Science editor talks about story ideas and combating misinformation post COVID-19 Date: 06/21/21
By Bara Vaida
For a decade, the science non-profit journalism website The Open Notebook has been providing tips and resources to help science writers with their work. As COVID-19 unfolded, the site was one I turned to when looking for experts as well as story angles.
I talked to co-founder Siri Carpenter recently about some of the biggest obstacles science journalists have been facing and ideas for writers to pursue as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for a science writer right now?
We're still in a pandemic. For science writers, the pandemic has been such a multifaceted set of challenges, professional challenges, financial challenges, personal challenges, and health challenges. More generally, one of the biggest challenges that I think we face as a profession is financial. The journalism industry has struggled increasingly over the last 15 years. The pandemic has only worsened that. A large number — if not a majority — of science writers are freelancers, and freelance rates have just declined and declined over the years. That is a threat to quality of journalism, as well as a personal threat to the livelihoods of the people doing the work. It's also a real threat to the equity of the profession because these financial issues hit hardest in communities of people who have been historically underrepresented in science and in journalism. I would [also] say that we are living in this time where the very definition of a fact is under assault. The cultural chasm that we have seemed to be falling into didn't end with the end of the Trump presidency. That's a real challenge for not only science journalists, but for anyone who values reason and a civil society.
Journalists have been discussing this a lot — trying to help one another respond to misinformation. Data seem to show that providing the facts to the public isn’t enough to help people discern fact from fiction. What do you think we can do about it?
That's exactly it. There's this tension, because in journalism, it is absolutely essential that you get the facts right. There's no point in doing journalism if you're not going to get the facts right. But facts alone are just not enough to change people's minds. I think for a lot of us, even though we know this, it's personally frustrating. But that's where stories come in. People connect with human stories in a way that they don't connect with facts. I think if anything is going to save us, it's going to be the stories that are [not only] factually accurate, but [also] enable people to perceive the world in a way that is true and accurate and that connects with their values and emotions.
So, storytelling as the path to addressing misinformation?
I think there are probably many paths. Recognizing [facts] alone are not enough to combat misinformation is one. I think it's also important to recognize that we're up against moneyed interests that are extremely invested in this [false] information. Misinformation isn't out there by accident. It wasn’t just accidentally created, and then other people stumbled onto it. So, I don't know if anyone has figured out the path. It oftentimes feels like we're stumbling along on those paths. I hope that the great work that health, science and environmental writers are doing can make a really meaningful difference.
How did The Open Notebook come to be?
The Open Notebook got started because [co-founder] Jeanne Erdman and I had become friends and colleagues while working together on the freelance committee of the National Association of Science Writers. We had periodic dates to talk about what we were working on and help each other with pitches and ideas and provide support and encouragement and so on. We would find ourselves talking about some story that someone else had done and wondering how the writer did it. How did they find that idea? How did they find that source? How did they figure out how to structure that story? So, we decided to do some interviews with the writers, to learn the answers to those questions. So, it was kind of a personal project to develop our own skills and understanding. Then we had the idea, hey, maybe other people would like to read them. So maybe we should publish them somewhere. When we were brainstorming domain names, we gravitated to The Open Notebook, a name that I think was Jeanne’s idea, with the notion that we could be alluding both to reporters’ notebooks and to scientists’ lab notebooks, to convey this idea of both science and journalism.
What year did you create the site?
It was 2010. We thought we would just [publish] maybe a dozen or a couple of dozen story-behind-the-story interviews with writers. We didn't think that there would be, like, an endless appetite for these, but … 10 years later, we've published around 130 story-behind-the-story interviews, as well as hundreds of reported features on craft, writer profiles, annotations of award-winning stories, a pitch database—another of Jeanne’s killer ideas—and various other craft-focused resources. But the interviews are still always super popular.
What have you learned along the way?
One thing we’ve learned is that just like there's no one right path in science writing, there's no one story of how a good science story gets made and told. They're all different. They're all intriguing and fascinating and entertaining in their own ways. And science writers do have a seemingly endless appetite after all for studying the craft by examining how their colleagues work.
Is there an approach that is different when it comes to science writing, in comparison to health care journalism?
I think maybe it depends on what branch of health care journalism you’re talking about. Many health stories are science stories, of course. At The Open Notebook, we're really focused on the craft of writing about scientific research.
Now that we are moving beyond COVID-19, what are the science stories for reporters to be thinking about and writing about?
Well, I think COVID-19 is going to be with us for a long time – that story is not going to end anytime soon, though it will continue to shift. But as for what non-COVID stories are essential … there are so many! In the health realm, the opioid epidemic continues to be a major story; that was a looming health crisis in the country before COVID came along and it still is. Environmental health issues — by which I mean the social justice side as well as more technical science questions — are going to continue to be a huge area, increasingly so as we see the increasing toll of the climate emergency. I also think the pandemic has underscored the importance of investigative reporting on how health science and health policy intersect. Finally, though obviously we could just enumerate important health and science stories all day long, I can’t stress enough the importance of stories that critically examine the role of systemic racism on the health of Black people and other communities of color.
Does The Open Notebook take freelance pitches?
We take pitches for our story-behind-the-story interviews and for reported features. We are looking for pitches all the time for our “Diverse Voices in Science Journalism” series, where we highlight the perspectives and expertise of science journalists from communities that are historically underrepresented in science writing. We detail what we’re looking for on our submissions guidelines page, where we also talk about what to include in your pitch, where to send it, what we pay, and so on.
I know that your initial seed funding was from the National Association of Science Writers. Where else does your funding come from?
Yes, we were incredibly lucky to get an NASW Idea Grant back in 2011, and that is what really enabled us to think beyond just doing a handful of interviews but to also do other kinds of stories as well, and to start hiring freelance contributors. Today, we’re funded by a combination of foundation grants and donations from individuals in the science writing community. Our longest-standing funder is the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which supports our early-career fellowship program and some of our other work. They also funded the development of our book, “The Craft of Science Writing.” We also have major support from Science Sandbox, which is a project of the Simons Foundation. They support our “Diverse Voices in Science Journalism” project as well as a lot of our other work. Last year we also began partnering with the Kavli Foundation, which is supporting our new series of free online skills courses. And finally, the Science Literacy Foundation is supporting a new project that we're just getting off the ground, to provide peer mentoring for journalists who don't think of themselves as science journalists — like general assignment reporters, or education or political reporters and who want to gain a greater understanding of how to read a scientific study, or how to find the appropriate scientists to interview and understand whether a scientific claim is worth covering, and so on.
What advice would you have to someone who wants to create a non-profit journalism site like yours?
I would say, first of all, that it's really important to have a very focused mission. I think the reason that, 10 years in, (The Open Notebook) is still going and that we still love doing it so much is, first, because of the enormous generosity of the hundreds of science writers who have shared their time and insights and stumbling blocks and hard-won wisdom on our pages, and as contributors and editors and translators, and as mentors in our fellowship program.
Second, we’ve always been strongly guided by our own interests — what we want to learn about the craft and what we can imagine other people like us want to learn. From the beginning, we’ve been guided by the idea that no matter what financial upsets our industry is experiencing, high-quality science journalism still matters, that it’s a learnable skill, and that people learn best when they’re part of a diverse, supportive community. So, it’s been our mission to try to help support and build that kind of community.
We also grew slowly, which enabled us to develop a complete and mature understanding of what we were for and what we could do.
Finally, something that we’ve learned along the way is that it’s so crucial to think of your project as a business; even if it's a nonprofit, it’s a business. That’s something that can be hard to appreciate when you’re starting out with a labor of love, like Jeanne and I were. But if you can’t think of it like a business, then it’s unsustainable; ultimately it won't be able to continue to exist.
You essentially created your dream job with The Open Notebook. When did you switch from freelancing to running The Open Notebook full time?
In 2018, [it] had grown to a point where, to be able to continue doing what we were doing and take on more ambitious projects and pay our writers and editors fair rates, I needed to give it my full attention. I needed to double down both on the editorial and creative part of running The Open Notebook, and on the financial side, building up our financial security. I was really worried that we would run out of money within the year and then everything we had built would just kind of … end. So, I made the difficult decision to quit almost all the freelance editing work that I was doing so I could spend more time on developing The Open Notebook more fully, including finding more financial support for all the things that we wanted to do. Jeanne and the rest of our board were very supportive of that decision, and luckily the results so far have really been worth it. In the last few years, we’ve had the opportunity to do so many things that I feel are meaningful to our community, like publishing our book and starting our Spanish translations program and launching these courses, and so on. All of that just makes me just feel so fortunate. I love my job so much and I feel incredibly lucky to have it.
Siri Carpenter is an award-winning science journalist and editor whose writing and editorial work has appeared in The New York Times, Science, Discover, Scientific American, Science News, and many other publications. Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the non-profit journalism organization The Open Notebook, and is the editor of The Craft of Science Writing. She's a past president of the National Association of Science Writers (2018-2020). She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.