Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?

Yikes! I have a blog again! The infamous Pepsigate happened about a year ago. Getting off of a network was a relief of sorts – no pressure to post several times a day just to get traffic. I relaxed. I posted mostly announcements, linkfests, stuff that could not go elsewhere. Much of the content I used to put on the blog before – links, videos, photos, brief quips & quotes, etc. – I now place on other platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr, Posterous and the new-fangled Google Plus.

But the blog is still the key place for a particular kind of content: long, detailed, thought-out pieces. Placed on my own blog and nowhere else. This is my “home”.

Over the past year, I wrote a handful of such pieces (I linked to most of them at the bottom of my intro post last week), some on my blog, some on one or another of the Scientific American blogs. But now that A Blog Around A Clock has a new place and a fresh start, I intend to use it for exactly that purpose: long essays. Not too often – perhaps one a week. But I will strive to do it regularly. I probably won’t even have time to do more – apart from running the whole network, I will also write The Network Central and The SA Incubator as well as edit the Guest Blog and Expeditions.

I intend to keep everyone happy at least half of the time by, more or less regularly (no promises and guarantees), alternating between blogging about science and blogging about the media.

As these past several weeks have been busy with launching this great new blogging network (and please, go visit all the wonderful bloggers I invited to write with us), I did not have much time to dig into science news and to read the scientific papers. So I will start out with some musings about the new media ecosystem. Here we go!


A few weeks ago, at the World Science Festival in New York City, there was an entire day devoted to science story-telling. At the very end of the last session of the day, I said:

“The word “story” changes meaning depending on who is talking about it.” – Bora Zivkovic.

I did not have much time to expand on this then, so I will try to put together some more thoughts now, right here, for you to think about and provide me some feedback.

What I did manage to say was captured quite well at the bottom of the post by Lena Groeger:

On a panel all about stories and story telling, it seems appropriate to end with a closer look at what we mean by “story.” Zivkovic emphasizes that the word story can be understood in two very different ways. In the vernacular, “story” is a narrative that builds up slowly and has resolution at the end. The default is fiction, and you have to say “true story” to make sure people understand that it’s based in reality. But for journalists, a story is a filed, fact-checked, 400-word inverted pyramid with the punch line in the title followed by the most important stuff.

The traditional journalist’s story is now in demise. Zivkovic sees it going in two different directions: the river of news and the explainer. On one hand you have the Twitter model, where short bursts of information tell you immediately about what just happened. On the other hand, for those people who want to know more about what those nuggets of news really mean, there are links to explainers. These are articles that provide the narrative and the context for people just tuning in to a story. And explainers really work – Zivkovic said that the explanatory posts published about Fukushima on the Scientific American blogs broke all the traffic records. People were clearly looking for scientific information and explanation of how earthquakes happen, how nuclear plants break down, etc.

A few days before the Festival, I tested the idea on Twitter to see if I get any feedback, especially if I get any aggressive push-back. Most responses were in the “well, duh, yeah” category, so I guess the proposition is not so controversial after all. But let’s get on to a more detailed dissection.

What is a “story”?

According to Wikipedia, “Story is a common term for a recounting of a sequence of events, narrative, or for a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question. It is defined as a narrative or tale of real or fictitious events.” Then, a narrative… “is a story that is created in a constructive format (as a work of speech, writing, song, film, television, video games, photography or theatre) that describes a sequence of fictional or non-fictional events.” And storytelling is “…the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and in order to instill moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view.”

Plot. Characters. Narrative. More-or-less chronological sequence of events. Likely to be fiction (or assumed to contain “improvisation or embellishment”) unless stated otherwise.

The punchline, if any, comes late in the story, perhaps at the very end.

Another way to describe a story: description of a steady state of the world, followed by a description of an event that puts the world into chaotic state, followed by a description of the world in a new steady state.

Or: at the beginning we get a description of pertinent aspects of the day-to-day, uneventful world in which we get to know the characters of the story, including the ‘hero’. Then, something happens that is unusual and forces the characters to act in ways they are not prepared for. Some show their true character. Others are changed by the event. Once the dust settles, we get a description of the new day-to-day existence, in which the setting and the characters are different – changed by the events.

Narrative vs. Inverted Pyramid

The ‘inverted pyramid’ style of writing is taught to journalism students – see the images, and the articles the images came from.

In short, the title is what gives the most important information. The first couple of sentences (the “lede”) provide the next most important information, and so on, with the least important stuff at the end. In many ways, it is the opposite of a narrative – the punch-line goes first, the build-up after.

The beauty of the Inverted Pyramid for the writers and editors is that any article can be chopped up and made shorter (in the interest of space, the paper real-estate) by deleting sentences at the end, without losing too much information. Of course, there is no word limit online. Real estate is endless.

The beauty of the Inverted Pyramid for the readers is that they can decide at which moment to stop reading – when they feel they got enough information – without feeling guilty and without feeling they will miss anything of importance.

You can’t do that with a narrative, where clues can be hidden all along the way, and the grand solution comes close to the end. A narrative requires a different kind of approach to reading: see how long the article is, set aside sufficient time, get coffee, sit back and enjoy reading it from the beginning to the end.

This also means that one has to be much more choosy about narratives as they take more time to read. Either the topic must be very interesting or the author needs to be trusted to consistently provide good reads, for a reader to decide to take a plunge.

Reading shorter inverted-pyramid pieces is much more promiscuous as it is less risky – one can always quit and move on. Which is why readers rarely pay attention to bylines on short, inverted-pyramid pieces – author does not matter. Thus, disappointing the author by quitting reading mid-article is not a part of the calculation, or as guilt-inducing as quitting a longer narrative before the end.

Inverted Pyramid form is more efficient. By skimming the titles and checking in a bunch of short articles, one can get quickly informed about what is new in the world.

But the longer narrative has its advantages despite being slower and taking more time.

First, it is more natural – people have been telling stories for millennia before someone in the 20th century invented the Inverted Pyramid.

Due to being more natural, narrative is more pleasant.

Unlike with Inverted Pyramid articles, in which the reader’s focus rapidly falls off after reading the headline, the narrative sustains focus (it may even rise as the reader progresses through the piece). The reader needs to concentrate better in order not to miss important clues and information. Thus, more information is retained. Thus, narrative form is more educational – readers can actually learn and retain new knowledge, not just get temporarily informed.

Typology of science stories

In a recent post, John Horgan classified science stories into two categories: critical and celebratory. In the circles I frequent, many adopted David Dobbs’ classification into “cool” versus “fishy” stories (roughly equivalent to celebratory versus critical). I tend to classify them into three categories: cool, relevant, and fishy.

Cool stories capture imagination, are unusual, show weird animal behavior, or new fossil discoveries, or exoplanets, or final solutions of old and famous mathematical problems, or discuss Big Bang, etc. They are not of any immediate practicality to the readers, will not change their day-to-day behavior, and in no way focus on the propriety of behavior of researchers. But these stories are a great hook for the readers who will not necessarily seek science stories of their own – the “push” method of science communication – the kinds of stories that are easier to persuade editors to put on front pages (or TV news) and are more likely to be shared among lay audience.

Relevant stories are those that inform and educate the readers (yes, educate) in ways that can help them make decisions about their own behavior: health, nutrition, exercise, educational methods, environmental impacts of everyday living, travel, how to make money, who to vote for. These are the kinds of stories that are most likely to get ‘over-hyped’ by the press, especially if written by generalists (specialist science/health/environmental journalists usually do just fine with these stories, but may not be able to publish them on front pages of the most massive of the mass media).

Fishy stories look into the conduct of researchers themselves. They are not so much about science as about scientists (or the systems in which scientists work, e.g., academia, industrial R&D, defense research, or governmental research). Some time ago, I tried to make a case that these kinds of stories are not really ‘science journalism’ proper, but rather belong in the business or politics or ethics sections – the fact that the protagonist is a scientist may not really be the key to the story, as it can be very similar to banking, or politics, or any other profession. Stories that explore how a few rogue scientists can be bought by megacorporations to defend smoking, or climate change denial, are political stories, rather than purely science stories. They just have a scienc-y component…but so do many other stories as well (or should, at least).

How would a narrative work in these three types? Describing a world before we knew X, then describing the discovery of X, then describing the world in which we know X and how that is different. The three parts: first provides historical context of what we knew until now, second part is the news break about a new discovery, and the third part places the news into societal or philosophical context. The ‘hero’ can be an animal or a planet, or an ingenious researcher, or a rogue researcher, depending on the type of story.

Science in the story: hero or villain?

As Emily Finke aptly reminds us, not all main characters in narratives are heroes – sometimes they are anti-heroes or villains.

In cool stories, science is a hero, and often the researchers as well. In relevant stories, heroism is muted, though may be implied. In fishy stories, the scientist (and sometimes science) comes out as a villain. As important as it is to tell fishy stories, they probably do have a subtle cumulative effect on eroding public trust in the institution of science (hence I’d rather see them on the “politics” or “business” rather than “science” pages).

But the greatest effect on the public, regarding the perception of scientists, comes from popular culture – movies and TV especially. And here it is heartening to observe how much Hollywood has changed over the last few decades. The stereotypical movie scientist was Dr.Frankenstein decades ago. Today, a movie scientist is much more likely to be portrayed as a hero who saves the planet and thus, against the stereotype, acts in a way that reveals great social awareness, if perhaps still not much in terms of social graces and skills (movie-makers have to rely on typology to speed up the audience’s recognition of characters in limited time they have). If you skip the movies and the best-selling books by Michael Chrichton these movies were made from, pretty much all the recent movie fare has scientist-heroes, rather than the opposite.

In her seminal book Narratives of Human Evolution (see also pdf of her article on the same topic), Misia Landau analyzed early 20th century hypotheses of human evolution as competing narratives. In each, a change in the steady state of the world (change in environment), forces the early Homo to become a hero (by evolving bipedality, language, fire use, or language, depending on the story), resulting in a new steady state (the wonderful Us).

As Eric’s wonderful interview with Frans de Waal the other day demonstrates in almost every paragraph, students of human evolution are still keeping the tradition of story-telling alive and well, at least in popular literature, and thus capturing the imagination of the broadest possible audience.

Is a scientific paper a story?

There is often a lot of grumbling about the fact that the rigid format of the scientific paper is not realistically depicting the process by which the scientists come up with ideas, test them, and draw conclusions from the data. It is implied that much more serendipity and surprise occurs in the real world of research than it shows up in the primary literature. This is supposed to be “sterilized”, unrealistic and misleading and there is definitely something to these claims.

But the utility of such a formulaic narrative – and it is a narrative – form is that a paper can be read by many people. The audience for scientific papers, which these days appears to be mainly one’s peers, was originally meant to be much broader – everyone who can read – and is once again returning to this ideal due to freeing up of the work from behind the expensive paywalls in the emerging world of Open Access publishing.

It is everyone BUT the experts in the field who actually read the papers as a narrative. Only the experts had to come up with unusual and convoluted methods for reading (but not writing) the literature.

I know for myself. If I read a paper in my field, I start with the names and affiliations of authors – that already tells me a lot about what to expect. Then I read the References, which tell me much more about what will be in the paper – sometimes everything. Then I read the abstract to get the gist of what the paper is about. Then I focus on figures, which tend to serve as a bridge between the Materials & Methods section and the Results section. Only if the paper is really important (or if I intend to blog about it) I also read the Introduction and the Discussion at the end.

The Introduction is a description of the old steady-state world (which, in my field, I am already familiar with), while Discussion is a description of the new steady-state world that incorporates changes due to the findings in the paper (which I may still tentatively not accept). So it is the event itself – the Results – that I will focus on in order to understand what was done and what it means while minimizing getting biased by the authors’ framing in the Introduction.

But more I move away from my core area of expertise, more and more my reading of the paper diverges from this method, and more and more I tend to read it from start to finish. And then I really appreciate its narrative construction: setting the stage, introducing the characters, describing the event and its outcomes, describing the new world afterward. This is, I guess, how most people read most papers except when reading in one’s own narrowest area of expertise.

If the scientific paper changes from the current static form (a final product with a publication date) to a more dynamic, living form, I assume that the narrative form will be gone as well, but then reviews (or popular articles) will be necessary in order to provide narrative versions for “the rest of us” not actively participating in that particular line of work.

How do readers know what to expect: inverted pyramid or narrative?

For a number of decades – essentially the entire 20th century – the two types of writing were segregated into different containers. Daily newspapers dealt with news, which were mostly brief and written in the Inverted Pyramid format. Weekly, monthly and quarterly publications – magazine – could not keep up with the news cycle and thus devoted their efforts to longer, more narrative pieces.

You pick up a New York Times, and expect to see mostly shorter inverted-pyramid pieces….except the Sunday Magazine. For longer narratives, you go to The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s or, if you are into science, to National Geographic, Scientific American or American Scientist.

But with the advent of the Web, people do not go to the article from the front-page of a media organization they are familiar with. They come to individual articles by following links, often to sites that are too new to be familiar to them. How do they know if it’s a newsy piece or a narrative?

They don’t! And some of the comments I see around the SA site are a testament to this. The readers arrive to an article (who knows from where!?) with one assumption and are disappointed when it turns out to be something else. Then they either complain that there is not enough information, or publicly admit they have zero attention span (or interest in the topic) and post that most arrogant and obnoxious of all comments: “tl;dr” (“too long; didn’t read” – thanks to John Rennie and Alexis Madrigal for reminding me of this last night on Twitter).

Having several generations raised with the segregated containers for different formats of stories resulted in a degradation of the native human ability to recognize them at first sight. Always spoon-fed that ‘meta’ information (the container), they need to start relearning the skill again. Just like they have to start relearning how to filter information and how to figure out who to trust. It may take a generation to recover these skills.

In the meantime, there are some obvious signs. For example, an inverted-pyramid newsy item is likely to be short, while a narrative is likely to be long (the length is not always obvious online and webmasters and designers have to make sure the length is immediately obvious).

Second, the title is often a dead give-away. “X causes Y, scientists say” is obviously a newsy item. A title that is not in present tense, or has no verb at all, is more likely to be a narrative.

River Of News, vs News In Context

The news ecosystem has two important and inter-dependent parts. The first is the concept of the River Of News:

Park yourself on the riverbank and watch the news flow by. If you miss something, not to worry, if it’s important some new story will refer to it.

The other part is News In Context. If you are new to a topic, a short news article will confuse you – you do not have enough background. Perhaps you are young and just getting into the topic, or it just became relevant to you. Where do you pick up the background? What provides the context for the future brief news items so they start making sense to you?

As you may have already guessed, the items in the River are likely to be inverted pyramids. The items providing Context are likely to be narratives. Explainers are narratives.

So, what kind of story can one tell on Twitter?

If you are not a regular reader of Dave Winer, and thus hopefully familiar with his concept of River Of News, then this phrase probably elicits an immediate reminder of an obvious river of news: Twitter.

And here I am thinking of Twitter-the-concept, not Twitter-the-company. Something like tweeting can be done elsewhere, e.g., on Facebook, FriendFeed, Google Plus, etc. But as it is now is the archetype of this, with its simplicity and the sharp 140-character limit.

There has been quite a lot of discussion recently about Twitter, what it is, and if storytelling is possible there.

Of course you are not limited by 140 characters – you can post as many tweets as you want. Often people tag tweets in a series with numbers, e.g., 1/4, 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 so people who miss the first three know to go back and look at them before responding, in bafflement, to the context-less fourth message.

There are Twitter accounts that demonstrate the storytelling ability quite nicely – they take an old piece of literature, usually some 19th century novel or diary, and tweet it in small installments. You follow the account, as if you are reading the book.

Another way to tell a story on Twitter is mindcasting – sticking to a topic of the day (or few days or more) and building on it tweet by tweet, adding links and insights until a more complete story emerges.

There are now also services that help one compile tweets – one’s own or from the community – into a narrative. Storify is the best known example of such services.

Disappearance of the Middle – tweets and #longform FTW!

Go pick up a newspaper. How do you read it? Every word of it from start to end? I doubt it.

In those days past when I was still buying newspapers, this is what I would do. First, remove all the sections I do not care about – Auto, Sports, Real Estate, Food, Classifieds, etc – and throw them in the recycling bin without looking or opening.

Then I’d open one of the remaining sections to see what’s new.

This is filtering – ignoring a huge chunk of the newspaper, just like I ignore huge chunks of the blogosphere and do not follow huge chunks of the Twitterverse. I focus mainly on the topics I am interested in.

OK, so I have opened one of the sections that is interesting to me. Do I read everything? No, of course not. I skim the titles. Just like on Tweetdeck the titles skim by me.

Some titles are not interesting to me. Some titles are interesting, but they contain all the information I want so I do not worry about reading the article under the title.

But every now and then, something piques my interest and I start reading the text under the title. Just like deciding to click on a link in a tweet every now and then.

More often than not, I end up un-satisfied. The article is too short and is missing exactly the kind of information I was looking for. Online, there is a solution, click on additional links to find more.

Occasionally, the headline will take me to an article on something that is interesting to me, but is not my ‘regular beat’, thus I do not have sufficient context for it. I am happy when the article states that the newspaper has additional in-depth coverage in the relevant section (which I may have to go to the recycling bin to retrieve). Just like sometimes good links take me to the areas of the blogosphere that I rarely ever visit otherwise.

The point of this exercise is to realize that for the most part inverted pyramid can be reduced to just the headline. The ultimate inverted pyramid article is a single tweet.

And for those who want to know more than just that one sentence, a short inverted-pyramid article is not sufficient, so one has to look for a longer narrative explainer.

There is not much utility for the short article in the age of the Web, where limits of the paper medium do not apply, thus no article needs to always try to be both a part of River Of News and a part of News In Context – it does neither perfectly. And in the age of the Web, the two can be separated, yet linked by hypertext.

My bold prediction is that the length of a typical article will go in two directions: super-short, just the gist of the news, like a tweet; or super-long, an in-depth, detailed explainer or narrative. Long articles are doing very well these days, are popular and are quite capable of fetching money from their readers who are paying for such quality content quite willingly.

This is also why books will keep thriving. Books are the ultimate explainers. The length will not be dictated by the production, but whatever it takes to tell the entire story, from 30-page Kindle Singles, to multi-tome volumes. What books are bound to have a lot in the future are plenty of hyperlinks all around the text, as well as the ability to link from anywhere online to a specific paragraph of a book.

There is also a pernicious idea floating around (I should find a link to an example, but am too lazy – you’ve all heard this trope) that blog posts are of poor quality because they are short. That idea comes from people who have never seen a blog post. Posts on quality blogs, written by experts on the topic, tend to be much longer than the average newspaper article because they contain much more information. They thus satisfy the need for context. And thus are deemed more trustworthy by the readers.

There will not be many short articles left.

Is there any purpose to the semi-short piece any more?

I am not advocating for killing the short article, or for killing the inverted pyramid as a form.

Likewise, I am not advocating for saving the short article just for the sake of saving a form that a few generations of journalists were trained to use.

I am quite happy to let the market be the selection force that drives the form either to extinction or to evolution. I bet that the latter will actually happen.

In the old ecosystem (paper), short pieces were adaptive. The mid-value was selected for, and extremes of length were selected against. New selective regimen (Web) results in disruptive selection – the mid-size is selected against while both the short and the long extremes are selected for. As the gene flow can happen directly between the extremes (via hyperlinks), the middle can theoretically completely disappear. Though it is likely that some low levels will be retained in the population. What for?

If the length of the article is proportional to the wealth of information available, then some low-information events will require short articles.

See, for example, this article: Police nab runaway elephants at bus stop (thanks to Arikia on Twitter yesterday for this example).

The headline tells me what happened. This may be enough. If I want to learn more (e.g., where this happened, where did the elephants come from, etc.), I click on the link and read the article. It is short, but provides the Where, When, How and Why. It has enough. I assume that local media in that town has more details, but those are only interesting to the locals. I got all the information I needed from that short article.

A Link is Worth a Thousand Words

Another way a short article can be useful is if it is chock-full of relevant links. By “relevant” I do not mean links to dictionary definitions of the words (though these are useful), or links to Wikipedia pages (though these are useful), or to the internal topical pages of the newspaper the article is in (though these are also useful). I am talking about links to explainers, longer feature articles, original documents, scientific papers, raw data in a form that I can re-analyze, graphics, multimedia, links to articles that disagree, etc.

By having lots of links, the short article becomes a resource, a gateway to as much or as little further information as one wants to get. Of course, the same applies with even great force to long articles full of links (like this one you are reading right now).

Clicking on a link and coming to a short article without links (especially if containing quotes without links) is very dissatisfying, lowers trust and raises red flags.You still have to test it (by reading it) – an article describing a very novel idea may not have anything old to link to.

Clicking on a link and coming to a short article with gazillion links instantly raises the trust levels of the article (as well as the person who brought the link to my attention in the first place, so I am more likely to click future links from the same source) and becomes potentially a useful resource to bookmark, save and share. You still have to test it, though – are all those links relevant? Purveyors of pseudo-science, anti-science, non-science and nonsense (like creationists, global warming denialists, etc.)  love to link to articles that state exactly the opposite of what they, in the text, claim they state.

Finally, there will be evolution in another way – inventing new forms, perhaps hybrids. A little longer, but not too long. Pyramid-ish (see image below), but not a complete inverted pyramid – the gist of the story is close to the beginning but not in the headline or the first sentence, and there is plenty of context (and links) for it.

Visual storytelling and letting the readers into the story

There was recently a big debate on blogs about the loss of the article as a unit of journalism with the assumption that the short inverted-pyramid article is all there is.

The idea that the article is dead was understood by many that all there is left is Twitter which, while great for some uses, cannot be the only tool, or the only format for reporting. What many did not get, and what I think Jeff Jarvis alluded to, is that the “article” that is dying is the kind of short, inverted-pyramid article many in the professional media think of as “The Story”.

What Jeff argued, I think, and what I similarly argue here, is that this kind of article has much lesser utility today, off paper and online, but that other forms of articles – the longer, narrative explainers – are here to stay, and even strengthen in quality and numbers. The River of News is here, but so is the Context. What will to some extent disappear, unless it evolves, is the stereotypical 400-word piece that was fine on paper, but is useless on the Web (unless peppered with useful links to longer pieces).

Furthermore, others are arguing that in many instances the idea that the text is the only or the best way to convey information is also outdated. In some cases, the best way to provide information is to provide data (though I argue that data journalism still requires someone to do the storytelling “for the rest of us”, just as in scientific and technical writing I described above).

Also, some information is better conveyed visually, through art, graps, infographics, video, interactive media and games. See how Perrin Ireland turned events into cartoons for us a few times here, here and here. That is a way that many readers would prefer to get their information. That is also the way that is more interactive, and includes the readers in the process. Which is the best way to get the information to be remembered, understood, believed and used.

Watch this:

Isn’t this a wonderful way to tell a story – using a familiar narrative involving familiar characters to teach something else, e.g., science and engineering? Notice it’s not a 400-word inverted-pyramid article. Oh, and I left that punchline for the end.


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