#sci4hels Question Time #4 – How Should Science Journalists Deal with Breaking News?

Image: Bernard Bujold

Image: Bernard Bujold

Last week was sort of a nightmare for everyone. Between the Boston marathon bombings and ensuing man-hunt, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, the earthquakes in China and Iran, the bombs in Baghdad, and whatever else I’m missing. Oh, did I mention the elvis impersonator who mailed ricin to the president? Yeah, that happened too, and nobody paid attention because we were all too busy wondering what had happened to the world. It was that kind of week.

Really, though, all the attention here in the United States was on Boston. The coverage was messy, and I don’t want to go into that. There are lots of smart people already thinking about how journalists went wrong (and right) when covering the actual events as they happened. What I want to talk about is how science journalists deal with this sort of a news event – one that is not a science story unless we make it one.

What are our obligations as science journalists when Boston happens? When Aurora happens? When Newtown happens? Do we have to cover it? And if we do, how do we do it right? We’re all going to have different opinions on this, so here are some thoughts from the #sci4hels panelists (and Bora, who we’ll call the founder of the panel). Here’s what we think.

Lena Groeger (news-apps developer at ProPublica, in case you forgot) had this to say:

The question of breaking news for science journalism is not so different from the rest of journalism. I think both can be broken down into two components:

1. Content: what you write about.

After the events in Boston, a senior editor gave us the following words of advice: “Play to your strengths.” That is, if you have a lot of good background information or insight you can add to the situation, you should definitely share it. If you know something other people don’t know (or are getting wrong), if you can add context or reveal patterns, if you can provide an overlooked angle or commentary, then you should do something. For example, one of ProPublica’s environmental reporters had been following BP for a long time before the oil spill. He was able to recognize that this wasn’t the first time BP had made a mistakes, and was able therefore to give a historical angle on a current news event.

On the other hand, don’t publish something just because everyone else is, because you need to take advantage of the traffic, or because you feel like you “should.” Especially in the whirlwind of misinformation during an ongoing breaking news story that is very much in flux, your attempt to add something may, in fact, rest on wrong information. Don’t put yourself in that position if you don’t have to.

2. Timing: When you publish it.

Even if you’ve decided that you simply MUST publish this piece of work, that it’s been fact checked to your standards and you are confident you will be contributing something meaningful, the next question is: why right now? Will it still be as relevant in several days? Often the answer is yes. At that point the facts will have solidified (to a degree – there still are many unknowns about the Boston bombings and subsequent chronology), you won’t be competing with the hyper-activity of social media and television during a breaking news event, and you will be able to promote your work without feeling like you are somehow capitalizing on a tragedy.

Obviously the specifics of these two factors changes depending on your situation, your editors, and your interests. But playing to your strengths and considering the timing of any piece of work I think are handy rules of thumb.

Kathleen Raven, who is about to graduate with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia (congrats!) thinks about things this way:

One August evening in 2006, the newsroom police scanner garbled to life at the mid-sized daily where I worked. Amid static and electronic beeps, we heard: “…Apartment fire…” At that late hour, only the political reporter, myself (on the education beat and everything else) and the news editor heard the call. The photographer phoned — she was already en route. My partner and I split up: He would talk with officials, and I would pester anguished families whose life memories were by then swallowed in flames. A large crowd had gathered in the main office of the apartment complex. With notepad clearly in hand, I pushed open the glass door. From those who noticed my presence: stares. Then averted eyes. At that moment, I wanted to walk away. Damn the “color” the editor reminded us to capture. But structure fires and crime scenes belong to local news. With no choice, I moved forward and found willing narrators who helped me piece together who, what, when and where. Fire officials attempted to answer why. The story ran, front page, above the fold. There were no deaths.

But I despised then my role as intruder and stranger while covering breaking news. I had a hard time justifying

When Hurricane Sandy tore through the northeastern U.S. in October 2012, I stayed on the sidelines as a science reporter in New York City at the time. But I jumped in as a volunteer and relished the chance to help and not ask survivors questions. Later, I found a story that fit the guidelines Lena Groeger has so aptly described: 1) it was a topic I’d gained some surefooted knowledge about; 2) it would remain relevant after the devastating event.

The need to hold back and avoid reporting because a story “has to be done” remains more important now than ever for both specialized and generalist journalists. Gideon Lichfield, news editor of Quartz, elaborates on this “battle for attention,” as he calls it, this in an elegant, short post. Paul Raeburn of the KSJ Tracker blog — where I discovered Lichfield’s post — provides examples of science journalism attempts that missed the mark.

My litmus test for science journalists debating whether or not to cover a national or local tragedy is this: How is this subject matter important beyond this crisis moment?

On April 29, New America NYC will hold a discussion on this very subject, described in part as “Where, exactly, is the line between being a chronicler and being a vulture?” (Full disclosure: Torie Bosch, editor of Future Tense (which is a project of Slate and the New America Foundation) is my friend.)

Rose Eveleth (hey that’s me!) had a hard time with this question last week:

I think everyone has a different line to draw here, but I’m curious what goes through editors and writers heads when they take on a breaking story like this. Here’s my perspective. It’s not the right one, it’s just mine.

When the bombs went off, I got an email from my editor. We went back and forth all day about how take on the story, but a lot of them made me cringe. Eventually, we just didn’t. We didn’t touch it. A few days later, we gave readers two stories, a history of Chechnya, and a look back at how quickly news spread in the past as opposed to now.

Other places had different outlooks on it. And honestly, some of those stories, especially the day of the bombings, made me feel gross. They felt forced and slimy – like an editor said “we have to do a story about Boston” rather than “we should do a story about Boston.” The difference to me is that the former is driven by traffic (everyone will be searching for news about Boston, and we’ll have a story, so we’ll show up and get clicks) while the latter is driven by the instinct to provide information that people need.

The rule that I didn’t come up with but that I think is really good is this: you should do the story if it answers a question that a) people actually have at that moment and b) other people aren’t answering well. There are a lot of places where science can definitely provide b. I think it’s a where many fall down. In the hours after the bombs go off, does anyone really want to know about the latest prosthetic technology? Or the coolest bomb proofing materials? No, they probably don’t. They want to know what is going on, what is safe and not safe, and how to find their loved ones.

In the days after the events, it seems like there are more opportunities to work science into the coverage. How do tourniquets work and why are they suddenly back in favor in emergency situations? What can war time medicine teach us about dealing with these sorts of bomb injuries? Why exactly don’t cell phones work during disasters? These are questions that people might actually have, that science can provide the answers to.

So in the unfortunate (yet, sadly likely) event that something like Boston, or Aurora, or Newtown should happen again, that’s what I’ll be asking myself. Is this a question people have now that isn’t being answered well? If yes, do the story. If no, shut up and find a different way to help.

And here are Bora’s thoughts: 

When news breaks, there are several considerations I have in mind.

First, how do I behave as an individual (e.g., on social media) and what do I do as a Scientific American editor as a part of a team? I tend not to retweet everything others tweet until I can verify it in some way – at least seeing a number of my most trusted sources tweeting the information with inclusion of commentary of their own certainty in the facts. I tend to wait and see, and then, perhaps a day or two later, focus on sources like The Guardian and NYTimes from traditional side, and expert bloggers on the non-traditional side of the media. As an editor, I work closely with the rest of the team, especially our online news editor Robin Lloyd, to quickly but thoughtfully decide which angles should we, as a science media organization, cover. Just facts of the events as they unfold are not really our domain. Science explainers are our domain, where we are a trusted source – is it something that the public will find useful or interesting?

Second, am I myself an eyewitness or not? If something would happen right in front of me, or in the neighborhood so I could quickly get to the scene, I’d bring all the cameras and recorders and extra batteries I have and mostly tweet lots of images and videos, with perhaps a few comments of my own. I would not stick the microphone into the face of someone most directly affected by the event – they are far too disturbed by the event to make the right, clear decision if they want to talk to me. Other eye-witnesses are probably no better than I am, and there is no guarantee that what they would say is what they really saw or just something they overheard, or some conspiracy theory they just concocted inside their own heads. Cops and first responders have more important things to do than talk to me, not to mention they probably do not know if they have the clearance from their supervisors to tell what they know. And I am not sure I have the personal courage to risk getting handcuffed, pepper-sprayed or beaten by some nervous cop who does not give a damn I am a journalist but is looking for an outlet for his own tensions – remember that his job is very dangerous and my intrusion into it may not be welcome.

But if I am not an eye-witness but sitting in the comfort of my own home, I may ask the 50+ bloggers on our network if they can contribute a post adding their own scientific expertise on the event. For example, when a sinkhole opened up in Florida and swallowed a man, I asked my two geology bloggers to explain how and why that happens, which they did wonderfully. Or, if we do not have just the right expertise on our network, I can crowdsource on Twitter, or directly approach an expert for a particular topic we need covered. For example, Chris Rowan explained the Japanese eartquake/tsunami, Rita J. King explained the safety of Fukushima, and Anne Jefferson explained the Mississipi floods. There is also usually no need to rush – Kathleen’s post about Sandy and the “bluebelt” system on Staten Island could wait a week or so, adding the explanation after the acute effects of the disaster were already over and people started looking for more in-depth explanations for various aspects of the storm damage.

Third, is there a strong science component to the news? There is much more science to be covered if it is a natural disaster (e.g., Fukushima earthquake/tsunami/meltdown, or Sandy) or an accident (West, TX explosion last week), than if it is an act of human violence (various shootings and bombings). The latter make us at SciAm much more careful – is there really something we can add to the noise, is there really a science angle to it? We don’t need to chase traffic for the sake of traffic, but need to make sure we are adding something useful to the discussion. Are there questions that people are asking but nobody is answering (I answered one of those, about the fate of subway rats during Sandy)? Are there questions people don’t even know they should be asking? If it is about human violence, perhaps the science angle is not so much about weapons or psychology  as it is about technology used to find perpetrators (how does an infra-red camera work?) or figure out what really happened (various forensic techniques, etc).

Fourth, is there a lot of erroneous science already out there, either in the traditional media or on social media that needs to be corrected? If there is, then writing good explainers, publishing them fast, and pushing the links everywhere is important. This is probably the most important situation where we as science writers can contribute – to counter bad science if it is already being circulated around the Web.

So, that’s what we came up with. What do you all think? Are we totally off? Interestingly, none of us work at a breaking news organization. Propublica does long investigative work, Kathleen and I freelance for all sorts of places, and Erin is at a research institution. We aren’t under the same pressure that someone working at Scientific American or Reuters would be to break news or crank out stories. I’d love to hear from those who do work at science publications that do more news – how do you decide what to write and when to stay quiet?

And, since I think everybody needs it and since we can’t break tradition of having a GIF in each post, here’s a cat dressed as a shark on a Roomba chasing a duckling:


May this week be better than last for you all.


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