Journalists don’t need a science degree to get the facts right when it comes to covering climate change, health and medicine, or new technologies.
We asked Nidhi Subbaraman, science reporter at The Wall Street Journal, for strategies to build sources within the scientific community and approach complicated topics in ways that resonate with readers.
What are your top three tips for reporting on complex scientific studies for a general audience to understand?
Subbaraman: First, scientists who conduct a study are almost always willing to talk on the phone with a reporter. I often ask: What inspired their research, when it hit them that they were really onto something big, how they might describe their work to a friend at a bar, how this latest work is newer or better than what came before it. Those questions quickly nail down the What’s New and Why It Matters, and places the new stuff in the context of a discovery story.
Second, the reference list of a scientific study is essentially a roster of outside experts on this exact topic. These other scientists are usually willing to serve as outside expert comment — look to them to kick the tires on the study. They’ll point a reporter to a study’s real breakthroughs while flagging its weak spots. That reference list is a good place to find someone who can zoom out and describe the state of the field, including why this new work matters to non-scientist readers and what happened before it to get us there.
Third, scientific conferences are a great place to meet researchers just before they’ve presented their latest work. New results are often shared at these talks before they’re published in a journal, so it’s a chance to jump the competition. They’re also great events to very quickly immerse yourself in a field and get to know the scientists leading it.
What’s your approach to covering big, overarching topics like climate change in new ways that connect with readers?
Subbaraman: Climate change is often described as a future problem, but the reality is that … many communities have already changed [in] a warming world. The stories that have brought climate change into sharpest focus for me are those that have zoomed in on such places and told the stories of people navigating this change now.
In your opinion, what are the climate stories that are not getting enough attention right now?
Subbaraman: Scientists are beginning to define the scope of the health toll that a hotter, dryer, wetter, more fiery world will exact. I think there will be room for more reporting on this soon.