APS News

Physics and Journalism: Different as Night and Day

Each year the APS sponsors two Mass Media Fellows through a program run by the AAAS. This past summer the two APS Fellows were John Veysey and Zerah Lurie. These two articles relate some of their experiences.

John VeyseyBy John Veysey

I published ten articles in the last two months. In physics, a profession that measures people by their publications, that should make me eligible for a job, an award, or at least a gold star.

I spent the summer as a journalist. But ten weeks ago, I knew nothing about newspapers. I won an APS fellowship to become an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, and spent the summer as a science reporter in Milwaukee.

My undergraduate thesis was on neutron detection. I've almost finished a PhD in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. But after only a three day orientation, I reported to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I'd been assigned.

By the end of my first afternoon—even before getting computer access!—I was told to cover a press conference given by EPA Administrator Leavitt. I panicked, interviewed, wrote, and saw my story published the next day.

Not many people ever read or understand anything written by a physicist. APS News has about 40,000 readers. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sells millions of papers each week. Over the course of the summer, my editor taught me how to write for a wider audience; she knocked science off its pedestal.

Good research doesn't always make for a good story.

Throughout my fellowship, I struggled to write the beginning, or "lede" (pronounced "lead") of my stories. Trying to write on a deadline, I often neglected the lede, planning to revisit it after finishing. But this often failed, with my editor sending me back to "take another crack at the lede."

I learned to see the differences between my good ledes and my bad ones. I needed to become a better writer, to craft a hook to catch the reader, and to drag them into the story. But that was the easy part.

More importantly, I had to understand that a casual reader doesn't approach the story in the same way that I do. As a scientist, the first thing I wanted in a story was the "idea", then a detailed explanation, and finally what the implications might be. An intimation of "cool" research is enough to make me read a story. But that doesn't play in Peoria-or in Milwaukee.

My editor made me change my writing, putting the essence of the story up front, immediately explaining why this science mattered, what had been done, and what the implications were. In a few sentences, I had to convince the reader that the research was relevant, not cool.

It's humbling to realize that people don't automatically care about science. But as a result, I've learned not merely to explain interesting science, but to explain why science is interesting. Publishing in a newspaper is a lot more fun than writing for academic journals.

My editor decided it "was time for another story on tornado safety," and I reluctantly wrote a story weaving in facts with an account of a couple who survived the destruction of their house by sheltering under the stairs in the basement.

A week later, I received a call from an elderly woman who shared her enjoyment of my story. She even cut it out and put in on her wall. That doesn't happen when you publish in Physical Review Letters.

Plus, she said that my prose was lucid and simple. For a well educated academic like myself, that's really an accomplishment! In graduate school, my research covers about one topic a year, but in mind numbing, hair pulling detail. Science reporting forced me to dive into two or three disciplines a week, sometimes even within one story. Over the summer, I covered everything from exotic species ecology to Native American archeology to aqueous geochemistry. I even wrote an obituary. It's a whole lot of fun to learn something completely new every few days, and it's a challenge to make sure you correctly understand the research.

As a reporter, I cold-called many scientists, largely ignorant of their research. Nearly everybody I spoke with was kind and helpful, taking the time to explain their work. Understanding takes time, but I know how to learn. It took me even longer to craft a story which would interest the general public. But I'm only a budding journalist.


Not So Different After All

Zerah LurieBy Zerah Lurie

Whenever I tell people that I am studying journalism but I used to study physics, the usual response is "That's quite the change." I have always wondered whether there was a big difference between the two and after spending the summer as one of the APS's two Mass Media Fellows, I can better answer that question.

Getting a couple of physics degrees was, let's be honest, difficult. You have to put in many hours of work where you are looking intensely at different problems in order to find solutions. In physics, you get an idea, or are given a question, and then investigate it until you come up with an answer. But journalism can be a lot like that too.

I spent this summer working at Newsday, a Long Island based daily newspaper that is the 10th biggest in the country. I was the seventhscience journalist there and they put me to work right away. One of the first things they did was tell me that they wanted a story about antibacterial soaps.

I have a background in particle physics. I did my undergraduate degree at McGill and then went to the University of British Columbia where I got my Masters degree working on the BaBar collaboration at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. I know, among many other things, the mass of the muon to 4 significant digits by heart. Why did they ask me to do a story about antibacterial soaps?

But I have spent the last year doing a Masters of Journalism degree also at the University of British Columbia and as a science journalist, I should be able to write about all things scientific.

Still, thanks to my background in physics, the way I approach an article is as if my editor just gave me a thesis project.

And what's the first thing you do when you get a thesis project? A literature review.

So I looked through various journalism and scientific databases to see what was already written on antibacterial soaps. I found that there are two dominant themes in the literature: there is no research showing that antibacterial products keep you healthy and, there is a fear of antibacterial products producing super bugs.

I took these two statements as my hypothesis and moved on to the next phase; the research. But journalists don't do research themselves and instead I have to interview other people who do. Using a list of sources I found in my literature review, I called up various people and asked about the latest research, looking for evidence to prove or disprove my hypothesis.

The latest research showed that the most common antibacterial agent, triclosan, used in approximately 70% of antibacterial soaps, works using a similar mechanism as antibiotics.

Even though resistance to triclosan has never been proved in the lab, the scientists warned it is only a matter of time. As an experimentalist, I appreciated that the fear is theoretical but this bias forced me to include a representative of the soap and detergent association making the same point.

Then there were researchers from Columbia University who recently did a study following two sets of families, one that used antibacterial products in their homes and one that didn't. The research found no significant difference in the rates of colds and infections between the two groups—pretty conclusive I thought. But, at the same time, the soap and detergent association doesn't claim that these products will make you healthier, but rather that they will kill germs, which no one disputes.

Finally it was time to write the story. I took what I had, added in a couple of facts, like how a survey found antibacterial products control 45% of the soap market, and added a couple of quotes like "society is afraid," from Howard Markel, a doctor and professor of medical history. And that was my final thesis (or article as they call it in journalism). I submitted it for publication and it ran as the cover story for Newsday's health insert on July 20th.

So after a summer of experiences like this, I have decided that physics isn't that different from journalism after all.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette