This week, we were asked to write about what it is that we want news to do.
I am a science writer. A lot of science writers are, for lack of a better word, reformed scientists. They used to study C. elegans or neutron stars out on a lab bench somewhere, until realizing one morning that they infinitely preferred learning and talking about science to actually doing it. Consequently, the field is full of journalists who are exceptionally passionate about their chosen subject matter. They love biology (or chemistry or geology or whatever the case may be), and aspire to cultivate that same powerful fascination in others.
This is mostly a good thing. But sometimes the blanket desire to communicate to “the people” can be overwhelming. At this year’s ScienceOnline unconference, I attended a fantastic session called ‘Opening Doors: Science Communication for Those that Don’t Care/Don’t Like Science’ (co-led, incidentally, by MIT professor Tom Levenson). During the conversation, it quickly became clear that many of us shared the same desire to communicate with “the people,” and the same confusion over how to do it.
— AmoebaMike (@AmoebaMike) February 1, 2013
— Aviva Hope Rutkin (@realavivahr) February 1, 2013
— Anna Rascouët-Paz (@annarascouet) February 1, 2013
— Heather Reiff (@HReiff) February 1, 2013
I also heard several people at the session compare writing about science and writing about football. For example, two attendees debated how broad an audience the NFL reached, and whether they shared our idealistic goal of getting the message out to everybody. Later, I hear another writer express concerns that he was tripping the line between journalist and activist; someone else pointed out that sports journalists never had to worry if they were going to be conflated with sports activists.
This was confusing to me. A science article and a football article are two totally different kettles of fish. Just I would never pick up a recap of a Cowboys-Giants game, there are people out there who would never read an update on the search for exoplanets. There are occasional pieces of media that transcend the divide, sure, but those tend to be exceptional cases, and often involve the recommendation of a source that the reader already relies on and trusts. And yet, many seemed to think that the solution to our audience problem was to combine a single kind of high-level content with masterful social media trickery, thus sneaking knowledge into the hands of every member of the unsuspecting public.
“Citizens have become an abstraction, something the press talks about but not to,” write Kovacs and Rosenstiel. Many of the writers at that SciO session were so ardent about communicating their science that they hadn’t considered too closely who they want to communicate it to. I am equally guilty. Whenever I work on a piece for my graduate seminar, I spend a lot of time thinking about the lay reader. But I never really stop to ask myself who exactly that lay reader is.
One audience member, Danielle N. Lee, was ahead of the curve on this problem. Lee is a biologist by day, and she writes about biology/ecology for minority audiences at Scientific American’s The Urban Scientist. She’s designated a particular sector of the public who she wants to communicate to, and customizes her work for them by, e.g., using hip-hop analogies. “Speak their language,” she said. “And if you can’t, don’t feel bad or obligated.”
I think, now more than ever, science writers need to heed this advice. We have far more control on the internet than we ever could in a newspaper or magazine. Anyone with a decent internet connection has the power to publicize their ideas, and to promote their work through social media to those who they suspect will be interested in it. Bloggers like Ta-Nehisi Coates openly cop to deleting deleterious comments on their posts in order to cultivate a particular atmosphere of discussion. YouTube vloggers like the Green brothers literally give their audience its own name.
With this control, we relinquish the claim to be all things to all people. One of lessons I took away from last week’s media diet exercise was that I rely on very specific sources for my daily news — blog networks rather than magazines, news trackers rather than print newspapers, reddit rather than Facebook. Even publications that might have once been described as belonging to the general audience now have their own defined demographic. (Last week my father forwarded me a USA TODAY article about a golfer who had been bitten by a black widow spider. Perfect example of something I would probably never read on my own finding its way to me.)
I’d like to see newsmakers embrace this freedom of choice. Think not only about what we’re saying, but who we’re saying it to. Accept that to say yes to one audience may mean saying no to another. Let news be a personal experience.