Identifying news values and addressing human elements, science communicators share their perspectives on putting things into a greater context for creating their stories. This post summarises a panel discussion on science communication.
Science journalists, editors and a university communicator came together to discuss how they find interesting stories for their audiences in a panel discussion titled ‘Finding the Story: Perspectives on the Journalism/Public Relations Divide’, held at the online SciCom Forum on October 27, 2021.
Journalists and public relations officers are often looking for the same thing: interesting stories to communicate to a wide audience. However, the way that journalists and public relations officers approach the challenge of finding a good story is very different. In this session, Belinda Smith, a mass-media science journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Nicky Phillips, a specialist science editor at Nature News, and Tomoko Otake, an ex-journalist turned university communications officer at the University of Tokyo in Japan, spoke with Sara Phillips, a science journalist and editor of Nature Research Custom Media, to share how they go about finding the right story for their audience.
The panel first touched upon press releases, with Belinda mentioning that she receives a lot of them every day. Most of the big stories that she covers on research are those flagged to her in press releases from journals such as Nature1. Press releases from institutions do get looked at as there is the occasional “nugget of gold”, but most are only quickly skimmed through. From a journalist perspective, Belinda showed empathy for press officers, saying: “I can understand that it would be very hard for press officers to have to fight their way through all that noise, as we do get inundated with so much stuff.”
Belinda also gave an insight into which stories stand out most from the press releases she receives: “When we’re selecting what stories we want to choose, because we are the ABC, anything with an Australian focus is pretty much going to be on the list. Any kind of Australian angle is really important to us and to the audience as well, so that’s something that we’ll keep in mind when we’re choosing stories.”
Nicky, who works as an editor on the news and opinion section of Nature2, also shared her views about what she covers in Nature news: “We do cover primary research published in Nature, but we’ll be doing it based on it meeting the news values that we are looking for in every story that we decide to cover. When pitched a story, I will be thinking, ‘is this story something that our audience needs to know or would want to know?’ At Nature news, we consider our audience to be working scientists, as well as the science-interested public. There’s a lot of journals out there, so you have to be really judicious on deciding which stories to cover for the journals or any story. We cover a lot of stories that don’t come from a journal, but we have the same news values for all of them.”
Nicky also shared the news values that she is looking for, saying: “We consider it important if they’re science-related obviously, because our audience are scientists. If it’s a journal article in Nature, or Science and Cell, it’s obviously science related so it ticks that box, but if it’s a big worldwide event like a tsunami, we would be thinking, what is the science angle to this story, if we were going to cover it. Also it’s important if it’s timely. It would be something that’s happening now or the future or has recently happened. Maybe the exception is if it hasn’t been covered before and if it’s really important or really big science. The other news value is surprising, something big has happened in a field, you wouldn’t want it to be a small, minor discovery, you want it to be significant for us to cover it.”
Most science is incremental discoveries and it’s rare to have breakthroughs. Belinda mentioned that they still cover incremental studies, although they make sure that it is put in a greater context. Explaining further, she added: “This is the same in all the papers that we cover if we report on. You’re not just reporting on the results, but you’re placing those results in the wider story, so I think you can report on incremental results as long as they are in a way that tells the wider story.”
The panel discussion can be viewed here.
Tomoko, who works at the University of Tokyo said her main job is to create research features for the university’s website on the university’s publications. She also tries to find interesting stories and people to cover. She shared how she creates a story, saying: “There was a recent case, where I was casually asked whether I would be interested in interviewing a chemist, who researches molecular movements and how the movement of ions can lead to the creation of energy. But it was a very technical field and his research was very incremental, but I can kind of focus on the person behind the research more, so I can try to do a human interest story, so that way I can get something interesting out of that person rather than focus on one piece of research. That way the person becomes more personable and relatable.”
Tomoko also touched upon why she thinks it’s important to draw upon the human element, saying: “First of all, every media has a different audience. I feel that university media has a particular audience. Whether it’s someone who’s interested in studying at university, researching, working at university, or collaborating, so those are our main audience. I think that piece of research needs to be relatable to the person. Human interest is a very good way to make the research relatable. I don’t think you need to focus on the research to make a story interesting.”
Belinda also discussed how she writes her stories, mentioning that she is really guided by what she gets out of the interview and all the other things that happen in the background. Nicky added: “In a news story, you usually start with the news, and often in a scientific paper, that’s buried in the results and discussion. Some reporters like to have an anecdotal lead, which is a soft lead that starts with a person, a scientist, case study, someone who is affected by the story you’re writing about. But for news it’s in the first paragraph - what happens in the scientific paper.”
Sara Phillips wrapped up the session by highlighting the importance of honest intention, saying that the work of a journalist and a communications officer is knowing what your audience wants to know and making that selection.
The panel discussion was coordinated by Springer Nature together with the organizers of Japan SciCom Forum, who are a team of experienced science communicators at national research institutes and universities in Japan. Since 2018, Japan SciCom Forum has gathered communicators, writers, scientists, journalists and select experts from abroad to inspire and boost science communication in Japan, learn new skills and inform the community with best practices: https://japanscicom.github.io/
Sara Phillips, Regional Executive Editor, Nature Research Custom Media (@ms_sara_p)
Tomoko Otake, Public Information Officer, University of Tokyo (@Tomoko_Otake) Tomoko Otake is a research communicator at the University of Tokyo. Her current job involves writing, editing and commissioning research features for the university’s website and publications. Before joining the university in 2018, she was a staff writer/editor at The Japan Times for over 20 years, mostly covering health and social issues.
Nicky Phillips, Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief, Nature News (@nickyphillips_)
Nicky joined Nature in mid-2017, after two years editing the Nature Index. Before that, Nicky was a science reporter, then editor, at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. She also worked as a radio reporter and producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She has degrees in science (physiology) and journalism.
Belinda Smith, Online Science Reporter, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (@sciencebelinda)
Belinda Smith is the online science reporter in the ABC's Science Unit. She writes and produces digital news and features for the ABC News website and makes radio features for Radio National. Her work has appeared in the Best Australian Science Writing 2016 and 2018.
1Springer Nature has a dedicated journals press team that promotes research and other content published in the journal portfolio, working with journalists and press officers of research organizations. For more information, please see the Press Site: https://press.springernature.com/
2Nature is a journal, where in the back half is all the scientific papers that are published each week and the front half is almost like a normal magazine, like Nature news. The two parts of the business are quite separate, where the journalism team work separately from the science journal side.