Steer Clear of These Five Science Reporting Pitfalls

Andrea Mustain

PRX has taken on big initiatives in the last few years to create original science programming, including our STEM Story Project open call for science audio ideas, our Transistor podcast which features many of those, the space podcast Orbital Path, and the Outside Magazine podcast on the science of survival.

We asked our science editor Andrea Mustain, who edited all of 2015’s STEM stories and is now also an editor for Orbital Path, to share her wisdom on science reporting.

Steer Clear of These Five Science Reporting Pitfalls
A (very short) guide for audio producers

by PRX Science Editor Andrea Mustain

Science reporting gives you entrée to a nearby yet rather mysterious country—a place with an arcane language all its own, that outsiders rarely get to visit. (This, to me, is what makes science reporting challenging and fun.)

It’s also a privilege that brings with it some pretty big responsibilities. You must bring back something of substance: a compelling narrative that is also informative, accurate, and clear. To that end, a few perils to note—and avoid.

1. The gee-whiz trap. Also known as the, “I just read the press release” trap.

This is a pretty obvious one. Always read the full journal article before you head into an interview. Press releases sometimes drift into dangerously hyperbolic territory. PR departments are tasked with drumming up coverage, and that can lead to scary words like “breakthrough” and “game changer.” This is not to say that communications departments are full of deceptive, conniving people. Many are staffed with deeply thoughtful and responsible science writers, steeped in the research that is coming out of their institutions. However, that is not always the case. Beware the too-good-to-be-true press release.

When you actually talk to the scientists behind a paper, their takeaways are sometimes very different from what you see in the press release. And if you haven’t read the research, you a) won’t be able to ask intelligent questions, and b) may come off as naive. PR departments are just trying to do their jobs. Make sure you do yours.

2. The scaredy-cat trap.

Scientists are people, too. Some are wonderful communicators, and others aren’t. Some are wonderfully gracious, and happy to explain something to you over and over; others may helpfully suggest you go take a physics class. So when you run into trouble understanding something, don’t get scared and give up after the third try. It never works to just drop some gorpy, technical tape into your story, and have the scientists “tell it in their own words.” If you don’t understand something, your audience won’t either. (If I’m running into trouble, I ask my interviewees to start over, and explain the concept as if they are addressing a 12-year-old.)

Keep asking for clarification or different explanations, even if you’re worried you’re being annoying or sound like a dummy—you must always be able to accurately explain every scientific concept in your story in your own words.

3. The trap that’s like a fried egg riding a watermelon airplane. Or, the terrible/wrong metaphor trap.

Metaphors are a powerful tool for science writing. A good one can instantly repackage a befuddling concept, and make the science both appetizing and digestible. A bad one can ruin your day.

A poorly constructed metaphor is dangerous. If it’s trite, or doesn’t conjure a helpful image, you’ve possibly bored your audience—or worse, confused them. If a metaphor is inaccurate, you have lied to your audience. It’s helpful to run through your ideas with researchers during your interviews, so they can help you fine-tune for accuracy.

Of course, it is your job to make sure that you also think the metaphor gets the job done. You can’t be entirely beholden to scientists. It is ultimately your decision; but you must be confident of your understanding of the science before you can craft an appropriate metaphor.

4. The “I’ll just Google it” trap.

The Internet is not a reliable fact checker. It certainly can’t take the place of verifying something with experts. If something in your notes strikes you as dubious, or if you are even the teeniest bit unsure of the meaning, check back with a researcher. To illustrate, a cautionary tale:

One of the stories created for PRX’s open call STEM Story Project in 2015 used a very impressive metaphor. Our producer got it from a scientist, and it was a great illustration of a particular phenomenon. But as we got closer to the final mix, something didn’t feel right. It was too impressive. But the dang metaphor appeared in several news stories; two different reporters couldn’t have gotten it wrong..right? And in fact, the producer insisted that, based on interview notes, the metaphor was accurate. I decided we had to triple check.

When I went back to the researchers, they said no, this comparison was actually not accurate at all. Reporters had (quite innocently) misinterpreted a simile the scientists had come up with themselves. As one researcher put it, “I think the science writer went a bit too far in the analogy.” Thankfully, they weren’t able to say that about the PRX story—we changed the script. The lesson here is, double-check your work during the reporting process. Find mistakes early.

5. The jazz hands trap.

In some hands, fancy production leads to incomparably beautiful radio. So it’s tempting to think that because some amazing shows (backed by a raft of talented staff) do this flawlessly, you should, too. A science audio story is just the place to bring your composer friend on board, and get crazy with the soundbeds. But be honest about the skills and tools you have at your disposal. You may be a phenomenal basketball player, but that doesn’t mean you can tap dance.

Besides, a story doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to move a listener. At the heart of any great radio—whether it’s highly produced, or just you and some tape—is a powerful story supported by strong reporting, excellent writing, and an invested narrator. No jazz hands required.

PRX and Transistor Podcast Introduce Trace Elements Series

PRX is thrilled to welcome a new special series of episodes on its podcast, Transistor. The episodes, called Trace Elements, feature hosts Cristina Quinn and Alison Bruzek as they take us on an off-road trip into the science that connects us.

Each episode explores something new. Whether it’s a medical mystery, the future of social robots, or implanting foreign objects into your body — Trace Elements is on it.

The first episode introduces us to a man who woke up from a hospital procedure and no longer felt any fear. Learn more and listen here, and get the official press release below.

PRX and Transistor Podcast Introduce Trace Elements Series

Cambridge, MA (March 10, 2016)—Award-winning public media company PRX is launching a new series of episodes on its popular science podcast, Transistor. The five special episodes, called Trace Elements, are produced by and feature dynamic hosts Cristina Quinn and Alison Bruzek. The series is meant to be an off-road trip into the science that connects us.

The episodes are part of PRX’s commitment to creating and distributing new science programming, especially from women, on Transistor. The podcast is supported with funds provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Quinn and Bruzek both work as journalists in the Boston area.

“Cristina and Alison’s style is what attracted us to these episodes. They ask the right questions about science, and their curiosity and chemistry make science stories utterly engaging,” said PRX Chief Content Officer John Barth.

Trace Elements launches on Transistor March 10 with an episode titled, “The Reset”. The episode focuses on a man who no longer feels fear following a hospital procedure. It’s part medical mystery, part psychological quandary, and it urges listeners to reflect on how fears can define us.

Trace Elements will be featured on Transistor every other week. Subscribe to Transistor on iTunes or

PRX’s other science initiatives funded by the Sloan Foundation include the podcast Orbital Path with Michelle Thaller, Blank on Blank’s animated series The Experimenters, the Outside Magazine podcast, and entries from the STEM Story Project.

About PRX
PRX is shaping the future of public media content, talent and technology. PRX is a leading creator and distributor, connecting audio producers with their most engaged, supportive audiences across broadcast, web and mobile. A fierce champion of new voices, new formats, and new business models, PRX advocates for the entrepreneurial producer. PRX is an award-winning media company, reaching millions of weekly listeners worldwide. For over a dozen years, PRX has operated public radio’s largest distribution marketplace, offering thousands of audio shows including This American Life, The Moth Radio Hour and Reveal. Follow us on Twitter at @prx.

About Transistor
Transistor is podcast of scientific curiosities and current events, featuring guest hosts, scientists, and story-driven reporters. Presented by radio & podcast powerhouse PRX, with support from the Sloan Foundation.

About Cristina Quinn and Alison Bruzek

Cristina Quinn is a radio and TV journalist. She got her on-air start in Japan, hosting “Let’s English!” for FM-Aizu. Stateside, she’s been WGBH’s Weekend Edition anchor in Boston and became the station’s first midday news anchor. Cristina has done in-depth reporting on innovations in science, technology, and social issues. Her stories air locally on WGBH radio and TV’s Greater Boston, and have aired nationally on NPR News, PRI’s The World, and Innovation Hub. She has a journalism degree from UMass Amherst and a master’s in visual and media arts from Emerson College.

Alison Bruzek is a science writer and radio producer. Originally from the nation’s heartland, she has been known to occasionally reprise her Minnesotan accent. She is currently a freelance producer for WBUR in Boston. Prior to that, she worked as a video producer for WGBH. Before she came to radio, she developed science curriculum and science center programs with The HistoryMakers, an African American video oral history collection.

Announcing this year’s STEM Story Project grantees

PRX is pleased to announce the grantees for our third annual STEM Story Project, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The STEM Story Project is an open call for science, tech, engineering, and math pitches. Over the summer, we asked producers around the world to share their ideas with us. Then, a team of scientists in various disciplines, plus a team of radio professionals, screened the over 100 proposals we received. As you can imagine, the final decisions were incredibly difficult to make!

The stories below (titles subject to change) are being created right now, and will be available on starting in mid-November. Stations and shows on PRX can license the stories for air, and they will also be featured in the upcoming season of our science podcast, Transistor.

Past years’ STEM stories aired on many stations, PRX Remix, Here and Now, All Things Considered, and Studio 360, to name a few. So don’t be shy if you’re with a show or station and not yet on PRX. Get in touch.

Without further ado, the grantees of our third annual STEM Story Project are…

The Words are a Jumble from Tobin Low.
Vissarion Shebalin was not a great composer. But his music could unlock an important truth about how the brain processes music and language.

Rodney Learns to Fly from Ari Daniel.
Rodney grew up selling dope and guns. But he’s always loved caring for birds. The drugs landed him in jail. The birds helped set him free.

Ovarian transplant is the surgery on infertility’s cutting edge from Robin Amer.
Twins Carol and Katie are physically identical in every way but one: Katie was born without ovaries. Carol donated hers to her sister so she could start a family.

Imagine All the People from Pien Huang.
Meet a four-year-old with a LOT of imaginary friends. What do fake friends do for us as kids and adults?

HIc Sunt Dracones: The Art of Polynesian Wayfinding from Lily Bui.
Ancient Polynesians relied on three core faculties to navigate: knowledge of the stars, understanding of the environment, and—above all—their memories.

Owning the Clouds: Fears, facts, and the future of weather from Steven Jackson.
Can we harness clouds to counter drought, stop storms, and fight climate change? And if we can, should we?

Peeing in My Pants, Everybody Does It from Lauren Whaley.
A personal and research-driven journey into the science, technology and emotional sides of pelvic floor dysfunction.

From Frogs To Wands of Destiny: The Evolving Science of Home Pregnancy Tests from Anne Noyes Saini & Amy Gastelum of the podcast Mother.
Trace the evolution of modern pregnancy testing from when tests entailed injecting frogs with women’s urine, to the first reliable home pregnancy test kits.

Many Humans, One Music? from Katie Burke.
Is music a universal language? A new study says music worldwide shares features like rhythm & group performance.

The Science of Protecting Cities from Floods from Jenny Chen and Ellen Rolfes.
Head to the scene of forensic flood science, where engineers are doing detective work to rebuild cities to be more resilient to climate change.

CSI Bee Squad from Megan Molteni.
A look inside a tiny crime scene — investigating a bee kill.

That Bowl Was Delicious from Hannah Marshall & Quentin Cooper.
Swear your coffee tastes better from your favorite mug? You may not be imagining it.

The Noisiest Species from Kerry Klein.
How our vrooms, clangs and thunks are harming natural ecosystems — and ourselves.

Tick Tock Biological Clock from Marnie Chesterton.
Women in their late 30s are told their fertility falls off a cliff. The truth is more surprising.

Three Letters Met on Broom Bridge from Samuel Hansen of the podcast Relatively Prime.
Every October, hundreds of devotees gather to walk across a bridge in Dublin — for math.

The Ghost in the MP3 from Emily Richardson-Lorente.
What’s lost when a song is compressed into an MP3? To the untrained ear — perhaps nothing. But to one composer, it’s the source of stunning and ghostly ‘lost sound’ compositions.

Cosmic Ray Catchers from Ross Chambless.
Something out there is hurling powerful particles at Earth, and a team of scientists have found a hotspot near the Big Dipper.

Starting June 1: Open Call for Your Science Audio Story Ideas

PRX is back with our third annual open call for science radio ideas — the STEM Story Project. STEM Stories from 2013 and 2014 aired on Here & Now, All Things Considered, Studio 360, our science podcast Transistor, PRX Remix, and numerous other podcasts and public radio stations around the country. We’re excited to do this again.

Starting June 1, we’ll accept proposals to create radio stories inspired by STEM topics (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). We have a pool of funding from the the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to distribute among multiple projects.

Our goals are to:

• Unleash highly creative, STEM-based original stories and productions
• Educate and excite listeners about STEM topics and issues
• Tell stories and explain STEM issues in new ways

Have an idea for a story? We will accept proposals between June 1st and July 1st, 2015. Here are the application guidelines. Be sure to check them out, and stay tuned to #PRXSTEM on Twitter, via our handles @TransistorShow and @prx

Have questions? Comment below or email your questions to But please refer to the FAQ below and application guidelines first!

May the force be with you.
-John Barth & Genevieve Sponsler

The PRX STEM Story Project Team


What is PRX’s STEM Story Project?

An open call for proposals to create radio stories about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). In the past two years, PRX has funded the creation of 29 STEM stories. They’ve aired on national shows like Here & Now, Studio 360, All Things Considered, our science podcast Transistor, and PRX Remix, in addition to being aired on stations throughout the country.


What are the dates?
PRX will accept proposals online between June 1 and July 1, 2015 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Accepted proposals will be announced in early September. Producers will then have two months to create their stories and publish them to by November 1, 2015.


Who can apply?
We welcome any producers or writers with audio production experience to apply. Producers can be independent or station-based.

What if I don’t have audio production experience but want to submit a story?
We recommend that you work with an audio producer to come up with a story proposal and to provide audio samples.

If I already received a grant last year, can I apply again this year?

If I applied last year and didn’t get a grant, can I apply again?
Yes, but you must apply with a different story than the one you submitted last year.

I have a podcast/an idea for a podcast. Can I submit my podcast as a proposal?
We cannot fund an entire series, but you can submit an entry for a single episode of your podcast. For example, in past STEM open calls PRX has funded single episodes of Criminal, 30 Minutes West, and Destination DIY.


What do I need to include in my application?
We’re looking for a proposal of your story idea, two audio samples of your previous work, and a proposed budget.

How long should my proposed audio story be?
We generally ask that the stories be 10 minutes or less. Shorter stories are more shareable online and more likely to get picked up by national shows, podcasts, and stations. Past stories we’ve funded have ranged from 6 to 18 minutes long, but again, with the majority being under 10 minutes.

How will proposals be chosen?
We will work with a team of science advisors and radio advisors to select proposals that best fit the project’s goals.


What should I include in my budget?
Producer fees, engineering fees, travel expenses, and editor fees. If your proposal is chosen, we will contact you to revise your budget, if necessary. See the application form here for details.

How much funding do you tend to provide for each story? What is the average budget?
The total pool of money we have is about $50k, and in the past we have broken that up over 15 or so applicants. However, that being said, we don’t share more budget info than that. We want the flexibility to work with producers on stories that may surprise us, and change what we do year to year. Some stories require travel or big expenses, and some do not. So we want to see your budget, your freelance rate, etc. And then if we want to work together but the numbers aren’t quite doable, we talk about it with you.

I’m wondering how you go about funding station-based reporters. Does it go straight to the reporter, based on the time spent on the STEM story? Or does it go to the station?
We set this up based on whatever rules/process you have regarding employment at the station and the nature of the story. If it is a station-based story that is one thing; if it is a total freelance thing, that might mean something else. If you are allowed to do freelance work and keep 100%, we do that. If stations get a cut no matter what, we have to abide by that. If stations demand 100%, we have to respect that. Let us know in the budget section of your application.


Will you be giving me any guidance during the production process?
PRX requires at least one mandatory check-in during the production period to go over initial script drafts.


What happens after the stories are done?
PRX will work with you to get the pieces licensed to different stations within our network as well as placed on blogs + other digital platforms.

Asteroid miners prepare to harvest outer space

Image credit:
Image credit:

Don’t get too attached to your real estate — human civilization may be headed toward space.

It currently costs $10,000 a pound to transport material from Earth into space. If humans want to live in space someday, those transport costs alone pose a major roadblock. Asteroid mining companies offer an alternative idea: support life in space with resources from space. That may sound like science fiction, but these companies are already scrambling to extract goods from space rocks — an average asteroid holds about $100 billion in water and minerals. In producer Audrey Quinn’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, we’ll visit a spacecraft facility and take a look into the business, the science, and the legality of the asteroid mining industry.

In September 2013, Quinn reported for Marketplace on NASA’s interest in asteroids. As part of that story, she interviewed Deep Space Industries’s Rick Tumlinson and was struck by how committed he and his company were to asteroid mining, a prospect that sounded like pure science fiction. Quinn reflects, “I thought it would be a great chance to dive deeper into this idea that seemed so fantastical to me.”

These space entrepreneurs are thinking beyond science fiction and are are banking on the idea that humans will live in space someday, that the future of human civilization is, in fact, in space. They are also preparing to have the technology ready to make that a reality within the next couple of decades.

Quinn hopes listeners will learn that a lot of the materials we rely on here on Earth are also out there in some form in asteroids: “That could make life in space might be more viable and imminent than you realized before.”

Finding Science in Speculation with Bayes’ Theorem

Image: "Bayes' Theorem MMB 01" by mattbuck (category) - Own work by mattbuck. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Image: “Bayes’ Theorem MMB 01” by mattbuck (category) – Own work by mattbuck. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re not mathematically inclined, one look at Bayes’ Theorem — a parade of parenthetical A’s and B’s stacked on top of each other — can be a bit intimidating.

However, the theorem can be traced to many different parts of our everyday lives. First conceived around the time that Ben Franklin experimented with his infamous kite and key, it now helps us predict things like the weather, election results, health trends, even locating missing people and things.

Sydney Beveridge’s PRX STEM Story Project guides us through different ways the theorem is used, framing it with how it might be used to help someone find their missing keys.

When asked how she chose the topic, producer Sydney Beveridge responds, “This story was an opportunity to dig into the magic and manipulation behind the numbers that we encounter in our daily lives.” Outside of radio, she works with data at the demographic research and visualization website Social Explorer, which focuses on numbers to communicate trends and ideas. Also, she admits, she lost her keys last year.

“Even though numbers feel so concrete, the way we work with them varies and can be heavily disputed,” Beveridge reminds us. While researching the story, she was surprised to learn that the field of statistics is fraught with controversy; it even has warring factions within the field. No huge surprise there, especially with books like How to Lie With Statistics juxtaposing statistics and dishonesty, and general skepticism around exit polling during elections.

However, Beveridge hopes that listeners come away from the piece better understanding the difference between Bayesian statistics and classical statistics. “In some ways, the theorem is a common sense idea…but it is also conceptually rich in its handling of subjectivity, contradictory possibilities and iteration.”

That said, if you end up listening to the piece, the odds might just fall in your favor.

That Crime of the Month

This is part of the PRX STEM Story Project series.

Image credit: Criminal podcast

What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her actions to PMS? We revisit the first use of the “PMS defense,” in this country, back in 1981. What have we learned about the science of PMS since then? Last year, the American Psychiatric Association classified a form of PMS (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD) as a mental disorder in the DSM-V. How can the scientific community study severe premenstrual symptoms without perpetuating the utterly unscientific idea that menstruating women aren’t mentally competent or liable for crimes they commit?

In this PRX STEM Story Project piece, the Criminal podcast tells us about the psychiatry, law, and gender politics surrounding PMDD.

About 30 years ago, lawyers started attributing behavior to PMS as a cause for women feeling so severe they were afraid of hurting themselves or others. As one would imagine, this topic can veer on the controversial, necessitating a more open conversation about the issues surrounding it.
When asked how she chose this story idea, producer Lauren Spohrer comments, “Obviously there are a lot of crime stories out there, and a lot of media dedicated to telling those stories in various way…and this was the one that made us say, ‘Wait, what?'”

Possibly more surprising than the story content might be the way that people react to the idea. Spohrer describes her friends’ reactions upon hearing about it pre-production: “There was an awful lot of eye rolling at the suggestion of a PMS defense…it struck me that gut reactions haven’t changed much in 30 years.”

Spohrer maintains that the piece doesn’t claim to promote any singular view but rather intends to stimulate even more discussion. She says, “We hope we’ve distilled the relevant issues such that the listener feels as conflicted as we do.”

You can find this piece and more on the Criminal Podcast.

Hey, this is exciting: The world needs more successful female-hosted shows. We hope to add Criminal to Radiotopia, our network of amazing story-driven podcasts. We need to meet $400,000 for our Radiotopia Kickstarter Project to support Criminal and more. Any amount helps!

Art, Math, Mystery: Stylometry

Image credit: Jenny Chen
Image credit: Jenny Chen

Can style be measured? Is it possible to express with numbers?

Visual stylometry is a new branch of mathematics that uses math to determine the style of a particular artist’s body of work. In this #PRXSTEM piece, co-producers Jenny Chen and Molly Jean Bennett take a look at how this works, how well it works, and what the implications are.

You can think of visual stylometry as the measurement of style with higher math. The method has been used to determine the authenticity of art by identifying, analyzing, and mapping unique stylistic elements.

Chen and Bennett talked to several mathematician friends about different types of stories before landing on this one. After meeting Dr. Yang, who previously used literary stylometry to authenticate an ancient Chinese work called Dreams From the Red Chamber, the co-producers discovered that there was a visual branch of stylometry too.

“We all have this stereotype that mathematicians do work that isn’t relevant to the humanities,” says Chen. “It was delightful to discover how wrong that stereotype is – and to find a branch of math that depends on the collaboration between art connoisseurs and mathematicians.”

The co-producers hope that this piece shows listeners that neither the hard sciences nor humanities have full answers to life’s questions: “Only by embracing as many different disciplines as possible can we get more complete answers.”

“Art and mathematics are so far apart that they actually become neighbors again…both are interested in patterns and life.”

#PRXSTEM on HowSound

Can you imagine composing your own music when you can’t find the right tunes? This week on the podcast HowSound, meet two producers who did, Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver of 30 Minutes West.

They composed music for their third story ever — Early Bloom, which is part of our STEM Story Project. Take a listen here, and share your piece-creation experiences on HowSound’s blog.

The Case of the Nutty Dish: A Science Radio Detective Story

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Image credit: Center for Disease Control

It all comes down to one question: chicken or peanut butter?

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. The Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers.

In producer Philip Graitcer’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, you’re invited to step into the role of an EIS officer and join two rookies as they help solve a science mystery. This is the case of the nutty dish.

Don’t think this is purely a work of fiction, for truth may be far stranger. Philip Graitcer himself was an EIS officer from 1976 to 1978. He remained at the CDC for another 18 years after that: “The first day at CDC, I was sent, from work, to Philadelphia to find the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease. When I became an independent radio producer, one of the things I wanted to do was prepare a radio drama based on an outbreak investigation.”

Almost 40 years after his first introduction to epidemiology, he still says that he’s in awe of the process of solving an epidemic. The piece not only gives us insight on how an agency works to investigate an outbreak, but it also highlights deductive thinking, a core part of the scientific process.

Graitcer reminds us that field epidemiology and solving disease outbreaks is not an exact science in spite of the technology available to us today. Still: “There is still a lot of hypothesis testing and plain old detective work needed to solve an outbreak.”