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How to turn science into great journalism

Posted: April 14, 2016 | Tags: Freedom of Information



Photo by Rich Press

From left: Rick Young, David Hoffman, Deborah Blum, Doug Pasternak and Louise Lief talk to the DC Science Writers.

Many science writers are curious about investigative journalism, but unsure how to proceed. 

At the recent Professional Development Day of the DC Science Writers Association, the largest regional gathering of science writers in the country, a panel of award-winning  journalists and investigators discussed how to identify, pitch and develop science-themed investigations for general audiences. 

The panel, which I organized and moderated, also explored how new digital tools are transforming investigative journalism, and how to identify and build productive relationships with investigators and watchdogs. 

Develop a storyline

Speaking to a packed auditorium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, David Hoffman, Washington Post contributing editor and PBS FRONTLINE correspondent, identified a central challenge science writers face. 

“Scientific reports are the antithesis of storytelling,” he said, to nods in the audience. “When do you see a narrative arc? Almost never.”  

Hoffman, who with FRONTLINE senior producer and IRW collaborator Rick Young has produced three FRONTLINE segments focusing on public health issues, described how they developed storylines. 

In 2012 Hoffman unearthed a health sciences journal article that, uncharacteristically, told a compelling detective story. An antibiotic resistant “superbug” had raced through the National Institutes of Health, killing and sickening many. Standard epidemiology could not explain why or how it spread. But when scientists used genomics to track the bacteria's path, they made startling and unexpected discoveries.

Hoffman wrote an eight-page pitch memo to FRONTLINE, but headquarters sent it back with a series of questions. Who are the central characters? What is the big concept we are talking about? What is the narrative arc that will support an hour-long documentary? 

Hoffman rewrote his pitch, presenting it as a broader story of spreading antibiotic resistance and the promise of genomics. This time they accepted it. 

That story led to two more related stories, the most recent a 2015 report on salmonella outbreaks in chicken. Again, Hoffman and Young needed to present it to headquarters as more than a science story about food poisoning. They sold it as a tale of accountability, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's outdated inspection regimes that fail to test for deadly pathogens, putting the public at risk. 

The basic elements

Deborah Blum, director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program, broke down investigative reporting into its basic elements. “To a large extent, investigative reporting is pattern recognition,” she said. “What patterns am I seeing that others aren't?” Flushing out the pattern often becomes the story.

Blum approaches science stories like the beat reporter she once was. When she worked at the Sacramento Bee, her investigative series “The Monkey Wars,” on conflicts between scientists using primates for research and animal rights activists, won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting. 

Her advice when people refuse to talk? Blum described the “dartboard approach” former Newsday investigative reporter Robert Caro used to research his acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Power Broker," a biography of New York’s powerful and media-hostile “master builder” Robert Moses.

Moses, the dartboard’s “bull’s eye,” wouldn’t talk. Neither would his inner circle. So Caro started at the dartboard’s outer rim, speaking to the urban planners’ casual acquaintances and moving ever closer to his target. Toward the end of Caro’s research, says Blum, pressures had built to the point where Moses called Caro to request a meeting.

Blum also discussed working with whistleblowers and the tips that can launch an investigation. “The people who are most likely to leak tried to raise a problem and didn’t get answers from the system.” They seek out reporters, she said, who appear reliable and fair.

Young and Blum noted that industries are not monolithic, and that some companies find it in their interest to speak to the press about a problem and how they are handling it. Young cited the example of Cargill industries, which spoke to FRONTLINE about their poultry recall and used the occasion to call for better USDA inspection standards. 

An easier way to do FOIA

Freedom of Information Act requests can play a big role in investigative stories, but many journalists, especially freelancers, find the prospect daunting. Blum recommended a new collaborative news site as a simplified way to file multiple FOIA requests. can also turn a journalist’s material into a database. Vice News is currently working with 

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program, which also hopes to work with, has just launched a new magazine, Undark, to look at aspects of science, journalism and society. It will link to publicly available, science-themed databases, and will do investigative stories as part of its portfolio. 

Former NBC investigative reporter Doug Pasternak, now chief investigator for the House Democratic Staff Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Science, Space & Technology, spoke last, about the government’s oversight role. Even as a Hill investigator, he says, he needs to develop a storyline to produce reports that will raise public awareness. 

He says he sometimes learns of issues and problems from journalists, as was the case with an investigation he did about the CDC’s role in Washington D.C.’s lead water crisis in 2004. In that instance, Pasternak learned about unexplained discrepancies in the data.  

Pasternak also encouraged the science writers to explore the many non-science resources Washington has to offer for investigations. The Government Accounting Office, government auditors’ conferences and watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight provide a wealth of material and networking opportunities. 

The overall message of the panel to the science writers: Give it a try.

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