New York Times’ James Gorman lectures on how to cover the science beat

James Gorman, a science writer for The New York Times, spoke Monday to an audience of mostly journalism and science students at the Otto M. Budig Theatre in the University Center at Northern Kentucky University on the difficult task to cover the science beat.

Looking like a scientist himself with long gray hair and black-rimmed glasses, Gorman — who doesn’t have a background in science — explained to an attentive audience the difficulties of writing about a complex subject, such as science, for a general audience.

“Scientists are trying to get their ideas across,” Gorman said. Journalists need to tell them to describe how their research works in a way that an audience, who is not familiar with the subject of the research or research methods, can understand.

Otherwise, how will the average reader understand something as important as the mapping of the human genome, for example? Or be interested in the social structure of baboons?

Using his reporting on the social structure of baboons to explain how to do just that, Gorman explained that the journalist’s job is to make the reporting interesting by inserting some elements that resonate with the audience. For the baboons story, he compared the Alpha male baboon with actor Daniel Craig, the current James Bond.

Writing about science and medical research is one of the most difficult journalistic assignments but also the one with the most importance today and in the future, according to Gorman. Issues such as climate change, technological innovations, renewable energy sources, stem cells, electric vehicles and space exploration dominate the media, and journalists need a proper knowledge of science to separate fact from fiction.

Gorman has a degree in English but he said he took some science courses later when he realized that he was going to write about it. He emphasized that, besides speaking the English language, journalists who cover science need to be familiar with the language of scientists and medical researchers.

Science is full of explanation and you can’t explain what you don’t understand.  A science journalist should have “knowledge of research methods, basic mathematics, correlation and causation, placebo effects, and mainly statistics,” Gorman said.

Developing a relationship with scientists as sources is important to report complex research. “Do not be afraid to ask dumb questions,” Gorman advised. Scientists want their research to be out there and they will spend time explaining their methods to an inquisitive reporter.

The reporter, however, needs to translate that explanation with simpler text, so it will not alienate the general audience. To avoid over-simplification of a research text, frequently check with scientists who you are writing about, asking them for examples that could clarify obscure terms in their research paper.

Gorman said that, after his baboons story was published, scientist Jeanne Altmann, the senior author of the research, told him she wished she could have been better “coached” in how to talk with reporters so she could have explained her research better.

Referring directly to the science students in the audience, Gorman said that “you should be thinking about how to deal with journalists who are going to publish your work.”

Justin Branham, a graduate from University of Kentucky now pursuing a Ph.D. program at NKU, said that the best advice he took from Gorman’s lecture, was to consider a metaphor:  “As a scientist I should ask myself, ‘If I were in a bar how would I explain my research to a buddy I just met?’ This mental exercise forces us scientists to think of the imperative findings and tersely summarize,” Branham said.

Asked about possible causes of disconnection between science articles and readers, Gorman agreed that there is a general level of distrust for authorities among the public. In addition to that, organizations that campaign against science usually do so for political reasons.

Journalists are trained to write balanced stories covering all sides, but it doesn’t always work for science writers. Most of the time science does not have the final world or the findings of research are not true at all. It’s an on-going process that needs investigation. For instance, in research about the pharmaceutical industry it is hard to find unbiased sources because usually the funds for the research come from big laboratories, which make the product being tested.

“Accuracy of findings is the responsibility of the reporter and not of the copy desk,” Gorman said.

With all the hardship that involves reporting science, Gorman said that “the process is fascinating” because the challenges of writing about the complexities of what can change people’s lives.