I’m a slow eater. By the time I’m nearly done with my first helping at dinner, my husband is busy polishing off thirds. I’m also a slow thinker. I like to chew on things a bit and pick them apart before expressing my opinion openly to others. Last week, I attended Science Online 2012 in Raleigh for the third year in a row. As always, it provided plenty of fun and engaging things to ruminate on. In most of the sessions, the audience contributed openly; but shy and slow to process as I am, I don’t tend to speak up. Like I said, I’m a s-l-o-w thinker. (Me and sloths could be best friends.)
This post is a bit of a mental download of all the thoughts swirling in my head after attending one of the sessions moderated by Ed Yong (of Not Exactly Rocket Science fame), and Maggie Koerth-Baker (editor at BoingBoing.net) where they extrapolated on the conundrum of providing context in science stories. The session was prompted by the concern that science news and science journalism often lack enough context so that readers can make adequate sense of complicated findings, such as Arsenic Life, or chronic issues that frequently have new developments which must be continually covered, such as climate change, or cancer research.
This is a fair concern when you’re contemplating how to best communicate news from a field that is often riddled with complexity and context.
First, the panelists asked audience members if they knew of any technological fixes for providing more context. Some people mentioned slideshows as complimentary to main stories, providing links to FAQs, or providing sidebars (as in, the old-school sidebars where pertinent information is extracted to a box next to the main story). Linking out to sources that provide a deeper explanation of a key concept, mechanism, process, or history was also mentioned; though some folks expressed concern about losing readers if they directed them away from their own news site or blog.
While I acknowledge the role technological fixes like slideshows can provide to add more context to a story (or more links to places with more information), I think this question sidestepped the elephant in the room, which is that sophisticated and skilled writing can incorporate needed context. In other words, from my perspective this is an issue that falls out more on the side of writing craft and reporting.
Writing craft points to consider
Using a strong story arc — with a beginning, middle and end — is one way to weave both background and broader context into a piece. Using characters and making a true narrative of the story arc is another. Or, if you’re not using narrative, it could be as simple as organizing the flow of information so that it either circles back in time to recap relevant information, or makes connections to how the new science findings or event relate to public policy or society at large. Yes, sometimes having a graphic timeline to supplement a story is a better visual explainer than incorporating a series of dates and events. But, if told well, the writing can usually stand alone to both explain news and provide the necessary context to help a reader understand the importance of a new finding, or its relevance to existing research, or how it fits within our existing societal fabric.
That’s not to say that this is always how it’s done in practice, for a variety of reasons. One obvious pitfall here is that putting effort into creating a story arc, or a narrative with actual characters, takes time. Sometimes, it takes copious amounts of time. That’s not something a prolific blogger, or writer for a daily publication, usually has.
Another pitfall is that adding context typically adds details which in turn add length. The more context, the more length. While bloggers and online writers have endless space and need not worry about word counts or column inches (only the patience of their readers), people who write for print publications do have space constraints. This is how sidebars developed: it was easier for the editor to excise the contextual paragraphs and make a box of copy separate from the main article, versus fighting the word count in the limited existing space.
And this issue of more detail equals more length brings up another point: isn’t it the writers job to weed out the extraneous details so that a reader gets a clear picture of what’s going on? As a general rule of thumb, if I have details in a story that aren’t helping to set a scene or move the narrative along, they must come out. (One of my favorite “lessons learned” from writing my recent book is that of “phones that ring for no reason.” In trying to faithfully record all that happened in a scene I witnessed, I wrote that someone’s phone rang and she fished it out of her pocket. This was singled out by a reviewer as an example of extraneous detail, because the woman’s role in the scene was unimportant, and the fact her phone rang had no bearing on the point of the scene. In re-writing, I not only removed the phone ringing but wiped her out of the scene entirely. Why? She served no function to the story line.)
So something writers must ask themselves is at what point does trying to add context bleed into no longer having a tight story and simply throwing too much information at a reader, so much so that they can no longer differentiate the hierarchy of important facts and details? I’ll never forget when a journalism professor who was frustrated with the lengthy, detail-ladden stories I kept turning in, finally burst out: “DeLene, you have to understand that you’re not writing for stupid people, you’re writing for people who are in a hurry!” By “stupid people,” he wasn’t being condescending… he meant that it wasn’t necessary for me to spell out everything for everyone and to provide all sorts of background about each story topic. What was important was to get to the main point so that someone reading my story over breakfast, or on a morning commute, could pull the gist of it away rather quickly. Writers and scientists may make the mistake of thinking that all readers read as intentionally as they do. But the truth is that not all readers read all that intentionally. There are a lot of skimmers and speed readers out there too. Keeping the target audience in mind is important both for the writer, and for critical readers assessing whether a story hit the mark or not. Maybe a science story appearing in USA Today has enough context for the readership of that paper, but one might expect that if that same story topic appeared in Scientific American or Miller-McCune then it would be written much differently.
But what is context anyways?
One thing that I noticed in this session was that no one defined what they meant by the word “context.” As a word, it seems simple enough. It doesn’t seem like a word that should easily confuse. But some people who commented appeared to be referring to background, and some appeared to be referring to the broader concept of context.
I’d argue that background and context are two different but closely related things. In fact, background could be classified as a subcategory of context. I see background as a component of context, but I think that context is broader than background alone.
What does providing background really mean, in a writing/journalism/science communication sense? How does it differ from providing context? I can’t offer an authoritative statement, but I’d argue that usually providing background consists of summarizing or presenting the series of circumstances or events that lead up to the main thing, event, or phenomenon being written about. This may mean writing about a series of publications, findings, or experiments that came out prior to the main one being written about. In the session, Ed stated that this is often missing in many stories about new cancer research findings: they fail to mention the previous studies that pounded a well-worn research path and may have even inspired the current work. Or, providing background may mean providing information about historical research or findings (I’m referring to a longer time frame here, research from 50 to 100 years prior). Or, it may require a discussion of the historical age in which something was first investigated and why; as well all know, the social mores and values of a time period can greatly influence the perspective through which research findings are viewed — think: evolution, or stem cell research. Or, communicating background may also mean showing a reader the development or progression of ideas generated over time to explain an observed phenomenon.
So then how does providing context differ, in a writing/journalism/science communication sense? Again, I’d be a fraud if I claimed this was an authoritative definition, but I can tell you what I think it means. You could say it’s about the word choices a topic or message is embedded within and that help to communicate its meaning. You could also say that context conveys the circumstances or setting in which a phenomenon or event occurs, or how it’s related to other phenomenon or events. This may mean connecting findings from a recent study to potential public policy decisions and outcomes. For example, connecting climate change studies to regulating carbon dioxide. Or connecting earthquakes along an Ohio fault to nearby fracking activities. Or it may mean making connections between research fields that aren’t traditionally linked (or have not historically been strongly linked). For example, when researchers first began studying the effects of gray wolf reintroduction upon the Yellowstone ecosystem, it linked predator behavior (the wolves and their predatory behavior vis-a-vis their prey) with botany and how the prey’s avoidance behavior allowed aspens and willows to grow where it had not for years. In this scenario, to fully communicate the new research of trophic cascades, writers and scientists had to provide some historical background about the absence and reintroduction of wolves to an ecosystem, as well as explain how this phenomenon affected other organisms — both plant and animal — and how these effects rippled through the ecosystem. To fully understand trophic cascades, the context of how an ecosystem functioned in a “before” and an “after” sense must be well communicated.
I’m all for writers trying to integrate more context in their science stories, but I’m also all for writers using literary tools to make their work interesting and engaging. To move their words beyond the realm of churnalism and into a space that evokes a bit more reflection and contemplation. And I guess I’m arguing for media critics to consider that there should be a balance. Obviously, if you’re reading the news briefs in a paper, there is a lot less room for words in each brief than if you were reading a feature story. So it doesn’t hurt for readers to consider the format of whatever they’re reading if they’re thinking critically about whether it provided enough context or not. (I’m not saying nothing is wrong with science journalism as it stands, I’m just arguing we should recognize that not all formats can accommodate deep context.) And maybe scientists longing for more context in the popular press need to recognize there may be times when trying to cram too much context into a story will simply clog the flow and make it less interesting for a general reader to read. If a reader truly wants to find out more and dig deeper on a topic, my bet is that they will.