By Guest Author 21/06/2018

Zahra Shahtahmasebi

This year’s Centre of Investigative Journalism conference hosted several inspiring speakers; the likes of Alison Mau, Melanie Reid and Louise Nicholas. While the #metoo movement was a topic of focus, another issue was discussed among some of the delegates; the role of science within investigative journalism.

Newsroom’s science and environment editor Eloise Gibson says the tools used by investigative journalists are ones science journalists should be using all the time. They need to know how to use the Official Information Act, how to press government officials for answers, and how to understand financial accounts.

Typically, science and the arts are considered to be mutually exclusive. Eloise explains this is because there’s an idea there are two types of people: ‘word’ and ‘numbers’ people. Journalists are considered to be the former.

But this isn’t always true. Eloise always considered herself a word person and doesn’t have a background in science; however, she finds herself writing science-based stories on a daily basis, from water quality and climate change to farming and the dairy industry.

She says if you don’t understand the topic, “get your sources to explain it to you – it’s good for them and for you”.

Investigative journalism, at its essence, is research. Data editor with the New Zealand Herald Chris Knox thinks most scientists would be surprised at the amount of effort, checking and testing that goes into an investigative story, much like a scientific experiment or research project.

Being a journalist and having a background in science has its advantages, says Chris, who has a PhD in chemistry. For one thing, it is easier to relate to the scientists whose story you’re telling and makes you familiar with what is being talked about.

While scientists are taught to write up their research, they might not be experienced writing for general audiences and as a result science stories are often filled with complex information. This creates a constant challenge for journalists to present scientific information in an easy-to-understand way to their readers.

The ability to communicate science well remains an important skill. As Donna Chisholm, editor-at-large for North & South and senior staff writer for the Listener puts it, “science is at the heart of understanding everything about our lives”.

So does science just get put into the too-hard basket for most people? Donna thinks perhaps it does. Like Eloise, Donna has never been a scientist, but has learnt on the job, saying journalists need to be “jacks of all trades”.

Science is intrinsic to many journalistic fields – Donna typically reports on health, and social issues but says a third of her stories have a science aspect to them.

A story about blood testing, for example, should teach the reader how to interpret results and provide answers to their questions.

Donna shares one of her most important stories to date – when she helped to free David Dougherty, a man wrongfully convicted of the rape of an 11-year-old girl. The interpretation of DNA evidence by scientists used to exclude Dougherty was key to his acquittal. While this story seems to masquerade as a tale of crime and justice, in fact, it was the science behind it that freed an innocent man.

Having more scientists in journalism will improve the way we’re able to cover scientific events, as Chris believes it is an under-represented view in most media.

It is important to enable journalists to evaluate claims being made by scientists themselves – rather than relying on the scientist’s claims, or the university public relations machine.

“There’s a lot to be said for encouraging scientists to be journalists – not necessarily as science journalists, but as journalists in general. They can take their perspective into a whole load of other fields.”

He’s not wrong – in journalism, there are roles for people with different backgrounds and training. Encouraging this diversity only helps to increase the quality of our journalism.

Having a background in science only acts to enhance your perspective of the world. As Donna said, science “tells us why we live and die, teaches us to understand our bodies”.

Truth be told, reporting on science can be as rewarding as breaking the Hit and Run saga, or the Paradise Papers. And in fact, the journalists involved in these investigations would have used scientific methodologies, which goes to show science permeates every aspect of our lives.

Zahra is a journalism student at the University of Canterbury and attended the Centre for Investigative Journalism Conference with the support of the Science Media Centre.