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History can seem a bit off the beat to a science journalist. We associate history with events that are far away from current news, especially in science. But that is not the case.
At the World Conference of Science Journalists 2015 in Seoul, South Korea, I became convinced that digging into the past makes a great deal of sense for a science journalist. If we want to present the latest science in a smart and sensible way, we need to understand the past.
During a lecture, Deborah Blum, a science writer and journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, explained that science journalists need to know what led to important discoveries, and how past events shape our modern understanding of the world.
“You can’t know where you are when you don’t know where you are coming from,” she told the audience. “Going back into the history of a scientific issue relevant to what you are reporting on helps you put it into context and understand the present.”
Learning the history of science is an investment that makes people build trust in you as a science journalist.
Deborah Blum, University of Wisconsin-Madison
According to Blum, whether you are reporting on the science of climate change or toxicology, it is about digging your journalistic teeth into the topic’s past to understand how and why things happen the way they do and how they impact people. History comes in handy then.
“It allows us to deal with contentious issues,” said Blum. Scientists, she explained, can have self-promotional habits and it can be hard for reporters to spot that. History should be part of a science journalist’s toolkit to guard against being led by the nose into believing everything you are told.
History also plays a role when you want to establish a niche in science reporting. For instance, Blum said, a science journalist may be interested in focusing on just one branch of science. In this case history helps reporters understand the culture of their field and deliver a story in a fascinating way — one that makes people develop confidence in your writing.
How far back you want to go depends on your choice of field and what you want to do with it. But it’s equally important to ask yourself how much history research you can do if you don’t really want to specialise.
Learning the history of science is an investment that makes people build trust in you as a science journalist, Blum explained. “When you start thinking strategically about finding a niche, it makes you visible.
I also learned from Blum that history gives reporters new and different angles to delve into a story. Such depth of knowledge helps in deciding the best way to construct your story: what needs to go into it and what to leave out.
Lastly, knowing the history of a particular field of science helps reporters prepare when going to interview a scientist. Instead of starting from a point where the scientist needs to educate you, you can gain the courage and ability to challenge the scientist about his or her work and how it contributes to world knowledge, Blum explained.
I couldn’t agree more: for science journalists, the best way to tell the truth is not to pass on knowledge without questioning it. History enables you to understand scientific imperfections, biases and politics.
As if she were reading my mind, Blum summarised: “Paying attention to history can shape our career as science journalists.”