APS News

Writing Workshops Teach Basics of Communicating with Public

"The science community has not taken seriously its responsibility to inform the public."
Physicists with a penchant for communicating science to the public received a crash course in the fundamentals of writing for the general interest media during special workshops held at both the March and April meetings of the APS. Originally suggested by a special APS task force on informing the public, the workshops were hosted by Robert Park, APS Director of Public Affairs, whose weekly electronic newsletter "What's New" reports on science policy developments and other science-related public issues. He is the author of numerous articles and editorials for the general media, as well as the recently released book, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (see APS News, March 2000).

Park drew on his considerable experience and success in this area to offer helpful tips to scientists aspiring to write for their local media, from the generation of an idea to the finished product. Not surprisingly, breaking in is the hardest step in the process. Aspiring writers can either write an Op-Ed and call an editor to discuss and gauge the level of interest, length, etc., or call to "pitch" a potential Op-Ed - something which can be difficult for first-time writers. A guaranteed formula for failure is to send out articles blindly to an editor without making personal contact.

The most common obstacle encountered is a misunderstanding of what editors want in opinion articles, routinely known as "Op-Ed" pieces because they traditionally appear opposite the editorial page in most newspapers. For example, "Arrogance doesn't fly well," says Park, although passion certainly does. He believes that one shouldn't write an Op-Ed unless one feels passionately about a topic, and has something useful to say about it. While an Op-Ed should be more substantive than an 800-word emotional rant, Park says that most physicists have a bigger problem with over-qualifying their statements, watering down their point of view to the point of being ineffective. Op-Eds differ in this respect from the more objective style of traditional newswriting; negativity can be a welcome attribute. "Don't be even-handed," he admonished. "You need to have some bite for an Op-Ed. Don't give the other guy's point of view; give your point of view and only mention the opposition to knock it down."

The ability to "write to length" — that is, produce a specific number of words to fit available space — is a highly valued quality, and over-writing is a common mistake. "An editor knows how much space he has, and sometimes he will edit down an Op-Ed, but he may also reject it because of the extra work," said Park. Editors also tend not to accept "pleading" articles simply asking for more funding because "science is good." There needs to be a powerful issue under debate to draw their interest. Park has found that the strongest hooks tend to be related to safety or effectiveness of consumer products, such as the power line cancer scare or magnet therapy. While these might not form the substance of the Op-Ed, they are a good "news peg" to draw the interest of the reader and concretely illustrate one's points, he said.

"Don't be even-handed ... you need to have some bite for an Op-Ed."

Of course, jargon should be eliminated, and such articles should focus mostly on simple concepts accessible to the general public. "Physicists are so accustomed to thinking in physics principles, it can be difficult to put themselves in the shoes of a general reader ignorant of those principles," said Park, and suggests vetting draft articles with non-physicists. "Physicists are afraid to make it simple, because it won't sound sophisticated enough, but you can never over-simplify" when writing for the public. Unlike addressing an audience of physicists, snappy sentences that encapsulate complex issues and deliver emotional impact work best with the general public-a skill Park has developed through years of experience. Above all, an Op-Ed should tell a story. "All good writing is story-telling," he said, adding that it is much easier to weave in illustrative anecdotes with a consumer hook. Local news can also provide a useful hook for local publications, which can then be extended to a broader science-based issue.

Given the rise in so-called pseudoscience over the years, Park believes scientists have a social obligation to become involved in communicating with the public, and that the problem is with them, not the public's scientific illiteracy. "The science community has not taken seriously its responsibility to inform the public," he said, pointing out that many non-scientists cannot read the simplest graph and don't understand the basics of energy conservation. "But that doesn't lessen our responsibility. The public is completely defenseless (on matters of science) without our input, and we haven't been doing this very well."


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