APS News

November 2008 (Volume 17, Number 10)

Mass Media Fellows Describe Their Experiences

Editor’s Note: Each year APS sponsors two mass media fellows, typically graduate students or graduating seniors in physics or a closely related science, who spend eight weeks over the summer working as science journalists in a program administered by AAAS. This year’s fellows were Carrie Nugent, who is a graduate student at UCLA, and Zoe Buck, who received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton last spring. In these articles, the two fellows let APS News readers know how they fared in their journalistic debuts.

How to Succeed with the Media

Here’s a short list of tips for dealing with the media, from me and the science writers of The Oregonian. You just have to remember four things:

• Be able to summarize the significance of your research in a sentence. Keep it simple and avoid jargon. Imagine that you are talking to a tipsy person at a noisy bar. Feel free to practice this on tipsy people in noisy bars. No, really, give it a try.

• Realize that newspapers have only limited space (and radio programs limited time). Don’t give a reporter preprints of your last ten papers.  

• Analogies are gold. Journalists need to simplify concepts, but it’s easy to oversimplify and lose details. If you can supply an analogy or a simplified explanation, you can help ensure your findings are presented correctly.

• Respond to reporters as soon as you can–they may be working on a tight deadline. An hour or two can be the difference between making your voice heard and being too late.

Sharing the Love in Oregon

By Carrie Nugent

I ran to my editor.

“Susan! Lizards! I'd like to write an article on lizards.”

“Ok, Carrie,” she said.“What's the news about lizards?”

I was at a loss. There wasn’t anything newsworthy that week on lizards. In fact, there are barely any lizards in the great, generally wet state of Oregon, where I was working for a newspaper, The Oregonian.

As a scientist, I become enraptured with an idea for its own sake–but that doesn’t make it news. And newspapers only contain news.

I know, it sounds obvious. But as my ten weeks progressed, I’d interview scientist after scientist who would make the same mistake. Seeing how a newspaper works from the inside will undoubtedly improve any future dealings I have with the media. It was also an awesome way to spend the summer.

During my summer at The Oregonian, I didn’t find any news about lizards, but I did drive through hilly central Oregon, where my car's brakes failed. I saw volcanoes, Saturn’s rings, and a 30,000-species aphid collection. I met a man who will identify any insect–dead or alive–that is mailed to him, a woman who travels the globe collecting bacteria samples, and a Canadian who nervously drove around New Hampshire with a collection of homemade birdsong players that look a whole lot like bombs.

I worked side-by-side with some of the most talented and intelligent people I have ever met.

I overcame my awkwardness on phones. But not before my words jammed and I asked a prominent ecologist about his work on elves in national parks–instead of his work on elk and wolves.

The most rewarding articles I wrote, however, were not the ones that involved adventures or curious personalities. Instead, it was the series of home science experiments that can be performed for under five dollars. Many of the experiments I learned from my college physics professors. They were fun, they were easy, and they taught good science.

They ran next to the advice columns.

People loved them. I got calls from grandparents who did the experiments with their grandchildren. A woman excitedly shared her childhood memories of an experiment. Teachers offered new experiments and variations.

People love science. You love science. Journalists take your work and tell people about it. So be kind to reporters–they’re just sharing the love.

Finding True Love in Carolina

By Zoe Buck

I was all about astrophysics for most of my life. I saw myself discovering new stars, spending long nights in the control rooms of great telescopes, and publishing esoteric tomes dedicated to the obscurer aspects of stellar structure or neutrino cosmology. I applied to only one university, Princeton, because of its astrophysics program, diving into the curriculum head first. But after spending my undergraduate years doing research science, it occurred to me that I wasn’t having fun. Everything I loved about stars and planets was lost as I coded into the early hours of the morning and banged my head up against Einstein’s field equations. This was not, as I had previously believed, my “thing.”

As graduation loomed and I struggled to find my footing, the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship caught my eye. Science reporting seemed like a good blend of my strengths. I had a background in hard science and a passion for sharing things with people. Perhaps such a fellowship might reveal my “thing.” 

So there I was, in Raleigh, North Carolina, a city I had never visited, working in the newspaper industry, a medium I had absolutely no experience in.

The Raleigh News & Observer, where I had been placed, had no science, medicine or health reporter, so I took over all three beats immediately. My first byline appeared my third day at the paper, and I was soon pumping out published stories four or five times a week. I got to appear on the front page multiple times, and even got a few front page spreads. The readership was thrilled to have someone covering science, and they responded with letters, emails and phone calls. It only took about two weeks before I was hooked.

I was given fairly free reign, and reported on everything from a cutting edge dog prosthetic surgery at the local vet school to exciting developments in cancer research at one of many nearby universities. I reported on boobies who murdered their siblings, synthetic red blood cells, irrigation alternatives and polluted reservoirs. I got to talk to dozens of brilliant Raleigh scientists and doctors.

The journalists at the News & Observer were warm and welcoming. Having only a science background, I knew nothing of their lingo and craft, but they were eager to help. From them I quickly picked up the basics of reporting and a strong set of journalistic ethics. I was hoping to have an opportunity to stay at the newspaper, but unfortunately the economy and industry conspired against me, and the paper was unable to hire me.

It’s a tough time to be falling in love with journalism of any kind, a fact I learned quickly at the News & Observer. While I was there 10% of the work force was laid off, with another chunk let go only weeks after I left. The rest of the newspaper industry is in a similar state.

Still, the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship definitely showed me my “thing.” I love astrophysics and science, but more than doing it, I love to learn about it and tell people about it. I am currently working as an astronomy teacher at a non-profit science camp in California, and I am having a blast. This summer’s experience allowed me to pinpoint what I love to do, and how I can make a difference in the public’s understanding of science.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan

November 2008 (Volume 17, Number 10)

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Articles in this Issue
Public Affairs Report Examines Nuclear Weapons Policy
LaserFest to Celebrate 50 Years of Laser Innovation
2008 Nobel Prize Goes to Nambu, Kobayashi and Maskawa for Work on Broken Symmetries
APS Awards First Industrial Physics Prize to Philip J. Wyatt
Bringing a Sun to Earth: Briefing Explains ITER Fusion Experiment
Board Passes New Policies on Unit Newsletters, Committee Funding Requests
Meeting Briefs
Mass Media Fellows Describe Their Experiences
Noyce Scholarships to Aid Selected Physics Teachers
MGM Recipients Achieve MacArthur Trifecta
Physics Bachelor's and PhDs Continue to Trend Upward
Inside the Beltway
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science