Category Archives: Media

Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?

 

Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.

PressThink:

The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, ScienceDebate.org managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.

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Image: Nadja Popovich

3 Science Questions to Ask U.S. Presidential Candidates

As you may already be aware from my previous posts, The Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab have teamed up to push a project called The Citizens’ Agenda into the media discourse surrounding the U.S. presidential 2012 election. The idea: find out what you–the citizens–want the candidates to be discussing over the next four months – usually meaning questions of substance about policy rather than horserace and gotcha questions so pervasive in mainstream media.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for the Scientific American community to provide us with the three most important science-related questions that they would like to see the candidates asked by the media or during presidential debates in the fall. The Scientific American community is one (actually the first to have this finished) of a number of topical communities providing questions. Naturally, our readers are interested in science, so we are focused on  the science topics here.

Our Facebook page post soliciting question received over 120 comments (as well as 104 Likes and 61 Shares). The blog post itself got an additional 18 comments. We asked you “What three science questions do you think the U.S. presidential candidates should answer before we vote on November 6?” and since some comments included multiple questions, we got a grand total of 246 questions!

I am extremely happy with the quality and quantity of the submitted questions. You took this seriously and came up with a number of excellent questions.

An informal scan of the questions leads me to categorize questions by focus. There are: questions that ask for candidates to state science facts; questions that ask candidates’ stances on hot and politicized science issues; questions that ask about the role of science in governing; and fun/silly/provocative questions

There is value in all four types of questions. Each one of them is multi-layered and is actually trying to examine the following:

- are candidates reasonably educated in basic science?
– are candidates well informed about current understanding of various aspects of the world?
– to what extent will candidates apply scientific knowledge and advice by scientists in shaping policy, as opposed to interest groups that may or may not adhere to empirical knowledge in their agendas?
– to what extent will candidate’s style of governing resemble scientific method: observing and studying the world as it really is (as opposed to what one wishes it to be), collecting and analyzing data, and applying best available remedies to the problems?

In short, all the questions are trying to get at this core issue: are the candidates reality-based?

But for purposes of our effort, we also had to classify the questions by topic.

Interestingly, the topic of greatest interest, judging from your responses (23 questions clearly and solely in this category), is Science Education – its value, its role in society, the role of federal government in regulating it, and the need for its reform and funding. Interestingly, Role of Government in Science (22 questions) is also mostly about science education, so we fused the two categories into one.

This question, by our reader Cherry Kersey probably captures it the best:

How important do you feel science and science related education is in young children and how would you affect change so that U.S. students are competitive with the rest of the western world in these key subjects?

Some other examples are:

Do you think that promotion of critical thinking is a primary goal of education?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

From media reports, it seems the U.S.  lags behind many other developed countries in protecting the populace from harmful chemicals and substances. Our laws and regulations seem to be designed to protect business interests first and foremost, and only to protect the populace or environment when it has been clearly proven (for example, from a lot of people/animals dying or being sickened by something that has been on the market for a number of years) and there is public outrage. What would you do to address this?

How will you help the USA recapture its #1 place in the STEM sciences, and how is education part of this important agenda?

Do you support evidence based education? If not, how are we to improve education? If so, how soon can we get rid of No Child Left Behind, which had no pilot?

What is the cost of American college education relative to its value to students and to the nation at large? Please describe that cost/benefit ratio in terms of its distribution throughout the current population of students who are in college or who are about to attend. Is that ratio favorable or unfavorable? If less than favorable, what actions would you recommend as President to make it more favorable?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

Can the decline in U.S. ranking in science be directly attributed to the anti-science policies of today’s conservatives, and what affects will the continuation of these policies have on the standing of the U.S. as a leader in science in the future?

Do you believe the federal government should place more emphasis on increasing the number of young Americans who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or not?

Are you going to seriously fund scientific research? How will science help you develop policy? What are you going to do to make the benefits of scientific research benefit the American people?

In your opinion, who gets to decide the truth of a scientific concept? The people, the experts, or the well-funded?

What are you going to do to increase the number of scientists in office, ensuring the people making scientific decisions are in fact qualified to do so?

Will you support reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment to aid officials in proper evaluation of complex scientific issues? If not, why?

How will science help you develop policy?

What government body do we have to thank for the most inventions applicable to modern daily life in the last 50 years? (Answer is NASA)

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The second topic, with 18 questions focusing entirely on it, is Evolution, still a hot topic in this country. Our chosen question is by our reader Joseph Yaroch:

Explain why you think voters should care about your stance on evolution.

Here is a sampling of some other related questions:

Do you understand the role natural selection has played in the development of complex life over the last several billion years?

What is your opinion on the debate of evolutionary theory vs creationism?

Do you accept the theory of evolution? If so, do you accept that simply saying so is counter-intuitive to our current legal financial subsidies binding church & state?

Do humans and apes have a common ancestor?

What actions will be taken on school boards across the country that are eliminating scientific evidence of evolution from the curriculum?

Are you willing to defend separation of church and state and support the teaching of evolution in schools?

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The third most exciting topic to our readers, with 17 questions clearly and solely in this category, is Climate Change. The most representative question comes from our reader Eli Hernandez is:

Is global warming and climate change significantly and negatively affected by human industrial and fossil fuel consumption activity and if so what is our Government’s Role and Responsibility in mediating a solution?

Some more examples:

What should the US role be in controlling climate change and what would you do to advance it?

Even the most devout global warming advocates grudgingly admit that proposed regulations would only delay the inevitable (if global warming is in fact occurring), while the political/economic costs of such regulation would be devastating to the United States. Are you factoring the cost vs. the benefits of global warming regulation in your policy decisions? Will you publish this analysis?

How does the greenhouse effect work, and do you think that humans are interfering with its proper function?

Do you accept the scientific consensus on climate change and what policies do you propose to prevent and mitigate its effects.

Do you agree with over 90% of the world’s climate scientists that humans are at least CONTRIBUTING to global warming?

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The topics that follow are Space Exploration, Energy, Science Funding, Environment+Sustainability, Economics, GMOs, and general science questions (of the “what is an electron?” type), as well as a number of other categories with just 1-2 questions.

Finally, there was a “Silly” category, with only 12 questions (yes, guys, you were serious about this project!). Our favorite in the Silly category is this one, by nouseforaname.

Was Jar-Jar [Binks] possible through evolution?

Now I really wish someone would ask that question in the debate!

~~~

Now that the questions are out, watch the The Guardian U.S. site for updates. Spread the word. Let’s all try to push for these questions to actually get asked of the candidates in the debates, or in other media outlets.

What 3 Science Questions Do You Think the Presidential Candidates Need to Answer before November 6th?

 

As you may remember from back in February, the Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab teamed up to learn what all citizens think about the upcoming election, not just those who care about politics with a capital P.

Back then, the questions were posed to the candidates in the GOP primary race. Now that this race is effectively over, it is time to shift focus to the general election.

Now we want to ask the science-loving Scientific American community to voice their questions, ideas and concerns with what’s been missing from the national conversation so far. What do you want to know before you cast your vote this November?

Other (media) organizations will tap into their own communities to identify questions relevant to their interests. We want to her you, the STEM community, as to which science, engineering, technology, medicine, environment and technology-related questions you want to see asked of the two major party candidates.

So tell us: if you could pose a question to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what would it be?

Give us your own question and “like” your favorites from fellow Scientific Americans on our Facebook page, and we’ll publish the top three both on our site and The Guardian’s Citizens Agenda.

Add your three suggestions to our Facebook page by Tuesday at noon.

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How to break into science writing using your blog and social media (#sci4hels)

Yesterday I skyped into Czerne Reid’s science journalism class at University of Florida to talk about breaking into science writing as a profession, and especially the use of blogs and social media as tools for accomplishing that goal.

Just a few days before that, as a part of our regular Question Time in preparation for our panel at WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, we tackled the same question:

What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?

Rose Eveleth collected and organized the responses we received on Twitter (using hashtag #sci4hels), but here I’d like to provide, all in one place, a bunch of links to resources, other people’s thoughts about it, and a few brief thoughts of my own.

Ways of becoming a science writer

There are two basic trajectories: one more traditional, which I like to call “vertical”, and the other one I call “horizontal” which, though it happened with individual writers for a long time, seems to be a much more frequent, if not dominant trajectory these days.

The vertical trajectory is the one taken by people who, perhaps from a very early age, knew they wanted to become writers or journalists, perhaps specifically science journalists. They major in journalism in college (perhaps double-major in a science as well), work on their school paper, start internships early in their local papers (or radio or TV stations), then go to a Master’s program in science journalism. By the time they graduate from that, they already have lots of experience, several internships, many clips, perhaps some local awards, and are ready to start making a living as staff writers or freelancers.

The horizontal trajectory describes people who start out in science, with every intention of making a career in research. But, as tenure track is now an alternative career in science, most science students need to find other options. Some of them – those who always liked to write, wrote diaries as kids, etc. – will explore the option of becoming science writers. The most direct horizontal trajectory involves starting a science blog while still doing research, becoming known for good writing there, then start pitching stories for online (and later print) magazines, and gradually leaving the lab bench and starting to make a living by writing alone. Brian Switek, John Timmer and Ed Yong are probably the best known examples of people who took this path. Heck, I am one of those examples, too. Many more are somewhere along that trajectory right now.

Of course, those are extremes, too neatly cut apart. Many people will do something in the middle, combining the two approaches in some way. For example, they may pursue a career in research while also taking summer internships at science magazines, or editing the science section of the college newspaper. Some may major in science, then go to j-school for Masters. Also, not all of the new entries into science writing are young. Sure, some make the switch after college or Masters in science, but others make the switch later, after getting a PhD, or finishing a postdoc, or after years of teaching as adjunct faculty with no hope of ever getting a tenure track position, or even after many years as full faculty, once grant money dries out and there are no more resources to keep running the lab.

Either way, there comes a time when one becomes a professional science writer/journalist and has to make a living that way. What does one need to do to succeed?

Understanding the new media ecosystem

It is important to be aware that 20th century media ecosystem is a very unusual aberration in the way people communicated throughout history. Means of production were expensive. Very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence.

Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free.

This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There is only so much time and energy anyone can invest into consumption of the media. In the flood of information coming out every second, how does one get science to the audience? Specialized science media outlets cannot see each other as competition any more – they are now collaborators, helping each other toward the same goal: trying to, at least occasionally, displace trivia, Hollywood gossip, and dangerous pseudoscience with good science news. Individual science writers, as equal participants in the media ecosystem, should do the same: replace the notion of competition with the idea of cooperation.

How does a new science writer succeed in this new ecosystem? In the 20th century, one would try to ingratiate oneself with the gatekeepers, the editors. As they are still part of the ecosystem and probably will be for some time in the future, this strategy is still valuable, but it is only one of many. More important, if anything, is to build support networks with your colleagues, peers and buddies. The concepts of ‘Friends in Low Places’ and ‘Horizontal Loyalty’ are not just theoretical – put them to practice.

You may think of two potential career routes: getting hired as a staff writer somewhere (getting harder with each passing year), or to freelance. But there is a third way now: start and build your own media empire.

Huffington Post, DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, BoingBoing started out as unknown person’s personal blogs – after turning into group blogs, then adding functionalities that let readers contribute, today they are media organizations that make money, hire and pay editors, and more. Perhaps your own blog can turn into something like this. But teaming up with your own Friends In Low Places may make such a start-up more successful.

First you have to write

People who want to become professional writers are, I assume, people who always liked to write. Childhood diaries. LiveJournals filled with teenage angst. Long Facebook updates. It’s time to take this seriously and do your writing in a more serious, organized, professional manner. Start a blog. This is your writing laboratory. Start blogging about science. Nobody will know about your blog until you start promoting it, so don’t worry that your early posts are clumsy (you can even delete the first few embarrassing posts later, once you are happy with your blog and start promoting it).

Practice the usual journalistic forms – the feature, the interview, the brief news story with inverted pyramid. You will need to demonstrate that you are capable of writing in such forms and styles. But don’t limit yourself to traditional forms. Experiment with new forms. Explain animal behavior by letting animals have a dialogue. Explain science in the form of a fairy tale, Science Fiction or a poem. Try your hand at photography. Draw or paint or graph your own art, illustrations, infographics, cartoons and comic strips. Put some effort into making a video or animation every now and then. Record a podcast sometimes. Give data journalism a try. Try your hand at learning to code (but see). See what works for you.

Try to figure out your beat (or obsession) – what is it that excites you the most? Write about that. Try to find your own niche. Become a “go to” person on a particular topic, become an expert (or at least a temporary expert) on that topic.

Ignore the “professional” advice about having to blog daily. It was a necessity a decade ago, not any more. In the days of RSS feeds and social media, it does not matter for your readers any more – they will find your posts no matter how infrequently you post. It only matters for you and your own writing habit that you blog with some regularity.

Also ignore the “professional” advice about writing relatively short blog posts. Leave that for brief news articles. Blog posts are longform, at least most of the time. And longform works online much better than short articles – the traffic keeps on giving for years, as people rediscover long posts, see them as resources, and share with their friends.

Also important to remember: You’re A Human, So Write Like One. How do I write? First I read and study the topic. Then, I compose text in my head (usually during dog walks, often over a number of days, sometimes even months), imagining I am explaining something to a good non-scientist friend. Then I sit down and quickly transcribe that. Quick proofread. Click “Publish”.

Like every other skill, writing needs practice. Write every day, something, anything. That’s what makes the blog useful – you have a platform for your words every day. You’ll get better. When you write something for publication, watch carefully what the editor changed in your manuscript and learn from it. Read a lot of good writing, paying attention to how other writers accomplish their goals.

The hard-line “never write for free” slogan is a hold-over from some old, outdated times. Early on in your career, you will write for free quite a lot, especially on your blog. Your blog becomes your portfolio, your PR material. As you become a professional, you will learn how to reject offers to write for free, and will mostly write for pay. But even then, there will be times when you will want to write for free – on your own blog (or your Mom’s neighborhood newsletter). You will want to experiment with a new form, or a new topic. Or you will want to write something that would be hard to sell. Or you wrote something on commission, got rejected, got paid your kill-fee, and now want to see your work out there, meeting the readers.

Or, if you are a natural born writer, every now and then there will be a story inside of you, fighting to burst out of your chest and get expressed in words or visuals, and you won’t care if it’s paid or not, you want it out, and your blog will be there waiting for just such pieces.

Getting started with your blog

It’s easy. Go to WordPress.com (or some other platform, but WordPress has recently become a standard and is probably your best bet) and start one. Pick a name (and a URL) that is catchy, memorable yet informative about the main topic of the blog. Make at least some minimal effort to make it look pretty. Fill out the ‘About Me’ page, put buttons for your various social media accounts on the sidebar, and provide a method for readers to contact you. Start posting.

Get in a rhythm – decide you will post something on your blog every day or every week and stick to it. Sometimes, it will just be a few links or a YouTube video. Other times, you will write something more substantial. Start with book reviews – those are relatively easy. Do Q&As with scientists. Cover new papers in “ResearchBlogging” fashion. One day a seriously good post will come out of all your daily thinking in the shower and during dog walks.

Learn about science blogging, its theory and history. Learn about best blogging practices. Learn about the ethics of online writing and blogging, including the ethic of the link and the ethic of the quote.

If you make a statement, link to the source or to additional information. If you quote somebody, provide the link to the original context (including audio file or transcript if you yourself did the interview). A quote with a link increases your trust with the readers. A quote without a link decreases your trust with the readers – it’s a red flag that you are trying to manipulate them. And always try to link to the scientific papers you write about, even if they are behind paywalls.

Decide if you want to have commenting on your blog or not, and what kind of (technological and human) comment moderation you need. Come up with your moderation policy. Be prepared to be present in your own commenting threads in order to keep them constructive.

Another option is to join a group blog. Double X Science, Last Word On Nothing, Deep Sea News, Southern Fried Science, Science-Based Medicine, Real Climate, Biofortified and Panda’s Thumb are a few examples of excellent group blogs with high visibility, which authors can use as springboards for their writing careers. This reduces the pressure on any individual blogger to post with high frequency, as collectively they will produce plenty of new material on the homepage every day.

It is also OK to just write guest posts on other people’s blogs. A number of science blogging networks have designated guest blogs for just such occasions. We here have two such blogs – Guest Blog and MIND Guest Blog – but other bloggers on the network may also sometimes accept a guest post.

Even if you run your own blog, it is not a bad idea to occasionally write a really good one for a Guest Blog on a media-owned network. A post on our Guest Blog counts as a clip in your portfolio, is highly visible, will show up high on Google searches for your name, and thus will serve you well as your promotional material when you start pitching or applying for jobs.

You can find a number of good links about getting started, and about running your blog, on this wiki page.

Get some professional training

If you are further along in your career (e.g., research career) you may feel too old to waste another year or two of your life by going back to school. But if you are younger, e.g., just out of college, you may want to consider getting a Master’s at one of the specialized Science, Health and Environmental Reporting/Writing programs. There are several excellent programs to choose from, e.g., NYU, UCSC, MIT, UGA, UNC, USC, City University (London), UW-Madison and several others.

If that is too long (or expensive) for you, spend a summer at a science writing workshop, e.g., Banff or Santa Fe.

Or, if you are still in school, take some writing or journalism classes despite not needing them officially for your major.

Try to get an internship, perhaps in one of the popular science magazines. Nothing prepares you better than learning on the job.

Attend meetings with professional writing and journalism workshops, talks, panels and discussions, e.g,. ScienceWriters (NASW/CASW), ScienceOnline (either the annual flagship meeting in Raleigh, or one of the growing number of satellite events), AAAS annual meeting, SpotOn, or WCSJ. Use the opportunity to get to know (and get known by) editors and others whose careers are well in advance of yours, but also to meet your own peers and start forming your own posse of ‘Friends In Low Places’. Many of those events also have “Pitch sessions” where you can pitch your story ideas directly to editors.

Start reading, regularly and closely, sites that discuss journalism (especially science, environmental and health journalism), provide writing tips, provide media criticism, or provide information about unreliable scientific papers. These should probably include KSJ Tracker, CJR Observatory, NASW, Nieman Journalism Lab, The Open Notebook, The Science Writers’ Handbook, Embargo Watch, Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview, SpotOn Blog, Communication Breakdown, and right here – The SA Incubator (I’d have listed the NYT Green Blog here, but sadly, it is now dead).

Read good science blogging by setting up ScienceSeeker as your homepage. Find out which blogs you like, subscribe to them, post comments, perhaps start out your own blogging by emulating their style until you develop your own.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If a blog post is published in a forest,….?

OK, you’ve been blogging for a while and now you are happy with your posts. You are ready for readers and their feedback. How do you get the readers to your blog? Good readers, with relevant interests and backgrounds, those who can provide valuable feedback?

First things first. Make your blog an official science blog by applying to have it aggregated at ScienceSeeker. ScienceSeeker is a portal for science writing and blogging, a result of fusion and then further development of Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org (COI: I am one of the founders of ScienceSeeker, which is a ScienceOnline project). It keeps getting developed and adding new features.

Neither Google Blogsearch nor Technorati are good at filtering science blogs. They pull in spam blogs, blogs with a science tag that have no science content whatsoever, as well as blogs that push pseudoscience, anti-science, medical quakery and other silly or dangerous nonsense. As only approved science blogs can be found at ScienceSeeker, it has unofficially become a ‘stamp of approval’, a way to filter out the noise and focus on the quality content that one can filter in various ways, from topical filters, to only posts covering papers, to ‘Editors’ Picks’. A number of journal publishers and media organizations are now using ScienceSeeker to get metrics on how much their articles were blogged about. In its effort to preserve science blogs for posterity, Library Of Congress is using Science Seeker as the filtering mechanism guiding their decisions what to preserve. So get your blog on there. It will bring you reputation, traffic, and just the right kinds of readers to provide you with feedback.

Nominate your posts for various awards and collections, e.g., Open Laboratory, 3QD science prize, ScienceSeeker Awards, Science Studio (podcasts and videos) and others. This will give them visibility as people check out all the nominations.

Register and become a respected user on sites like Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, Stumbleupon and/or Fark. Be sure you know their policies well (e.g., Reddit will let only a small proportion of your links be to your own work). Don’t waste too much time on those sites, but you can use them to find interesting links to share, to share other people’s work, and to occasionally share links to your own posts and articles. If one of your posts catches fire on one of those sites, make sure your server can take it, and be present – you will be busy for a few hours moderating comments, deleting especially obnoxious, snarky, nasty or idiotic ones. But some comments will be good, and a small proportion out of those tens of thousands of visitors will bookmark you, keep coming back and will become your regular readers.

Have a nice-looking homepage (you can make it with WordPress, or use a specialized platform like About.Me, or pay a designer friend to make you one). Your homepage should have a short, easy to remember URL so you can shout it out on the street and people will be able to spell it, remember it, and find it later when they go online that night. This is your single most important URL that you will place everywhere – on your business cards, and on profile pages on all the social media and other sites that let you have a profile. Everywhere you are online should link back to your homepage. And your homepage should link to everywhere else you are online.

Your blog can serve as your homepage, or be a prominent and central part of your homepage. If not, make sure your homepage prominently links to your external blog. Make sure your homepage has a well written and accurate About/Bio page, contact information, link to your CV, and your Portfolio with links to all of your published work (perhaps your photography or videos or art on separate tabs). And of course, provide links to all the social media where you have accounts.

If you are lucky, you will be invited to join a blogging network, which makes your blog even more visible. If you are VERY lucky, you will be invited to move your blog to a media site as a blogger/columnist, like Ezra Klein at Washington Post, Nate Silver at NYTimes, or the Phenomena quartet at National Geographic.

If you are just embarking on the professional career in science writing, we can help right here at The SA Incubator. Khalil and I post our weekly “Picks” – if you have written something you are proud of, don’t be shy to send the link to us. If we like it, we’ll link to it. Then we may ask you to do one of the “Introducing” Q&As, a great opportunity to present your past career, skills, links and goals that will turn out very high on Google searches once potential employers start googling you.

The necessity of social media

There are many social networks out there, some general some specialized, as well as platforms which include some social media elements. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, Picassa, YouTube, Vimeo, DeviantArt, Instagram, Pinterest, FriendFeed, Branch, Quora, Goodreads, MySpace, LiveJournal, Orkut, Diaspora, SoundCloud, Slideshare, Storify, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Mendeley, FigShare, CiteULike, and many more. Which ones to use? I suggest you use one or two that fit you best, but also take a few minutes to set up profiles on many other networks. That way, people who find you on those sites can click on the link and find themselves on your homepage, where they can see where you are really active.

This wiki has a lot of great resources for starting out and using a number of those sites professionally, as a scientist or a science writer. Pay special attention to the pages about Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, as those are the three biggies you should probably pay most attention to.

Let’s focus on Twitter now. It is essential for a journalist. Not having – and using – a Twitter account today is like not having an email address ten years ago (and yes, some cutting-edge people are completely abandoning email and doing all of their communications over social media).

Big companies have suffered losses because their old-timey PR teams were unaware of the backlash on social media, and then incapable of responding correctly on social media. Businesses can lose money if they are missing key information that appears only on social media. Academia is especially horribly insulated and way behind the times. But nowhere is use of social media as important as in journalism. Don’t be this guy who was completely oblivious that his newspaper was in the center of national maelstrom of harsh criticism, because “I only deal with what’s on paper”.

When an airplane skidded off the runway in Denver, I knew it, along with 100,000s of other people, 12 minutes before everyone else. A passenger tweeted about it, and it spread like wildfire, including his updates, blurry photos, etc. CNN had a brief piece 12 minutes later. The accidental “citizen journalist” scooped them. Sometimes, for some news, these 12 minutes may be crucial for you.

Twitter and Facebook were key methods of communication not just between participants, but also to the outside world, during the Mumbai attacks and the Arab Spring.

People got jobs and gigs on Twitter that started their careers.

Journalists on deadline quickly find expert sources for their stories.

Journalists who observed the massive, instant, intense and scathing reactions of experts to #arseniclife or #Encode did not make the mistake of filing their positive stories and then having to backpedal later.

If all you see on Twitter is garbage, you are following the wrong people. You have to carefully choose who to follow, and then learn how to filter. Unfollowing is easy, and polite. You are not dissing your Mom, as if you would if you unfriended her on Facebook.

Don’s use Twitter.com. Use an app. There is a lot of outcry right now (by myself as well) about the imminent demise of some Tweetdeck apps (version 0.38.2 is by far the best, if you can have it and keep it indefinitely – other apps are OK on smartphones, e.g., HootSuite or Twitterific). It is important to me not to have Twitter/Tweetdeck as yet another tab in my browser, a place where I have to go and spend time. Twitter is not a site to go to and spend time on. Twitter should be a part of the workflow, silently running in the back, behind my open browser.

Tweets show up in the corner and 99% of the time I do not even notice them. I am busy with something else, and I mentally block them out. But I have a “search image” (a term from ethology – a bird does not systematically scan every inch of tree bark, instead it has a search image for the shape and color of its prey insect and automatically homes in on it). If a tweet shows up with my name in it, or a specific word in it, or by a specific person, I will notice and take a glance. If there is nothing important, I only lost 1/10th of a second and can go back to what I was doing. If it seems important, I will Favorite the tweet (if unsure of the quality of content) or Retweet it (if it comes from a trusted source), so I can have it saved to read later. If it seems important and urgent, I will click through and investigate. Perhaps this is information that is more important to me than whatever else I happen to be doing at the time. And even then, I will probably spend only a few minutes on it before returning to whatever I was doing before.

In Tweetdeck (or any similar app), one should have a number of columns – move them around: the default position may not the the best one for you (I move “All Friends” far away to the right so I don’t have to see it almost ever). Mentions and Direct Messages are your more important columns, but also make several that follow Lists (your own, or other people’s), or display tweets that contain particular words or hashtags (your “Saved Searches”). I will add a column for an event hashtag while the event is on, then delete the column afterward. Play around until you refine your filtering this way.

Here are some good lists to get you started – follow them, and also follow some of the listed people directly – you decide who is useful to you:

ScienceSeeker Members
Best mindcasters I know
Young Smart Newsies
Top Journalism Linkers
Young science writers
ScienceOnline 2013 attendees
Blogs and bloggers on the Scientific American blog network
SciAm Contributors

If there is something I’d like to tweet out, that is easy, too. No need to go to Twitter. Get some kind of Bit.ly or AddThis bookmarklet for your browser and you can tweet any link in two clicks (perhaps with a little editing, to add/remove stuff from the tweet so it’s just the way you want it).

What kind of stuff you can – and perhaps should – do on Twitter? There are several different things. First, you can just use it to find information, to pick up good links, or to eavesdrop on conversations. Treat it as a river of news – sometimes you dip in, sometimes you go away. You won’t miss much while you are away. If information is really important, it will have staying power – many people will still be linking to it, retweeting it, and discussing it next time you log in. If you missed it – it’s not important.

You can, of course, post your personal musings, but if you are going to use Twitter like a professional, keep that to the minimum. I bet less than 1% of my tweets are in this vein.

You can retweet others. Your followers do not see everything tweeted by everyone you follow. Twitter is very asymmetrical – you don’t follow those who follow you, not automatically. You follow those who are useful to you, and you are followed by people who find you useful. Thus, if someone tweets, and you retweet, this will be fresh to many of your followers. If they RT in turn, they will spread it to their followers and so on, in concentric circles, spreading the message out further and further. A tweet can go a long way.

You can engage in conversations. It’s OK to butt into other people’s conversations, but be polite and be useful and constructive. If you know the answer to someone’s question, provide it. If you are at a University and have library access, you can help your freelance colleagues in search of papers – they will use the hashtag #Icanhazpdf (but first carefully read the comment section of this post to understand the legal, moral and etiquette aspects of it).

You can be a useful filter for others. Post links to good articles and blog posts. Everyone tweets links to NYTimes, BBC and The Guardian – you don’t have to. Instead, set up Google (and Google News and Google Blogsearch) alerts for the keywords in the domain of your expertise and interest. It can be “watersheds” or “science+superheros” (one of mine is “circadian”, naturally). Some of those links in the alerts will be very interesting, yet from obscure publications. People will soon realize you are the “go to” person for that topic. Follow a few good by less-well-known blogs. Tweet out links to their posts.

Broadcast links to your own posts. But do it politely and judiciously. Tweet once in the morning. Then again that day “for the afternoon crowd”, then once next day “for those who missed it yesterday”. That should be sufficient. DM (direct message) the link to a few people with more followers than you have but who are aware of you and know who you are. Ask them to take a look, provide feedback, and they are likely to retweet it if they like it.

Here are some quick rules you should memorize on how to be a useful and respectable contributor to social media.

And finally, if you are really well organized and dedicated, you can truly use Twitter as a part of your journalistic flow – from individual tweets, to aggregations of tweets – both your own and replies you got (e.g., on Facebook or Storify), to longer blog posts, to magazine articles, to books.

Moving on to Facebook, the strangest animal of them all, undergoing a metamorphosis every year or so, often abruptly changing people’s privacy settings, expectations and experiences. That makes many people uneasy about it.

You have to be sensitive that there are two main styles of Facebook use. One is personal, the other is professional. It is perfectly OK to keep settings to ‘Private’ and to friend only family and best friends, share vacation pictures and not much else. It is perfectly OK if you prefer to use it that way. But perhaps you should set up another Facebook Page for your professional outreach. This is where you post interesting science links, urge other scientists, writers, journalists and bloggers to follow your page. Keep the two worlds separate.

Many people, including myself, do not separate the two worlds. Yes, I occasionally post personal stuff, but I mainly post links to science stories on my personal profile, which is set completely on ‘Public’. I have many FB friends, and of them many are not inherently interested in science. By being my FB friends, they get served their daily dose of science anyway. Many are thankful for this. This is the so-called “push” method of science communication, where you push science onto unsuspecting audiences. The reverse is “pull” method, in which people who are already interested in your stuff will know how to seek you and find you if they know your stuff is good (people interested in science know where to look for Scientific American).

There is a lot of scientifically incorrect information floating around Facebook. One of your roles can be as a “downer” – the person who brings in a link to the scientific information that corrects the pseudoscience. And yes, your aunt may get really angry at you because of it, but at least some of aunt’s FB friends will learn something from your link, perhaps share it elsewhere.

And now the elephant in the room – Google Plus. It is not easy to figure out what it is and how to use it and how to find good stuff on it. But if you are using any Google product (e.g., Gmail) you are already on G+ even if you are not using it. Thus, it has tons of people on there already. And unlike some past Google experiments (like Google Buzz and Google Wave), this one does not appear to be going anywhere – it is here to stay, and it’s a monster. I have more G+ subscribers than Twitter followers or FB friends. Most of them have zero background in science. The least you can do is throw some science links at them, even if you do not have time to engage further. Lots of traffic comes from there, so it’s worth a second or two to plop in a link.

What is important to know is that scientists, science bloggers and writers were some of the early invitees to the Beta version of G+ before public launch. They have explored the platform from the very early days. There are many of them there, and many are active. They are experimenting with new functionalities, especially cool uses for Google Hangouts. Find “Scientists” circles and start following people. Even if you don’t engage with it fully now, keep an eye on it, keep your presence on it, I would not bet against Google that this will wither and die.

Next step

You are writing every day. You are blogging regularly. After six months of regular Twitter use, you now have some followers and interaction. Perhaps you joined a popular group blog or even a blogging network. You have a few guest blog posts elsewhere, perhaps a few clips from school or local papers, or when you did an internship. It’s time to start pitching.

Different editors have different preferences for pitches. But many will explore your blog, your prior clips, your social media activity (potential employers for staff jobs will do that very thoroughly).

If you pitch me for the Guest Blog, for example, and I have never heard of you before, you need to write me a longish, polished pitch. Show me that you can write, that you can write a pitch just as perfectly as you will write the article itself later on.

But if I know you from your blog, from Twitter, perhaps some previous work, you don’t need to do that. You can DM me on Twitter with a very brief pitch and I am likely to say Yes.

Now go and write.

Stories: what we did at #WSF11 last week

As you probably know, I spent last week in New York City, combining business with pleasure – some work, some fun with friends (including #NYCscitweetup with around 50 people!), some fun with just Catharine and me, and some attendance at the World Science Festival.

My panel on Thursday afternoon went quite well, and two brief posts about it went up quickly on Nature Network and the WSF11 official blog.

But now, there is a really thorough and amazing piece on it, combining text by Lena Groeger (who also did a great job livetweeting the event) with comic-strip visualization of the panel by Perrin Ireland – worth your time! Check it out: All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science

More about the trip and the Festival still to come…

Update: See also coverage at Mother Geek.

Is education what journalists do?

We had a great discussion this afternoon on Twitter, about the way journalists strenuously deny they have an educational role, while everyone else sees them as essential pieces of the educational ecosystem: sources of information and explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young. Also as sources of judgement in disputes over facts.

While journalists strongly deny their educational role, as part of their false objectivity and ‘savvy’, everyone else perceives them as educators – people who should know and then tell, what is true and what is false, who is lying and who is not. People rely, as they cannot be in school all their lives, on the media for continuing education, especially on topics that are new. And people are then disappointed when, as usually happens, journalists fail in that role by indulging in false balance, He-Said-She-Said reporting, passionately avoiding to assign the truth-value to any statement, or self-indulgent enjoyment of their own “skill with words” in place of explaining the facts.

Fortunately for you all, you do not have to wade through all the tweets to see the entire discussion, as Adrian Ebsary has collected it all using Storify – read the whole thing (keep clicking “Load more” on the bottom of the page until you get to the end):

Informer or Educator: Defining the Journalist’s Role

As you can see, while there is some snark and oversimplification here and there due to short format, the discussion was pretty interesting and constructive. This is also a demonstration that useful discussions can be had on Twitter.

Whenever someone says “you cannot say anything in 140 characters” I respond with “who ever said that you only have 140 characters?”. To their quizzical look, I add “You are not limited to one tweet per lifetime – if you need 14,000 characters, you can write 100 tweets”. But, by writing 100 tweets, and making sure that each tweet – not just the collection of 100 – makes sense, has punch to it, and is hard to misunderstand or misquote out of context, one has to write and edit each tweet with great care. Twitter does not allow for sloppy writing!

Picking a theme for a few hours or days, and tweeting a whole lot about it during that period, is usually called ‘mindcasting‘. But it is even better when a bunch of other people join in and mindcast together – everyone learns something from the experience.

Now read the Storify and, if you have time and energy, respond with an essay on your own blog, as a continuation of the mindcasting process.

Update: And the first responses are in:

Whose Job is Public Science Education?

Are Journalists Educators? Does It Even Matter?

Interview in Italian (but you can listen in English)

About a week ago I was interviewed for Jekyll, an Italian science journalism blog. The interview is now up – you can read it here if you can read Italian, and if not, all the audio files are in English, the recording of the phone interview itself, in its entirety. We cover a lot of ground on science blogging, media, etc. Listen/read when you have time.