Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Making the case for science in the mainstream

A journalist reflects on what its like holding onto her scientific past and trying to get more science into mainstream news. Some tips and tricks for others doing the same.

By Kelly Tyrrell


Sometimes, I feel like such a journalist, I forget I was ever a scientist.

But then I start to talk and the word “constitutive” comes out of my mouth. And I realize I still know waaaay too much about charge-charge interactions and protein folding and DNA transcription.

It’s not a bad thing that I have embraced my chosen career, I think. I really, really love what I do. But it helps to remember where I came from, so I can continue to do what set me on this path in the first place.

Back when I was “still a scientist” (I’m not convinced you can ever stop being a scientist), I noticed whenever I told someone I was a scientist, far too often, their eyes would get big, they would make a remark about how smart I must be and then they would glaze over, recalling some horrible grade in middle school biology that convinced them science wasn’t for them.

But science is everywhere and it belongs to everybody.

My challenge as a science (and health) reporter for the only statewide newspaper in Delaware (small, but mighty!) is to help people see that, without anyone telling them.

Certainly, my writing will never directly engage a person in science, which by nature is a very hands-on endeavor, but if I can help make it an iota more accessible, or teach someone something new, or make the S word an ounce less scary to people, I have done my job.

It’s not always easy to do this. In a story I wrote for the Health section of my paper today, I wanted to help people understand some of the biology underlying melanoma. Anyone can write an article about how scary melanoma is and highlight preventive tips, but it’s not often you read about how UV exposure leads to melanoma.

The trouble I ran into was defending my decision to include the science in the story. And I really didn’t include that much. Here is what made it into the story (or you can read the full article here):

The light from the sun and tanning devices leads to changes in genetic material leading to small point mutations – changes to only one or two letters of the genetic code – that build up over time, said Dr. Katherine Nathanson, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Damage accumulates faster as UV exposure rises.

“Every one of our cells is repairing thousands of genetic changes a day. … UV damage is making them go into overtime,” Nathanson said.

When UV light invades the outer surface of skin cells, it triggers the release of pigment into the skin cells, making skin appear darker.


As I read this today – the story was published the same day as this blog post – I notice that someone, my editor, the copy editor, has removed much of what I had written. And that’s the struggle sometimes. There is certainly some science in here, but not as much as I had hoped. I had explained why the pigment, which I identified as melanin, was released, forming an arc-like, protective umbrella to shield DNA from further UV damage. I explained that it happened through a complicated pathway of chemical signals.

During the first round of editing, my editor asked me: “Does the reader really need this?” He was ready to hack it out completely, much to my chagrin. So I told him, not in so many words: No, the reader does not need this. The reader could entertain themselves with a piece of public service journalism and walk away knowing that melanoma is bad, like they’ve heard a thousand times. Or the reader can pick up something new in the stream. Maybe knowing how the cancer gets started, how UV from tanning devices and the sun leads to damage to cellular DNA and how that actually translates to a tan or burn, maybe that will make them think twice. And it will certainly advance their understanding of basic biology, no matter how immeasurable.

In the end, and after far less campaigning than I expected, my editor shrugged his shoulders and left it alone that day. He thought perhaps it was too complicated. I thought he was underestimating the reader. (Plus I took a very complicated process and boiled it down in the most relatable way I thought possible).

This is not a plug for me; I am low on the science communication totem pole. But I hope in sharing my experience it can help others think about ways to get more science into unexpected places. You can’t win them all – scientists know how hard it can be to pitch their own work to journals, grant agencies, colleagues … things aren’t always that different in journalism.

So how can someone help get more science into mainstream news? Here is a brief list of tips and tricks I have found helpful:

  1. Look for opportunities to get science into breaking or current events news. For instance, introduce theories scientists have for the way tornadoes form when writing about Oklahoma, while emphasizing that it’s a work in progress (as all science is). Highlight some of the technology behind Google Glass, rather than just detailing its super-cool features. Or pick something people care a lot about – their health, their children, their jobs – and find a way to write explanatory journalism with science at its core. I wrote about CRE – the antibiotic resistant superbugs the CDC and European health agencies got riled up about earlier this year – and used it as a way to introduce how bacteria become antibiotic resistance and even to explain why some resistance to an antibiotic is a good thing. It made it to the front page and was our top-read story online that day. The science can be the focus, or it can be as simple as a line or two. But enrich your writing by using science as a means to an end as well as the end itself.
  2. Be ready to defend your science writing. Some science can be uncomfortable for even the best editors, especially those worried about page views and re-tweets and “engagement.” But good science leads to compelling narratives, and people are often more interested than we give them credit for. Help your editor see this, explain it’s your background or your mission or your style and to leave it out does everyone a disservice. Make sure it really would.
  3. It’s not what you put into the story, it’s what you leave out. This piece of advice came to me from the man whom I credit with my career as a journalist: Ron Seely, former science and environmental reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. To illustrate this, in my one and only “formal” journalism class, Seely limited us to half a page for explaining transcription and translation to a lay audience. Go ahead and try this for yourself. It forces you to get to the point and make it understandable and relatable  There will always be another detail, another study, another piece of information that you think valuable. It’s science, of course there will be. But it isn’t all necessary.
  4. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Sometimes I feel conflicted. I am a journalist, which inherently means I am an expert at virtually nothing, though it feels I know a little bit about a lot of things and quite a bit about a few things. Sometimes, I have to remember that, in my world, I AM an expert at science. It’s ok to let this come through in your writing. You have the background, you have the knowledge. Don’t be afraid to take a bit more command. Your writing will be stronger for it.
  5. Love what you do and love the science. It will show.

About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

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This entry was posted on May 27, 2013 by in Science Journalism.
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