I’m a writer, not a scientist. I just write about science. Because I think science tells us the coolest things on earth — literally. I’m patient enough to weed through dense, nearly impenetrable science papers to try and uncode the words and meaning to find those cool little jewels, those nuggets of information that are the components to a good story, or that provide significant detail. And when I’m interviewing a source, I’m always looking for that special word or phrase that will catch readers attention, and hold it. I struggle with the first few sentences, the lede, with every story I write. In the words of a tv-executive, as tapped out on a Blackberry, “And itsz gota b whizbang Pllllllls!” A colleague shared this smart-phone advice with me recently; it had been sent to him in response to a science story he was pitching. It reminded me that science stories on TV were perhaps in a worse spot of bother than science stories in print. But still, most print editors that I know want an ounce of whizbang too. An exploding bullet that makes a reader freeze, coffee cup posed in mid-sip, until they read the next line.
So… what is a science writer to do when trying to bridge communications out of the detailed, cultured world of science and into mainstream news consumers that demand whizbang action? (Or, at least the editors — the gatekeepers of stories — demand that itsz gota b whizbang Plllllls.)
I wish I had answers. I don’t. There is a constant debate among science writers as to whether our main thrust should be educational and informational or entertainment. Or infotainment. Clearly, whizbang writing is entertainment. I think my writing tends to err toward the educational and informative. I don’t try to go after the stories that focus on the “ugliest animal ever” or promise that “this will change your sex life forever!” I go after the stories that I think are just plain neat. (And sometimes I take assignments, well a lot of times actually, from editors because hey, I gotta eat.) I’m a curious person, and I like learning about ecology and natural history — whether or not itsz whizbang awesome every second.
So, do science writers need to package their stories into super attractive bright little packages of irresistible brain candy? Something audiences can’t resist because it promises whizbang sensation (that will change your sex life forever)? Or do we just need to cut little windows of insight into the world of science and disseminate the information in terms that most people can understand without having to run to their dictionaries? I wish I knew. For one thing, it depends upon the publication and its audience. For another, I think it depends upon the source and what sort of relationship the writer wishes to maintain with them. Most scientists don’t want to be made to look silly, especially if it’s by dumbing down their work (think: whizbang). If the writer wants to maintain a working relationship with that source, and that source’s network of colleagues, then it’s in our best interest to try to work with them to communicate their work in a way that’s accurate.
But even that is not the heart of the problem. The crux of it is that we need smarter readers. I hate to sound like an intellectual snob — because I know there are FAR smarter people than me out there — but frankly, we need a smarter society. We need to reinvent primary education and foster a culture among our kids that encourages learning and makes being smart the phattest whizbang thing around skoo from kindergarten to 12th grade. Because in the end, this debate about whether science stories should be whizbang or not is really a debate about what the audience understands and how they want their information delivered to them. And if they haven’t been taught to value science= –, that it really is whizbang beautiful just by itself — then it won’t matter how many whizbang science stories writers weave or videographers shoot, because no one will care.
What do you think? Comments are welcome.