APS News

Mass Media Fellow Learns "Nuts and Bolts" of Journalism

Ilana Harrus' Raleigh News & Observer presscard.
Ilana Harrus' Raleigh News & Observer presscard. Courtesy of Ilana Harrus

Conducting interviews, writing news articles, and scouting out solid story ideas became part of a typical working day for physicist Ilana Harrus, who spent last summer as a science writer for the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina as an APS Mass Media Fellow. In the process, she says, "I came back with a better understanding of the problems faced by journalists in their daily coverage of science, and impressed by their fairness in writing and reporting on difficult subjects." She credits the experience with reinforcing her desire to become a full-time science writer.

The APS Mass Media Fellowship program was developed by the APS Forum on Education in 1995 as a vehicle for improving public understanding and appreciation of science and technology. It provides an opportunity for physics students or physicists who are early in their careers to work over the summer as science reporters at radio stations, television stations, newspapers and magazines throughout the country. The American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows program acts as matchmaker to place the APS fellows with host media organizations.

Harrus earned her PhD in physics and astrophysics from Columbia University in 1997 and had just completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics when she applied for the APS fellowship. As a media intern, she found herself employing the more general analytical tools of her science training rather than any specific knowledge of physics, although she found her statistical background useful for an article on statewide school test results, for example. And, she discovered, "Journalists can be just as passionate as scientists about their work, and I found that enthusiasm is contagious."

Despite her regular contributions to several publications, Harrus had never written for a daily newspaper, and lacked formal training in journalism. As an intern, her education was swift, and very much a trial by fire. She credits News and Observer science writer Jon Franklin with taking the time to work with her one-on-one on an early story and helping her develop some of the "nuts and bolts" journalistic skills required.

Harrus is currently debating whether she would prefer to write about science for a general audience or for a more targeted scientific readership. She is drawing a clear distinction between science writing and what she terms, "journalism which happens to be about science." Initially, she plans to focus on freelancing for science publications, but clings to the hope of one day writing again for the general public. "There is so much joy in understanding complicated concepts," she says. "There must be a way to transmit this joy, and not just the illusion of it, to a large number of people."

Initially approved for a trial three-year period, the APS Council unanimously approved the Mass Media Fellowship program as an ongoing APS activity last May. "At the end of their fellowship tenure, whether they become full-time journalists or return to traditional science careers, the APS mass media fellows will serve as a resource for the physics community to facilitate and enhance our communications with the media and, ultimately, the public," says Jim Wynne, program manager for local education outreach at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, who also serves as forum councilor for the FED.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette