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Day 322. Profile of a science communicator

In June 2013 on July 1, 2013 at 8:58 am

twins2

Talking about science in the public sphere is a skill several different careers require.

Yesterday’s post addressed science journalists: today, science communicators. (I’m going to focus on written material just to keep it simpler.)

If we could profile the typical science communicator, what would he/she be like? What would be the necessary characteristics to have such a career?

→ The capacity to present science with knowledge and understanding. The matter of whether to be objective or subjective would vary depending on (1) your employer and (2) the goal of your writing. Communicators working for a science institution are required to ‘sell’ the work of their own institution scientists, and hence must be subjective. Bias is just part of the job in these circumstances. Other communicators would chose to present more objective material depending on the context.

→ The freedom to seek alternative opinions and explanations only if it suited the piece they were writing. Again, science communicators working for specific clients would not be required – indeed would often be discouraged – from seeking second opinions on the strength of research outcomes.

→ The ability to pitch your material at a level to suit your audience: this skill is critical for both journalists and communicators.

→ The ability to create a great story: a piece which is written well entices the reader forward, makes them want to read more even if the subject matter is complex. This skill is also critical for both journalists and communicators.

→ The capacity to sell science. The skill to engage the reader with science, to make science seem appealing, to provide evidence that science delivers outcomes, to make the reader aware of science and its value to society.

Science communicators require different skills to science journalists. That’s not to say one person can’t be both – it’s just that different hats must be worn to meet the expectations of each role appropriately.

[image thanks to spunkinator on flickr]

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Day 321. Profile of a science journalist

In June 2013 on July 1, 2013 at 8:58 am

twins1

Many different groups of people talk about science in the public sphere.

In Australia, two of the most visible of these groups are science journalists and science communicators.

If we could profile the typical science journalist, what would he/she be like? What would be the necessary characteristics to have such a career? (For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to focus on print journalism just to simplify things a little).

→ The capacity to present science with knowledge, understanding and objectivity.

→ The capacity to question your material and your sources, seek alternative opinions and explanations.

→ The ability to pitch your material at a level to suit your audience, whether readers of a general newspaper or a specialist publication. In general, newsworthiness and novelty factor are key.

→ The ability to create a great story: a piece which is written well entices the reader forward, makes them want to read more even if the subject matter is complex.

→ The skill to write a piece which even though it may have science at its heart, does not place selling of science as a concept at the core of the article. For the reader, it does not necessarily matter whether the item is about science or not: if it’s a good story, it will be read regardless.

Of course science journalists are people, and don’t always deliver on all these fronts. But the best frequently do.

[image thanks to spunkinator on flickr]

Day 320. Journalism versus communication

In June 2013 on June 30, 2013 at 12:29 pm

questionmark

What is the difference between science journalism and science communication?

This question has been nagging at me recently.

I’ve even been thinking it through at strange hours of the night, sometimes with the company of a three-year old (I knew I had kids for a reason).

Joel Werner had an ongoing conversation with twitter followers of RealScientists recently on this exact topic. You can review some of the ideas which were discussed here.

It’s interesting at the outset to consider it by asking the question:

Who actually are the groups of people talking about science in the Australian public sphere?

There are many different folks involved.

Some use traditional media platforms, some use the internet (including social media), many use both.

Some are members of Australian Science Communicators; some are not.

They call themselves different names: journalists, writers, communicators, bloggers, outreach officers, educators, researchers.

Some have as science background; some do not.

Some are paid professionals; others are fuelled entirely by enthusiasm, creating blogs and other content for no fee at all.

Of the paid professionals, some work for media outlets, some work for academic institutions, some work for marketing companies, some work for public relations units.

Some are teachers: either full time in schools and tertiary institutions, or part time in ‘guest’ roles.

Some are full time scientists, with a drive to spread the word and share their perspectives via communication platforms based on writing, art and video. They do it for the love.

Some are innovators, designers and inventers, passionate about their trades and eager to earn a dollar from many years of hard work.

Something tells me I’m just getting started on this topic. More soon.

[image thanks to erix on flickr]

Day 319. Let’s workshop it

In June 2013 on June 27, 2013 at 10:55 pm

workshop

So you want to be a writer. Is there a course for that?

Well….kinda.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been doing ‘courses’ towards becoming a writer for the past 23 years. Everything I’ve done – professional, amateur, paid, unpaid, deliberate, accidental – has somehow contributed to my current motivations.

Adding to all that, today I attended my first workshop at an association of writers, the SA Writers Centre.

Talking to the topic “How to give up your day job”, Patrick Allington held the floor and encouraged the audience to join in.

Patrick touched on several aspects of writing that struck a chord with me.

On managing several different types of work (along with the demands of a young family), he said:

“I think of myself as a juggler; I throw balls away as I finish things, and I pick up new ones”.

Patrick also talked about the necessity to juggle different types of literary employment – balls of different sizes and weights, if you will. Tasks such as reading, writing, editing and critiquing all require different skills. As a result, most writers need to be meticulous about the way they allocate time and energy to each job.

‘The deadline’ was raised as another important issue. Whereas most jobs involve a worker sticking to mutiple deadlines for a single boss, freelance writing requires that multiple deadlines to multiple bosses are managed. This is tough. Each boss does not care about the other bosses. Each boss must be kept happy. Work must be handed in to deadline, otherwise future assignments from that source will dry up.

Making decisions about when to take on unpaid writing assignments was also a hot topic. It’s of particular relevance to science writers, as evidenced by a recent chain of discussion on the Australian Science Communicators email list about if and when it’s reasonable to ask writers to generate content ‘for the experience’.

Patrick proposed that even experienced and well-regarded writers do still take on unpaid work from time to time. He suggested the key is:

“If you’re considering taking on unpaid work, you need to work out whether and how you’re going to make it work for you”.

There is no doubt that taking on unpaid work will improve your experience and create content for your CV. The problem is – as I discussed with Liam Mannix recently – an individual’s capacity to take on unpaid work is directly related to the income they earn through others means and/or the ability of other family members to support them.

I do a reasonable amount of unpaid work, but I’m lucky to have a husband who earns well enough to allow me to do so. This is not the case for everyone.

[image thanks to PalFest on flickr]

Day 318. Journalism is dead?

In June 2013 on June 27, 2013 at 6:44 am

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Back in February, Leigh Dayton wrote about the demise of science journalism in Australia and across the globe.

This story stayed in my brain, and was re-sparked upon reading this tweet from Natasha Mitchell (currently in attendance at the World Congress of Science Journalism in Helsinki, Finland and who witnessed Leigh speaking at this panel on Science Media Centres):

 Leigh Dayton @ #WCSJ2013 in Helsinki now: (science) “journalism is dead on its feet in Australia”

Despite my not knowing the full context, I retweeted it with the perhaps ill-thought-out prefix ‘shameful situation’.

This prompted a series of ‘I beg to differ’ tweets. Initiated by Darren Osborn (News Editor at ABC Science Online), and continued by others, it has resulted in me having a massively expanded awareness of Aussie journalists reporting on science and related content.

I’m not sure whether we’ve addressed the problem Leigh discussed at the congress or indeed in her past article.

At the very least however I’m stoked to have an updated list of individuals writing on science, climate, health, technology and other complex, evidence-based topics in Australia.

Here’s it is: please feel free to add others in the comments section below.

  • News Editor at ABC Science Online Darren Osborn aka @sciencenewsgeek
  • Science writer and broadcaster Leigh Dayton aka @LeighDayton
  • Host of ABC Radio National Life Matters & Coeditor of Best Australian Science Writing 2013 Natasha Mitchell aka @natashamitchell
  • Presenter and producer for ABC Radio National All In The Mind and science reporter Lynn Malcolm @lynnemalcolm1
  • Presenter and producer for ABC Radio National The Health Report Norman Swan aka @normanswan
  • ABC Radio National Science Journalist Joel Werner aka @joelwerner
  • National environment reporter at the ABC Sarah Clarke aka @sarahclarkeabc
  • ABC News National Science and Technology Reporter Jake Sturmer aka @thesoundofjs
  • Science Reporter at The Advertiser Clare Peddie aka @clarepeddie
  • Environment Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald Ben Cubby aka @bencubby
  • The Sydney Morning Herald Science Reporter Nicky Phillips aka @NickySMH
  • Melbourne journalist covering carbon economy & climate change issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Peter Hannan aka @p_hannam
  • Environment editor for The Age Tom Arup aka @aruptom
  • Society Editor at The Age & The Sydney Morning Herald + environment & carbon economy, social affairs, science, technology Adam Morton aka @adamlmorton
  • Science and Technology reporter at The Age Bridie Smith aka @BridieSmith
  • Australasia reporter at New Scientist magazine Michael Slezak aka @MikeySlezak
  • Health Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald Amy Corderoy aka @AmyCorderoy
  • Health/medical journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald Melissa Davey aka @MelissaLDavey
  • Freelance science journalist Bianca Nogrady aka @BiancaNogrady

[image thanks to SImon Cocks on flickr]

June 28: additions which have trickled in through twitter:

  • ABC Radio National science journalist & broadcaster Robyn Williams
  • ABC Scienceonline freelance writer Dani Cooper
  • ABC Scienceonline writer Rachel Sullivan
  • Science reporter at the Daily Telegraph Mal Holland
  • Environment reporter at the Courier Mail Brian Williams
  • Science journalist and publisher Wilson da Silva aka @wilsondasilva
  • Freelance science communicator and writer Jacqui Hayes aka @SpaceKangaroo
  • Technical editor at news.com.au Claire Porter aka @ClaireRPorter
  • Reformed scientist, now writer Nick Evershed aka @NickEvershed
  • Journalist and science/innovation enthusiast Katie Silver aka @Katie_Silver
  • Science journalist & online editor at Australian Geographic Carolyn Barry aka @carolyn_barry
  • Science writer & editor at Australian Geographic John Pickrell aka @john_pickrell
  • Blogger at Scientific American and writer Bec Crew aka @BecCrew
  • Journalist at ABC Scienceonline Anna Salleh aka @AnnaSalleh2011
  • Journalist & producer at ABC Scienceonline Genelle Weule aka @weulecoyote
  • Science/medical reporter at multiple outlets + Deputy Editor of Australian Doctor Stephen Pinkcock aka @stephenpincock
  • National Medical reporter at ABC TV Sophie Scott aka @sophiescott2
  • Climate/environment journalist and blogger Graham Readfern aka @readfearn
  • Environment writer & journalist at The Guardian Australia Oliver Milman aka @olliemilman
  • Writer/editor/consultant at CleantechIQ Oliver Wagg aka @OliverWagg

Day 317. Run to paradise

In June 2013 on June 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm

paradise

Speaking of running…this guy is running from Sydney to Surfers all in the name of neuroscience.

Mic is a programmer at Neuroscience Research Australia (aka NeuRA), a Sydney-based institute focused on brain and nervous system research. Funnily enough, my lovely sister completed her PhD in the place (working with Jane Butler) just a few years ago.

In Mic’s words:

As a many of my close friends know I’ve been planning a run from Sydney to Surfer’s Paradise.

A couple of weeks ago I was given the green light from NeuRA to complete my run as a fundraising event. The event will be raising funds and awareness for the incredible research into Alzheimer’s Disease undertaken at NeuRA.

On Sunday the 23rd of June I will start my journey from Sydney setting off from the entrance to NeuRA and finishing two weeks later in Surfer’s Paradise.

The final leg of my run will be the Gold Coast Airport Marathon bringing the total distance of my epic run to just over 900 km!

Mic is on the move! If you’re keen, you can donate to support NeuRA Alzheimer’s research, or track his progress here.

[image thanks to WordRidden on flickr]

Day 316. Running for life

In June 2013 on June 24, 2013 at 9:37 pm

running

Before I started  running, this is what I thought runners looked like.

Alone. Driven. Focussed. Fearless. Silent. Tall. Scrawny.

Then a girl I knew – someone who had none of the characteristics on this list – signed up to train for a marathon, and by jingos she did it.

I could do that!

I thought.

So I joined a running group.

I still haven’t cracked a marathon – life is too full of other things to commit to such a task at the moment – but I’ve become a runner.

And running is really not at all what I thought it would be.

Sure, I’m often alone when I do it, and I am driven to an extent. But I’m not fearless, and I’m definitely not tall. I’m leaner than I was when I began, but certainly not what you’d call scrawny. Indeed, I’ve met people of all shapes and sizes, of all ages and with varying motivations in my weekly running get-togethers.

One of the best things about running in a group is that you learn to run at a manageable chatting pace. Once you start heading out for longer than about 15kms in one hit (i.e. running for more than about 1.5 hours at time), being able to chat and distract yourself is a very valuable thing.

This past weekend I participated in a 5 km fun run with my nine year old son. Although he’s a good footballer and cricketer, he is not a particularly athletic kid. My goal was to encourage him to run the whole distance, enjoy the scenery and have a chat with his Mum along the way. I expected we’d end up walking some of the course.

But he made it the whole way running! It was a complete joy for me. And he got a real kick out of sprinting past his Mum over the finish line.

Running is a great skill for life. We’ll be doing plenty more runs together in the future.

[image thanks to familymwr on flickr]

Day 315. Shaping me

In June 2013 on June 23, 2013 at 8:57 pm

shaping

I’ve written a post every day about the science in and of my life for the past 315 days (50 more to go, yeah!).

This writing thing is a most enjoyable task for me: it’s what I’m going to focus on moving forward. Happily, I’ve also managed to find more and more paid writing work as the year has ticked over.

But how can I make sure I think like a writer? That I develop skills to complement my transition to full-time writing? That I meet new mentors and a community which struggles with the same things I do?

I thought it would be a good start to join the SA Writers Centre, aimed at:

fostering, developing and promoting writers and writing.

I’m looking forward to attending a workshop there this week.

[image thanks to David Willis on flickr]

Day 314. Soundtrack to my life

In June 2013 on June 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm

radio

It occurred to me the soundtrack of my life over the past 20 years of so has been strongly dominated by Australian Broadcasting Commission radio.

1994-2000: Honours and PhD studies; daily activities structured to allow for listening to Sarah MacDonald‘s morning show on Triple J – for example, I would book shared microscope and FACS facilities to conduct tedious analysis during most mornings from 9am-12pm.

2000-2003: living in Jakarta; limited radio exposure, but ABC Asia Pacific news every day on the TV.

2003-2007: back home in Adelaide, two babies in close succession; a WHOLE lot of radio as a valuable source of adult company; included Matthew Abraham and David Bevan (then Mornings hosts on 891 ABC Local Radio Adelaide) and Natasha Mitchell (then All in the Mind host).

2007-2010: part-time work, a third baby and discovered distance running as a form of exercise; enter podcasts – ABC The Health ReportABC Radio Science Show, Conversations with Richard Fidler.

2010-current: more work, increasingly hectic children’s schedules = snatches of morning and afternoon radio; constantly fighting the urge to sit in my car or fold laundry to the sounds of Natasha Mitchell (now at Life Matters), Books and Arts Daily and By Design.

[image thanks to Ugg Boy Ugg Girl]

Day 313. Weekend science reading

In June 2013 on June 22, 2013 at 5:40 pm

weekendbooks

I love a good list.

ABC Radio science journalist Joel Werner has been tweeting over at RealScientists this week, and pulled together a list of science-y reads.

These were my contributions:

Happy weekend reading!

[image thanks to Lucia Sanchez on flickr]