ABSW Science Journalism Summer School 2017

Recently I’ve been really trying to up my sci-comm game. To improve my writing, I think it’s important to write lots, and read lots, but sometimes networking and more structured training just can’t be beaten. I joined the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) last month, which was perfect timing for their summer school. I booked the day off work and signed up straight away.

On Wednesday 5th July I got flew from Aberdeen to London on the red-eye flight, and got to the Wellcome Trust building just after the first session so I didn’t miss too much after a 5am alarm! I know lots followed along on Twitter (#abswss17), so I’ve compiled my huge pile of notes for those of you who couldn’t make it.

ABSW delegate bags

Session 1: New media trends
Where are our audiences? The latest insights about digital news consumption from the Digital News Report 2017

Nic Newman, research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and lead author of the digital news report
Moderator: Martin Ince, Treasurer, ABSW board and freelance science writer

As I said, I missed this session – I was somewhere between London City Airport and Euston Street so I followed along on Twitter for this one too. A few highlights:

Session 2: The role of critical science journalism in the fake news world

Alok Jha, Science Correspondent, ITV
Moderator: Pallab Ghosh, Honorary President, ABSW and science correspondent for BBC

This was a brilliant session drawing attention to the rise of fake news, and discussing solutions that journalists can use to combat false information. What I particularly enjoyed was Alok’s personal experience and learnings over the course of his career; “Fake news isn’t new in science journalism – it’s the speed of the tidal wave in recent times that’s shocking“. Alok explained that when he started his career he truly believed that producing and spreading high quality, accurate journalism was enough to combat so-called fake news. Now an experienced journalist, he calls his past-self ‘naive’ and the spread of good news vs bad ‘not helpful’. So what can we do? People are not stupid, but the world is not always logical and rational, so reporters need to stop giving ‘the view from nowhere’ and provide critique and advocacy for good science.

Panel 1: Pitching skills – how and where to sell you story ideas

Helen Thomson, freelance science journalist and consultant for New Scientist
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Aisling Irwin, acting editor, SciDev.Net
Joshua Howgego, features editor at New Scientist
Laura Greenhalgh, assistant policy editor, Politico
Moderator: Mico Tatalovic, Chair, ABSW board and Environment and Life Sciences News Editor, New Scientist

At first I didn’t really think this session was particularly relevant to me, but after listening to the speakers the idea of pitching articles to editors actually sounded like something I might be able to do in the future.

Tips I picked up from the session:

  • General topics are not good pitches – you need a clear story with developed characters
  • It needs to be new – check the archive of magazines and Google news
  • It should have moved science on – small steps happen in science every day, why is this step so special?
  • Does it make you go ‘WOW!’? – surprise is always good
  • It needs to be relevant – how is this story relevant to readers? That could be application or interest
  • Would you tell your friends down the pub? – the ‘pub test’ is tried and tested, if you’d tell your friends it’s likely to get commissioned
  • You need to be an expert – don’t pitch an article that you haven’t done a significant amount of research for
  • Don’t patronise the Editor, but do write in accessible language

Panel 2: Investigative science reporting

‘Why investigative journalism matters, with examples from science’ by Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
‘How we uncovered Google Deep Mind’s secret NHS data grab’ by Hal Hodson, technology reporter at the Economist (previously New Scientist), and Will Douglas Heaven, freelance (previously chief technology editor at New Scientist and editor of BBC Future Now).
Moderator: Jack Serle, Vice-Chair, ABSW board and reporter Bureau of Investigative Journalism

I found this session the most intriguing. Investigative reporting has never been something I thought I’d do, but hearing about it was so interesting, and if I ever do stumble across a story worthy of substantial investigation it’s now something I might think about exploring. Hearing from Hal Hudson and Will Douglas Heaven was a good case study for this; from stumbling across a story right through to breaking it and ultimately becoming a part of the story through further developments. There was one aspect of this subject that was missing; how do you fund investigative journalism? In usual cases of journalism writers are paid a set amount per word, or per article. If that was the case with investigative pieces then journalists would be bankrupt – it’s a process that can take months, and it requires a huge time investment to uncover genuine stories that are relevant to the public interest.

Session 3: Data journalism skills

Jonathan Stoneman, Freelance trainer in Open Data
Moderator: Wendy Grossman, ABSW board member and freelance journalist

Data is something lots of people find intimidating – especially when there’s lots of it. With this talk, Jonathan Stoneman somehow made ‘having a chat’ with your data a thing I feel like I could do – amazing! He described data as ‘just another source’ that you need to dig through, interview, chat to, and play around with in order to find the best stories. You need to ask it questions and really think about what it is telling you. Some resources that Jonathan mentioned:

Side note:

Session 4: EurekAlert!’s science news service and media survey results

Brian Lin, director of editorial content strategy at EurekAlert!
Moderator: Mico Tatalovic, Chair, ABSW board and Environment and Life Sciences News Editor, New Scientist

EurekAlert! is an online, global news service operated by AAAS, the science society. EurekAlert! provides a central place through which universities, medical centers, journals, government agencies, corporations and other organizations engaged in research can bring their news to the media. Brian Lin explained more about how EurekAlert! has grown over the years, what the service can offer, and why journalists really should be signed up to it. Brian also unveiled the results of EurekAlert!’s 2017 reporter survey.

I don’t qualify to be signed up to EurekAlert! just yet – more journalism experience required! Once I start writing professionally, I’ll definitely be signing up though. It sounds like a brilliant platform for finding out about fresh science.

Panel 3: Successful freelancing

Mark Peplow, freelance science journalist
Max Glaskin, an award-winning journalist and the author of Cycling Science
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Moderator: Jack Serle, Vice-Chair, ABSW board and reporter Bureau of Investigative Journalism

I had to rush out at the beginning of this session to go and catch my flight back to Aberdeen, so again I was following along on Twitter with everyone else. I’d recommend getting in touch with the journalists who presented in this session if you’re looking for advice on freelancing; all day these guys were giving advice and encouragement to those of us at the very beginning of our journalism careers, so I’m sure they’d be happy to answer questions. Mark: www.markpeplow.com, Max: twitter.com/CyclingScience1, Inga: twitter.com/Keeping_Cool.

Didn’t make it to #abswss17 and still want to know more? Check out a storify of the event here. I’d totally recommend signing up for membership with ABSW whether you’re looking to begin a science journalism career, you want to learn more about the journalism industry, or you’re a pro. They’re a wonderfully friendly and supportive group, and their events attract people with a wealth of knowledge – it’s a brilliant networking opportunity.

I also met up with Mary who is running The STEM Squad’s Instagram page this week – I love it when contacts stop being online profile and start being real-life people. Definitely follow The STEM Squad if you’re a woman in science looking for support and inspiration.

After a super full and tiring day, I left feeling inspired and driven to push myself to do more. Science communication isn’t something that a lot of early career researchers get the chance to be involved with, but I’m going to make a conscious effort to communicate my research, and the process of getting to research findings, as best I can. Do keep an eye on the ABSW events page if you’re looking for events like this in the future!

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