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.

2 thoughts on “Steer Clear of These Five Science Reporting Pitfalls”

  1. I often cringe at science reporting in the mainstream press. It seems to me that the first thing the sub-editors do is go through the item and take out all those pesky qualifying words – possibly, maybe, probably etc etc. By the time they finish, you’re left with a great headline but often a misleading news story.

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