Prizes, science writing, journalism, editors & newspapers

By Grant Jacobs 24/11/2009

wrote recently suggesting a prize for a newspaper carrying science content. In recognition of science writing, not journalism that has some science content to “beef up” an otherwise non-science based story, and to recognise all the science content, not only a few major stories.

I’d like to clarify some of what I was suggesting.

First, I want to make clear that I am not offering this as a suggestion in opposition to or in place of a prize for individual science writers, science journalists or “science” stories.

I was suggesting a prize for the newspaper to fill what I see as a hole: a prize that might encourage editors to support the full range of science writing, that might get them thinking “add more science content”.

It’s a longer-term goal, one that won’t get the person giving the award as many beers or slaps on the back from journalists, but I’d like to think that in the long-term it’d help raise the profile of the niche as a whole.

Put another way, an award complements awards to individuals or for individual stories that looks at the whole newspaper.

Let’s also be clear that I was mainly addressing science writing. In that post, I wrote ‘science’, ‘science writing’, ‘science news’, ‘science articles’, etc. I didn’t even write ‘science journalism’ for that matter, which I see as subtly different (and when done well, worthwhile), even though I mean to weigh that in too.

Let me elaborate. I see science writing, science journalism and journalism that happens to include some science as different. Shades of grey, to some I guess, but to me there’s a difference. In the first, the main story is the science. In the latter the main story is something else, with the science included to strengthen the story, give it more depth or richness. (Worthy goals, just not what I wanted to focus on.) Somewhere in between you’ve got science journalism, which, loosely speaking, favours “science as an event” (more on this later).

One commenter objected that a prize for a newspaper would favour established columns over breaking news:

Otherwise doing it by organisation, you might have a paper that has the science scoop of the year miss out to one that has a regular science section and actually devotes more coverage to science but isn’t breaking stories in the public interest.

Obviously I see “actually devotes more coverage to science” as being commendable and it’s the main thrust of the thing for me. However, my intention was not to not ignore headline acts, but that these be looked at within a larger context, so that all the science content was considered. What I didn’t want was for one major story to define the paper to be the “best supporter of science writing”; I wanted the overall content, including any major stories, but not limiting it to them.

(To be honest, I object to phrase ‘in the public interest’, as it implies the regular short science-based columns aren’t of interest to the public; they are, just in a different way. I guess I bristle at the “little guys” being knocked, even if unintentionally. Why should their contribution be overlooked, rather than be treated as a worthy, if modest, contribution to a larger picture?)

Feature stories are great, but I can’t see awarding only these will get an editor to think “must get more science content”. I’d have thought that if you do this editors will just go on thinking “must get more headline/breaking stories”, regardless of if they have science content or not. (Any editors care to comment?)

Awarding a prize for a major story on science may help editors appreciate better that science can carry major stories. But why not make them see that they can also be regular stories?

Another worry is over-emphasising major stories may only encourage the practice of describing science in terms of “breakthroughs”. Headline or breaking stories almost exclusively carry things that are “events”.

Ask a scientist and they’ll tell you that while new results are “events”, they almost always belong within a longer flow of events and a much larger context. It’s exceptionally rare that stand on their own in the way that they’re often presented in science journalism. Don’t get me wrong, second-best (journalistic representations of science) is better than nothing.

If you look at the work of say, Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Natalie Angier, Oliver Sacks, and many others, you’ll see that they try present the larger context of the work. Often that larger context is the main story with the new result or the key character “merely” being mainly an excuse to bring up the wider story.

These are more magazine-style pieces and I guess less glamorous than event-oriented pieces. But then, that’s partly what I’m trying to balance. Why encourage second-best, when you can encourage the best? (Or at least what I see as the best!)

A piece that announces the Large Hadron Collider is now at work: OK. A piece that explains what the LHC does and why (or what they’ve found): excellent. A story that announces a new drug (which often are barely reworked press releases): OK (but if they’re just a rehash of the PR, I have my reservations). An examination of the drug, it’s background, strengths and limitations: great.  NASA bombs the moon: great fun. Why they did, how they intended testing for water and what this would mean: much better.

My priorities may be all warped, but I prefer the larger context to stories limited to only an “event”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one that get frustrated at emptiness of science event reports in newspapers. They’re like Russian dolls with nothing in them: all bright and gaudy on the outside, but no content. (OK, some content, but nothing that really <i>explains</i> what it’s all about.)

So… major stories as in science writing, yes; major stories as in science journalism, well worth scoring but less important unless they go the extra mile (or kilometer…); journalism with a dash of science, worthy in it’s own way but not the focus here. But: all in a context of the overall coverage of science in the paper, including regular columns, noting any anti-science or shoddy pieces, etc. (For that matter, short columns are often the most direct, giving the science without dressing it up.)

A deeper reason I took this stance, is that in blog discussions on promoting science writing, I rarely see any mention of editors and their part in this. But that’s another post.

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0 Responses to “Prizes, science writing, journalism, editors & newspapers”

  • I hear what you are saying Grant but it is quite problematic to reward coverage of a subject by media organisation – especially because we have a fairly small media here. Qantas awards the best newspaper of the year, the best best business newspaper, the best blog etc, but in terms of specific coverage, they do it by article, column or feature. When it comes to science you’d likely get the likes of Radio New Zealand winning each year as they make what is arguably the biggest commitment to science in terms of locally-generated “coverage”.

  • Hi Peter,

    I hope you don’t think I wrote that just for you! 🙂 (I didn’t, of course.)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Qantus ‘Best Newspaper Specialist Page or Section’ are awarded to the newspapers, e.g. They have Health and Info. & Comms. Technology, for example, but no Science. This is close to what I’m after, but only looks at a section; I was thinking more of overall coverage. I suppose you could re-work my suggestion to rewarding a section/specialist page, if it weren’t for the fact that there may not be any science sections any more. (I can vaguely recall there were some for a while.)

    It’s true we have a relative small number of papers, esp. if you choose to eliminate those below a decent circulation size (not other media like radio, I was only writing about newspaper but probably should have written print to include local magasines). It’s a fair point, but I’m not sure how this is a show stopper, especially as it’s also true for the other awards.

    (You could argue why not consider other media, but it wasn’t my aim. After all, if you’re going to do that you’d probably have to consider TV too. Then someone will probably want “Web”, perhaps “distributed media” and so on… All perfectly valid suggestions, but I was writing about print.)

    I didn’t say the content had to be constrained to locally-generated “coverage” or not. It’s a fair point in some senses and I guess you’d might choose to factor that in, or then again you might not since it wasn’t the essence of the thing (it’s not for promoting NZ science, but presenting science, period).

    However, your writing locally-generated “coverage” has me worrying that you’re are still pitching for the writers as if this were in opposition to what I’m suggesting. As I pointed out, this isn’t in opposition to or in lieu of supporting writers with a writers’ award, it’s trying to address a different thing.

    Perhaps you could explain why you think it’s “quite problematic to reward coverage of a subject by [newspaper]”. After all the newspaper section/specialist page awards are going to run into essentially the same issues, wouldn’t they?

  • The problem with your suggestion of awarding a “section” of the paper devoted to science is that there are virtually none. There are a few newspaper technology sections – The Press, Infotech in the Dom Post and a skimpy page in the Herald etc, but when it comes to science, Waikato Times and the Manuwatu Standard are two of the few publications with dedicated real estate for science.

    Any award should cover all mediums, should reward locally-generated coverage (why should a paper get particular credit for syndicating Ben Goldacre over one putting resource into generating local content?)

    My view is there are too many awards dished out in a small country like NZ across all sectors. If you are going to bother introducing a new one it has to have staying power, credibility, a financial incentive to enter and encourage every sector of the media to participate. The SMC won’t bother with it unless we can achieve all of those things.

  • Hey Peter, I’m not trying to dump on you or the SMC! 🙂 I write these things because I like think and to toss ideas out not because I’m trying to play politics, which I think you know I can’t stand. I write for fun, too… I don’t get paid to write them and I have other things I could be doing.

    My mention of the SMCs (plural) was a loose thought towards the end of the previous post. If you’re not interested, that’s OK. My posts aren’t about the SMC in particular (or you) directly. I can sympathise if you think that, but it’s not what I’m doing. I’m writing to a wider audience, NZ at large and also trying to bear in mind people outside of NZ. It’s a bit of juggling act, inspired by thinking about the local scene, but trying to put out general themes that might be relevant to people elsewhere.

    Bearing that in mind, some thoughts on your reply, on the local front:

    The problem with your suggestion of awarding a “section” of the paper devoted to science is that there are virtually none.

    I know there are few sections, I said that myself 🙂 I wasn’t suggesting this either, actually (I wrote it could be done if it weren’t for the fact there are too few examples to reward).

    The reason I brought up the sections was to point out to you that are examples of awards to newspapers done by coverage (in a sense). Maybe if there was encouragement for more overall content, it’d eventually get aggregated into a section, but I’m not really fussed either way. If you’re starting with low coverage overall, specialist sections strike me as a bonus and a bit of a critical mass thing (or more accurately fraction of the circulation thing).

    Food for thought: it’s sometimes useful to put up an award to encourage something to happen that’s not really there yet. You know that initially it’ll have a poor field, but you give it a few years to grow. Point is, you don’t have to limit awards to things that already exist, you can use them to try create things.

    I generally agree that too many awards dilutes them and weakens them. (Reminds me of some school prize-givings!)

    Regards “should reward locally-generated coverage (why should a paper get particular credit for syndicating Ben Goldacre over one putting resource into generating local content?)”

    I have to sigh, big time. I thought I’d already made myself clear: I’m not suggesting favouring any one type of content over another, e.g.

    […] so that all the science content was considered. What I didn’t want was for one major story to define the paper to be the “best supporter of science writing”; I wanted the overall content, including any major stories, but not limiting it to them.

    In fact, what you’ve offered as criticism here is actually what I’ve said myself in other words earlier. It seems to reverse your stance from when you objected to me favouring local columns! I feel as if I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. My position is neither one of favouring local columns or favouring foreign content. You’re welcome to have your own position, of course, but you’re telling me I hold a position I don’t hold 😉

    My impression is that you want to champion local writers. Great, go for it. I’m not suggesting anything in opposition to or in lieu of that. Perhaps you are thinking in terms of “if there were only one prize for science writing it would be”? I haven’t been writing with that perspective. As I wrote earlier, I just felt there was a hole that might need filling, which is not to say that there are other things that could also be done in conjunction with that.

    Have fun 🙂

  • Hi folks
    One of the problems with generating ‘local’ content is that – for print media anyway – much of the writing isn’t done locally but is syndicated from other sources. You mention the Waikato Times – the science section there began because a couple of free-lancers who also happen to be passionately interested in science put a pitch to the paper & the local research institutions (most notably but not excluding the University) which was taken up on an experimental basis & sort of caught on. The paper’s since expanded that somewhat as one of their own staff writers also does a column. But – for whatever reason, papers like the Herald don’t seem to go down that route; they syndicate most or all of their science content & often do this quite uncritically. (As does the Waikato Times on occasion.) So maybe an award for a science section would, as Grant’s suggesting, at least bring about the surely desirable outcome of having some part of the publication dedicated to science, & hopefully some of that would end up being home-grown.
    My 10-cents worth, anyway.