USA Today writer explains the importance of collaboration between scientists and journalists

Kassidy Stricklett, Reporter


On Oct. 22, NKU students and staff participated in a video conference with USA Today writer Alison Young.

Young offered tips and resources for aspiring journalists and scientists on how to collaborate to create large stories and coverage about scientific issues.

Young is known for her multimedia story “Ghost Factories”, which examines old lead factories in the US that could have contaminated the soil where children are playing in the area.

According to Young, “Ghost Factories” took 14 months to research, write and put into a multimedia package.

“This was a project that was pretty massive,” Young said. “And it’s a very unique project. We were mixing the very old and we were going into archives and using dusty musty old books, records and maps and then we were also using cutting edge technology.”

Young, with the help of others, investigated 460 old lead smelting sites individually which also required being on the road for almost two months to complete soil testing at some of the locations.

When on site Young and her team used XRF analyzers to scan the soil for potential lead. The XRF analyzer scans the ground in 80 seconds and provides a reading of what metals are in the ground and how much of that metal is present.

To make sure she was getting the correct readings with the analyzers, Young relied on help from Dr. Howard Mielke, a research professor at Tulane University who specializes in environmental signaling and human health.

“The key in being able to do science ourselves was that we had to have really good science advisors,” Young said. “And Dr. Mielke was critical in that, in terms of helping me figure out what is the best way for us to come up with a valid soil sampling methodology that basically serves the interests of our readers but also is defensible from a scientific perspective as to what we are doing and what we are saying about it.”

According to Young it is very important for journalists to be able to translate and understand scientific jargon to the audience of a story.

“I think what journalists should be able to do in regards to topic, is immerse themselves in it and be translators of that topic,” Young said. “And so this issue about the jargon is becoming so familiar with what it is that you are writing about that and you are able to translate it. And sometimes that means talking to someone like Dr. Mielke.”

Junior environmental science major Alberto Baez, thinks that it is very important for scientists and journalists to join forces and create stories like “Ghost Factories”.

“We need that because we have a lot of complicated and very complex topics that they [journalists] talk about,” Baez said. “ For some people, they don’t understand the topics, so they [journalists] need to learn and be able to start speaking about the skills and explain it to those people in a very efficient or clear way.”

While Young says that collaborating with professionals is important she also thinks that it’s important to listen to the “little people”.
“You know what, listen to little people,” Young said. “Listen to people who are in communities, they may not have degrees but they really may know what’s going on…if we don’t do it, there may not be anyone else who does.”