Freelancing: Journalist or Communicator?

My name is Adam Fortais and I am a final year PhD student studying Physics at McMaster University in Canada. For the last few years, I have been writing popular science articles, creating science content, and freelancing. In this column, I reflect on my experiences entering the field of Science Communication.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a statement of interest with the hopes of being accepted into a science journalism summer school at Concordia in Montreal. As I was writing this application, it began turning into somewhat of a manifesto. Upon re-reading this tiny mission statement, I can see that I’ve learned a lot since then. And now that I’m on the cusp of graduating, I think it’s time I review the manifesto.

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When I first started writing this blog post, I intended to dissect my full statement of interest. I quickly realized that I would need to break it up into several posts. Today, I am going to reflect on the first two paragraphs:

My name is Adam Fortais and I would like to be considered for acceptance into the Project Futures 3 program. I am interested in pursuing a career in science journalism, but am concerned that current forms of journalism are not ideal in reaching the public.

My interest in scientific communication was first motivated by the goal of inspiring the next generation of scientists. By showing them that cutting edge research can be done by anyone, I hoped to inspire young students to increase their own scientific literacy and interest in pursuing a career in STEM. However, through my outreach work, I realized that what goes into the job of “scientist” is not very well understood by young students.

The first thing I’d like to point out here is that I am confusing the role of Science Journalist and Science Communicator. At least by my current understanding of the roles. This is a topic that I’ve been obsessing over lately, and a topic that can be divisive.

In general, Science Communication is considered by many to be an overarching term that includes journalism. What I want to talk about is what I would call #SciComm. For example:

This is one of my favorite science writing websites, but I was surprised when I read the circled statement on their About Us page:

“Undark is not interested in “science communication” or related euphemisms, but in true journalistic coverage of the sciences”. 

I will admit when I found this, I was a bit miffed. I was preparing a pitch for Undark by looking into their guidelines and scope, and this kind of shut the door on the story I was picturing. (I think my pitch is good, but it’s unlikely to be a good fit for their publication as-is.) The point, though, is that my journalism school application completely misses the distinction Undark is making.

Example: Nye vs Picard

The differences between Science Journalism and Science Communication can look a lot like the differences between political journalism and press releases from partisan sources. In fact, we can take some of the same questions we ask of political media and ask them of scientific media. To be clear, I don’t want to insinuate that Science Communicators have a hidden agenda or are shady in any way (is my millennial-era distrust of politics showing?) But by asking some of the following questions, we can better understand the science media we consume, increase scientific literacy and trust among the public, and help people like me look for a career that’s right for them. Some of these questions include:

Who’s paying for this message? 

What’s the message being delivered? 

What topics are focused on?  

What “language” is used?

In some cases, the difference between Journalism and Science Communication is clear, like comparing Bill Nye to Andre Picard

Bill Nye (SciComm)Andre Picard (Journalism)
Who’s paying for this message?Disney 
entertainment industry NPOs maybe?
Globe and Mail (mostly)
What’s the message being delivered?Science is cool
Science is important
Evolution is real 
Issues citizens need to know about
Where tax money is going
Decisions being made on your behalf
Thoughts on the above (only in opinion pieces)
What topics are focused on?Advocacy and Teaching
Nature and research
Public Health
Policy decisions re: science
What “language” is used?No jargon (unless intending to teach a new word)Simplified but technically accurate
Some jargon when necessary

So, using these two celebrity communicators as examples, what did my Statement of Interest actually refer to? The first paragraph maybe seemed like I had an issue with the work people like Andre Picard do. However, the second paragraph describes something more like the role of Bill Nye. It seems to me that I was building a strawman “Science Communicator” whose job is a mix of teaching and journalism; breaking new stories and explaining the underlying science. And moreover, one who takes on critical public issues as well as edu-tainment style content.

After spending some time wandering around the science media landscape, I am not sure how viable this sort of career is.

Journalism and/or #SciComm

So, what do you, or should I say I, want to do? Do you want to follow a beat and break stories open, showing the public what’s really going on in the world of science? Or do you want to teach, learn, and explore? Do you want to hold power accountable, or do you want to be a cheerleader for science? Is it a conflict of interest if during the day, you provide unbiased reporting on the workings of policy makers and the science advisors guiding large government decisions if you also nerd out with researchers and create fun content on the side?

I don’t think so. But I also don’t think there are a lot of people who get to do that. Below I’ve collected some jobs and qualities that I associate with what I will call #SciComm and Journalism.

I think there is a great deal of overlap between these two different roles, and unlike being a political journalist with political affiliations, I don’t think there is necessarily a conflict of interest. Reporting on your collogues’ research can be dicey if you want to provide an unbiased critique, but science is a vast enterprise. Just go elsewhere for your stories. It can also be unethical to attempt unbiased reporting on topics that directly affect you and your field. But there is nothing wrong with reporting on certain topics while still marveling at the wonders of nature! If someone had a wide enough set of interests and a lot of ambition, why can’t they report on policy decisions one day and talk about how geckos stick to walls the next?

The answer is probably that Journalism is typically a full-time job, as are a lot of #SciComm positions. The only exceptions I can think of are editors of scientific magazines like Scientific American, Wired, Undark, and the like, or #SciComm celebrities like Samantha Yammine (@Science.Sam on Twitter) or Ed Yong (@edYong209 on Twitter). If you are creative and can build a large enough following (and are very lucky/fortunate), I believe you can carve out any niche you’d like. Science Communication as a field and career unto itself seems to be exploding. More and more people are looking to consume science content, and “Science Influencer” is an actual thing. So why not have your journalism cake and wash it down with a side of edu-tainment, too? Just know that it is a non-traditional career path, and that you will have a hard time finding mentors and specific guidance.

A New Type of Journalism?

My Statement of Interest from the Concordia Journalism School suggested that I was unsatisfied with the science media landscape. Clearly, I didn’t have as strong a grasp on what the landscape actually looked like. In other words, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I think I know a lot more now. So, do I still agree that things need an overhaul? Yes and no. But that’s coming next time.

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