dwarfed by the popularity of TV and satellite. Other fields include technical writing in the science fields, as well as in specialist fields such as information technology and biotechnology.


Freelance work


Then there is freelancing. Most journalists do some freelance work outside their salaried jobs, with permission from employers. A large number of science writers in India are self-employed and make their living through freelancing for domestic or foreign publications, although it is usually only possible to make a reasonable living in this way if you have already spent several years gaining experience in a full-time position and building up a reputation.


Most technical publications, as well as the science sections of some national newspapers, accept a certain amount of freelance material. Once they accept an article from you, they may come back for more. But, as one seasoned freelance science writer puts it, "it is very difficult to make editors accept good science stories as a freelancer."


In India, most members of the Indian Science Writers Association (ISWA) are freelancers. Indeed, some of the successful science freelancers in India are established working scientists who have become regular writers with national newspapers, magazines or science broadcasting units.


So if you are a working scientist with a penchant for writing, there is nothing like taking a crash course in journalism and then start writing — and enjoy the best of both worlds!

K. S. Jayaraman, former science correspondent, the Press Trust of India

This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.

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