The Science of Journalism

Analysis, interpretation, multiple and complex projects, data, computer-assisted reporting. 

This sounds to me like the job description of a research scientist. Actually, I pulled these keywords from two job postings by National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington, D.C. They’re looking for the next Washington Desk Correspondent and Senior Investigations Editor, not a scientist.

But the processes of conducting scientific research and writing a news story for print or radio are quite similar.

The scientist and the journalist are interested in a particular topic, say the influence of environmental toxins on human health. First they read up on what others have said about that. They may have their own opinions about the subject, but they do their best to separate their own beliefs from the hard facts.

Then they go out and collect data. They may look into areas where there is a high concentration of environmental toxins and asses the health of people living in the area. The scientist may recruit people to come into the lab and run some tests. The journalist may talk to the same people about how they feel about living in a place that may be hazardous to their health.

Next, it’s time to make sense of the data. The scientist will run statistical analyses. The journalist will transcribe interviews and try to find a story in their notes.

Based on the data, they will come to a conclusion. Is there a significant correlation between levels of environmental toxins and the health status of people living in the immediate area? The scientist will report findings in a research paper manuscript. The journalist will draft an article for print or a script for a radio report.

The scientist then sends the manuscript to some academic journals for review. The journalist sends the article to some newspapers and radio stations.

The journal and news editors take a look at the submission and decide if it’s worthy of publication. If it needs work, the paper or the news article gets sent back with comments to the scientist or journalist to revise. The exchange continues until the editors are satisfied.

Once published, they can celebrate! Not for long, though, because science and journalism build on previous work in the field. Unanswered questions need to be addressed through further research and reporting.

The scientist and the journalist essentially follow parallel steps to their finished products. They even share a lot of the terminology.

I think this is why science journalism is such an important niche – the scientist and the journalist have a lot they can learn from each other and both are better for it in the end.

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