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Class trains student journalists to better report on science news by tapping library resources and asking better questions

November 11, 2016

But Bellamy, a junior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences who is taking the innovative new course that trains students in the best practices for writing science journalism, relied on her own science background, as well as careful interviews with the researchers, to decipher the complicated topic.

“Did I understand everything [the study’s author] was saying? No, of course not. I don’t have a master’s in biology. But the job of a journalist is to ask questions,” Bellamy said. “Sometimes those questions are [to ask] for an explanation of what a word means. One way I found that works really well in deciphering the difficult concepts is to repeat back the information to the researcher and they correct your wording or say something like, ‘Well, that's a very simplified way of saying it, but it works!’”

“I'm not above asking a question four different ways until I get it right,” Bellamy said, “especially when it comes to science.”

The Science Journalism course, a collaboration between the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and VCU Libraries, is teaching journalism students how to think like scientists and science students to think like journalists. And, for all students, it’s training them how to communicate complex scientific discoveries to the general public.

The course is being taught by journalism professor Jeff South, who directs the Robertson School’s Capital News Service, and Sara Williams, head of academic outreach for VCU Libraries, and is funded by a Quest grant, which support “disruptively innovative ideas” at VCU that help realize the university’s strategic plan, Quest for Distinction.

The idea for the course arose in response to criticism in recent years that journalists sometimes do not take advantage of academics in a way that produces good journalism about the environment, health and medicine, technology and other scientific subjects.

The Science Journalism course is being taught by journalism professor Jeff South, who directs the Robertson School’s Capital News Service, and Sara Williams, head of academic outreach for VCU Libraries.
The Science Journalism course is being taught by journalism professor Jeff South, who directs the Robertson School’s Capital News Service, and Sara Williams, head of academic outreach for VCU Libraries.

“Science impacts our lives in so many ways, and it’s important for everyday citizens to understand the issues at play,” South said. “Journalism is in many ways a discipline of translation. It involves talking to people who know a lot about a given subject, but may not be able to express themselves in a way that everyday people can understand. And so journalists go to these experts — in this case, scientific experts — and help convey the research that they’re doing to a lay audience.”

Reporters are often not trained in research and science, South said, so it can be a challenge when they are assigned to report on complicated scientific news in a way that is accurate, compelling and easy to understand — all without “dumbing down” the researcher’s findings.

“I’ve never been a full-time science writer,” said South, who was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years. “But just by the nature of reporting, you’re thrown at all sorts of stories. And I’ve had lots of stories that I’ve been assigned that were, in some ways, over my head. But regardless of the subject, there are certain things that you can do, certain questions that you can ask that can help bring that story home for a general audience.”

Students in South’s class developed interview questions designed to help scientists talk about their research in an understandable way. The questions included: Whom does this impact? How does it impact people? What was the inspiration behind your research? Why should people care? If you were pitching your idea to Congress and seeking funding, how would you explain your research?

“I went to the graduate research symposium last year, and I saw a lot of this sort of thing, as I was trying to talk to students about what they were researching,” Williams said. “I realized I didn’t have a good set of questions to ask them. I spent a long time talking to a young woman before I could see the real-world implications of her work.”

As part of the course, the students are writing news articles about scientific research being conducted by graduate students and faculty members at VCU.

The student-written articles are being posted at The Scope, an online magazine on VCU Libraries’ open-access publishing platform Scholars Compass.

Jessica Mayfield, a senior creative advertising major in the Robertson School, authored one of the recently published articles, “E-cigarettes may be a clue at crime scenes,” which explores research being conducted by the Department of Forensic Science into how e-cigarettes are used for illegal drugs.

“They want crime scene investigators to know that if they find e-cigarettes at a crime scene, there might be drugs in that e-cigarette — it might be evidence that gets overlooked. So they built a machine that can measure the vapor [coming from e-cigarettes],” Mayfield said. “It was so interesting. I found out that I really like interviewing people. And I really like writing it. It made me think I might like to do something like this as a career.”

Other stories published this semester on The Scope have included:

The Scope is offering a way to test a model that other university libraries and institutional repositories could use for similar projects elsewhere, Williams said.

“It is reproducible on a large scale,” she said. “Any institution that has an institutional repository can create a space like this for science journalists to pick up on these stories that the scientists themselves call ‘everyday science’ stories, which our graduate student scientists want to get out and which our journalism students want to write about.”

Students in the class get something tangible, which they can put on their resume, and the research gets out to the public.

The Scope provides the Science Journalism students with published articles they can potentially show future employers, while also informing the community about important and fascinating research being conducted at VCU.

“Students in the class get something tangible, which they can put on their resume, and the research gets out to the public,” South said. He said The Scope has helped publicize research by the Center for Environmental Studies, the Schools of Education and Engineering, and other academic units at VCU.

The course has also featured a variety of leading science writers who have spoken with the class via Google Hangouts.

These guest speakers have included Virginia Hughes, science editor at BuzzFeed News and a visiting scholar at New York University; Michelle Nijhuis, science writer for The New York Times and author of “The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook: How to Craft Compelling True Stories in Any Medium”: and John Horgan, who writes the Cross-Check blog for Scientific American and is author of “The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age.”

“Part of this course has been exploring this conflict between scientists on the one hand and journalists on the other hand over language and definitions of accuracy,” South said. “Journalists might consider something accurate, but a scientist might consider something inaccurate because it did not point out all the caveats that are involved in that research. Journalists would consider it generally accurate even if it skirted around some of the more complex issues but got the overall theme correct. We’ve had some really top science writers talk to us about that.”

Students taking this fall's new Science Journalism course at VCU interviewed graduate students about their research at a recent workshop at Cabell Library.Students taking this fall's new Science Journalism course at VCU interviewed graduate students about their research at a recent workshop at Cabell Library.

The class, along with VCU Libraries, hosted a panel discussion in October on “Reporting Science to the World: The State of Science Journalism.” It featured Tim Wheeler, former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists; Erika Engelhaupt, online science editor for National Geographic; Tim Appenzeller, news editor for the journal Science; and Tammie Smith, a longtime health and medicine reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Earlier this month, the class also hosted a two-day writing workshop for graduate students interested in learning how to better share their research with the general public. At the workshop, students in the Science Journalism class paired off with graduate students to talk through the research and find ways to communicate it.

“Graduate student researchers are getting advice on how to articulate what they do for a general audience – maybe to better be able to explain their research to family members sitting around the table at Thanksgiving,” South said.

One of Williams’ roles in the class has been to offer expert advice about resources the academic library can provide to make science reporting more informed. She notes that library resources can offer journalists context, definition and identification of newsworthy research. She also believes the contemporary library’s models for teaching information literacy may offer journalists support in achieving responsible reporting.

Julie Arendt, a science and engineering research librarian, addressed resources in biological sciences for journalists. Martha Roseberry, a science and engineering librarian, discussed resources in technology, physics and computer science. Emily Hurst, head of research and education at Tompkins McCaw Library, gave a talk on medical resources. And Carlos Escalante, assistant professor for physiology and biophysics?in the School of Medicine, discussed research and clinical trials.

“By pairing the medical information talks, we were able to emphasize the differing natures of substantiated, published information, and knowledge that is still in process, as Dr. Escalante helped students understand how clinical trials progress and how knowledge and questions change in the discovery phases of scientific research,” Williams said.

Williams also provided her expertise on research and information.

“I introduced students to social science resources, and also to the many issues surrounding access to science information: open access resources, proprietary resources and paywalls, and both post- and pre-publication embargoes on new scientific information,” she said. “These issues can significantly impact the timing, and the way science news is reported, and are part of the discussions that we sought to bring into the public sphere.” 

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