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Margin Notes

How to tell a good science story


My previous blog post mentioned the lack of full-time science journalists in Canada. I wanted to follow that up with a few thoughts about what makes for a good research story.

Every week I read – OK, skim mainly – dozens of news stories about university-based research posted on university websites, referenced in press releases, or published in university research magazines or other media. I’ve got to say, many of these stories leave me, well… unmoved.

This is not in any way a comment on the quality of the research or the dedication and professionalism of the researchers. Many of the university researchers I’ve interviewed over the years are passionate about what they do – and that is the challenge, trying to capture that passion in a news article or feature.

Most reporting that I read about university research is pretty good on details, at least tries to explain what the implications are (i.e., why we should care) and dutifully acknowledges everybody involved. OK, but remember that the most important thing about story telling – that is what we’re doing, after all – is to tell a good story. Where’s the human interest, the challenges, the pitfalls, the dramatic story arc?

And who are the people involved? Some researchers are uncomfortable at self-promotion, but this is after all a human pursuit involving real people – I want to know about the personalities involved and what drives them to spend untold numbers of hours in the lab in the quest for knowledge.

To get back to the original point from my last blog, good seasoned science journalists do understand this. But science communicators could also help by assisting journalists to identify the elements of a research discovery or research finding that turns it into a good story.

Permit me to cite an example from University Affairs that I think captures this nicely: “A scientific whodunit,” by Michael Smith, published in our Feb. 2005 issue. Others seemed to agree – the article won the Sanofi Pasteur Medal For Excellence In Health Research Journalism that year. And the story was suggested by a science communicator – Mary Anne Beaudette at Queen’s University’s tech transfer office, PARTEQ Innovations.

What, to you, makes for a good research story? Send me examples and I’ll gladly share them with our readers. And if you have ideas for good research stories that haven’t been covered yet, even better. Please share them with me and we’ll do our best to turn them into good stories.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Kaspar Mossman / January 16, 2009 at 17:18

    Science stories do not often spring fully-formed from the brows of public information officers for a number of reasons.

    At larger research institutes there is a great nonstop flow of results and often only one or two writers to cope with the load. Their goal is to get their institute’s name into the press, and a good way to do this is release the news at an early stage in small bites. Reporters at newspapers or magazines can either use a press release as the germ of a news story or incorporate it into a feature.

    Actually you can look at science news as a Ford-type assembly line. The public information officers are in between the scientists and the journalists and this arrangement probably makes the whole system more efficient. If the public information officers spent a lot of time researching in-depth feature stories there would be a good chance that hardly anyone would ever read them. Also, good stories thrive on conflict. It is not a public information officer’s responsibility to dig up dirt on scientists or administrators at their own institution or, in fact, another– they might be legally liable!

    Still, a good PIO is going to know media contacts personally and be able to call them up and let them know unofficially that something would be a juicy lead to follow. And many institutions have house magazines that publish longer features which, I believe, are partly intended to catch reporters’ eyes.

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