Chapter 32: Writing about science & technology

In the previous chapter, we discussed the challenge facing journalists in reporting science and technology. We advised on the ways of preparing yourself and of using experts to make your task easier. In this chapter we discuss ways of writing bright, interesting stories and conclude with some solutions to common problem areas.

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The language of science and technology is one of the main reasons why some journalists are afraid of reporting in this area. In many cases, it is like listening to a foreign language which you cannot speak.

You can overcome most problems by following some simple rules.

Understand the jargon

Scientific names and technical terms (sometimes called jargon) are necessary for scientists. It enables them to speak more accurately to one another about things they have in common. If a surgeon told his assistant to cut "the big tube" during an operation, all sorts of mistakes could happen. Instead, the surgeon might talk about a patient's "aorta" or "vena cava", so that there was no mistake.

That kind of language is acceptable between doctors and nurses, but your ordinary readers and listeners will understand better if your story refers to the aorta as "the main tube carrying blood out of the heart", and the vena cava as "one of the two main tubes carrying blood into the heart".

Remember, you are the bridge between the scientists and the readers or listeners. Where possible, you should explain the jargon in language your audience will understand. To do this, you will need to understand the scientific terms yourself. Find out the simple meanings by asking the scientist concerned, or your contacts or look it up in a dictionary.

It is possible - and sometimes it is informative - to include scientific terms in reports, as long as they are explained immediately in words your audience can understand. For example:

Researchers in California say they have found a new way of testing unborn babies for spina bifida - a deformity of the spine which can cause paralysis.

(For more on jargon, see Chapter 11: Language and style - words.)

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Use concrete words where possible

People understand solid, concrete things which they can feel, smell, see, touch, taste or hear. Because much of science is about ideas, where possible you should explain the scientist's abstract ideas in concrete words your ordinary readers or listeners can understand.

For example, instead of describing the strength of a new sewing thread in scientific terms saying that it will resist a force of so many kilograms - you might write a story telling the same facts, but in concrete terms, like the example on the next page.

Scientists in China have invented a sewing thread so strong that it could take the weight of a fully-grown elephant.

Obviously no-one is going to hang an elephant from a crane to demonstrate the new sewing thread, but the image shows people how strong it can be.

Later in the story you should give the scientific figures in kilograms for readers or listeners who can understand them.

Similarly, when reporting sizes - specially the very large or very small - translate them into terms which your ordinary readers and listeners can understand. For example:

Breeders in Papua New Guinea have produced a new breed of super pig which can weigh up to 750 kg - about the weight of a small car.

Of course, some scientific numbers are so large - or so small - that you will never be able to put them into concrete terms for your ordinary readers or listeners. For example, the concept of a light year in astronomy is meaningless to most people, even though you can explain that it is the distance that light travels in one year. Because light travels at more than a thousand-million kilometres per hour, one light year is a distance of almost ten million million kilometres - impossible to imagine. The nearest you might come to a concrete example might be to explain that to reach the nearest star outside our own solar system (the star Proxima Centauri, which is four light years away from us), the fastest man-made rocket so far invented would have to travel for more than 18,000 years - but even that concept will be too big for many people to grasp.

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Do not overload with figures

Do not overload your stories with large numbers or lots of figures. In many cases, especially at the start of a story, you should round figures off to make them simpler to understand. For example, 19,750 kilometres becomes "almost 20,000 kilometres". This is especially important in radio, where listeners do not have time to grasp complicated numbers.

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Write brightly

Your audience will not like long boring explanations. This is especially true in radio, where the listeners can quickly grow tired of concentrating on lots of facts and figures. So you should develop a bright style of writing.

As we have already discussed, keep your words clear and simple. Do not use too many scientific terms and explain them in simple words.

Keep your sentences short and simple. Try to limit the important ideas to one (or two at the most) per sentence, as in the following example:

RIGHT:
Pig farmers on New Ireland are battling an insect plague which has already killed more than 500 pigs on the island.

The insect, which is related to the horse fly, has already devastated herds in Africa and South East Asia.

The new species called penetrens lugoles lays its eggs in pigs' ears. When the eggs hatch, the maggots burrow into the animal's brain in search of food. 
WRONG:
Farmers on New Ireland are battling a plague of the new insect species penetrens lugoles which is related to the horse fly and has devastated large herds of pigs in Africa and South East Asia and already killed 527 pigs on the island by laying eggs in their ears which eventually hatch into maggots which burrow their way into the animal's brain in search of food.
Enjoy the challenge. Write with enthusiasm and this will show itself in your stories.

Do not, however, mistake shallow writing for bright writing. However lively your writing style, you still need to explain the essential facts properly. Simply telling your readers or listeners how "wonderful" or how "awful" something is does not make proper journalism. If a scientist gives you some facts which amaze you, it is not enough to tell your audience that you were amazed. You should present those facts in terms your readers or listeners can understand - and perhaps they too will be amazed.

Also, do not make jokes about scientific developments unless they are recognised as humorous. You may think it funny that people's hair falls out when they are treated with a certain drug, but the sufferers will not see the joke, and neither will the doctors using the drug. Science can be cheerful and even funny, but you have to understand it properly before you can start making jokes.

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Do not sensationalise

To sensationalise means to state something in such a strong and extreme way that it has an effect on people's emotions. Bad journalists sensationalise stories because they are more concerned with grabbing the attention of their readers or listeners than with telling the news accurately. There might be some truth in what they write, but they exaggerate it to grab attention.

Sensationalising science can often lead to harm by falsely provoking strong emotions such as hope or fear in readers or listeners. This is especially dangerous in fields such as medical research. Scientists researching a new drug will seldom claim that they have found a cure for a certain disease. They are more likely to say it is "a step towards a cure" or "a possible way of preventing the disease" or even "a way of reducing the symptoms". They do not want to raise false hopes. If you then write that "scientists have found a cure for cancer", it will raise the hopes of everyone with the disease and all their relatives. When they discover that they themselves cannot be cured, they will feel even worse than before your story. You may even destroy what little hope they may have had. It is a cruel thing to do.

Sensational claims in other fields, even as remote as astronomy, can cause harm. People will panic if you report that a giant meteor is heading towards earth but fail to point out that it will arrive in a thousand years from now and miss us by a million miles.

In some cases of sensational reporting, there is little difference between exaggeration and lying. Exaggeration often leads so far from the truth that it becomes a lie. If a child claims she was bitten by a dog two metres tall, she is exaggerating the truth - but she is also lying. You must never lie to your readers or listeners.

The scientists themselves will also be offended. They like to deal in plain facts, to be accurate and not emotional. Therefore they are offended by sensational reporting which becomes a lie. It probably offends them more than simple errors, which they might forgive.

So never sensationalise a story. State the facts in a clear, simple and interesting way. It is a great challenge to write a medical story without using words like "miracle cure", but it can be done - and it is more rewarding than the easy lie.

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Give background details

Very few new scientific or technological developments happen by accident. Most are the result of work over time. Discoveries may come suddenly, but they usually come because a scientist is looking for something anyway.

Your job is to place all developments in context. Explain how we got to the situation today. In a story about an AIDS drug, explain what scientists know about the disease and how many people it has so far killed, especially in your country or region. In a story about a new pocket computer, explain a little about the history of computers and how the new small version compares with existing computers. When reporting the results of a study into water cleanliness, give some of the history of the project.

You need these kinds of background details in most stories, because they help your readers or listeners to understand what has happened and how important (or disappointing) the latest development is. The background details should be written as simply and clearly as the rest of the story. They should be kept as short as possible because your audience is mainly interested in the latest news, not in history.

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Illustrate your story

Try to provide illustrations which will bring your story alive.

In newspapers and on television, pictures or diagrams can say very quickly what it might take you a thousand words to describe.

Any captions must explain the picture, but they do not have to explain the whole of the thing you are describing. For example, you might use a picture of a new coffee drying machine. Your caption can give some details about the machine, but save your explanations of how it works for the story itself. (In television, your explanation can be illustrated by film of the different parts of the machine in action).

Diagrams should be simple and well-drawn. If you take a diagram from a scientific report, decide what details you need and leave out the rest (either cover them up or get your artist to re-draw the diagram in the style you want).

If you use pictures or diagrams offered by other people or taken from books or magazines, make sure that you have permission from the rightful owners to use them. Sometimes you will need to add a short sentence to the caption telling where they came from. (See Chapter 47: Captions and graphics in news pictures and Chapter 63: Introduction to the law.)

You obviously cannot illustrate radio stories with pictures or diagrams, but you might be able to add interest to a radio report with some sound effects. You could include a short recording of the sound of the coffee processing factory at work, if that will add something to your listeners' knowledge. Sound effects are especially important in radio features or documentaries (see Chapter 48: Radio and television basics).

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TO SUMMARISE:

You must understand the basic principles of any scientific field before you can report in it; you can get that understanding by:

  • Having a basic scientific education
  • Reading books and magazines about science and technology
  • Taking an interest in scientific and technological developments
  • Establishing good contacts with experts who can help you with information

Always try to write your stories with a human angle; remember the people who make the developments and the people who will use them

Never write a story until you understand all the information you will need to use

Do not take sides in scientific controversies - just report the arguments

Avoid jargon

Use concrete images to explain abstract ideas

Write brightly and simply

Do not sensationalise

Think of the best ways of illustrating any story

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>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index to Chapter 32
  1. Understand the jargon
  2. Use concrete words where possible
  3. Do not overload with figures
  4. Write brightly
  5. Do not sensationalise
  6. Give background details
  7. Illustrate your story
  8. To summarise
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