The Life of a Science Journalist: Translating Scientists to the General Public

PHOENIX – First a bit about me and my credentials for writing on this topic. I am a former “NASA Space Grant News Consortium” intern in Southern Arizona and was responsible for covering the University of Arizona's contributions to the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.). During this time, I was a reporter for a newspaper under the umbrella of USA Today’s parent company, Gannett. The name of the newspaper was the Tucson Citizen, a daily afternoon newspaper, for Tucson, Ariz. The newspaper has since been closed. This paper served as a news source for much of Southern and Central Arizona. 


I also had stories get picked up by the Associated Press, the Huffington Post - College edition, as well as other news aggregator websites. During college, I had a brief internship with The New York Times Company as a freelance journalist. 


My brother was the scientist and resident “smart guy ” of the family. He built his very own gaming computer and continues to make modifications as the World of PC Gaming evolves (which is one of his favorite hobbies). He was diagnosed from an early age with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder. While he was always a brilliant young man, sometimes even the simplest of communications was  difficult for him. 


That is, until my brother found the Si Se Puede Foundation’s Robotics Program. This taught him how to socialize and speak to judges; he learned that having technical knowledge and being able to explain it are different areas of expertise. He discovered that a person could be limited if they could not communicate what they knew, especially to those with different (or no) science backgrounds. And this is no easy task - there are even degree programs dedicated to Science Journalism.


A quick excerpt from Kathryn M. O’Neill, Associate News Manager & Senior Writer at MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences: “Whether the public is reading about the Ebola outbreak in Africa or watching YouTube videos on the benefits of the latest diet, it’s clear that reporting on science and technology profoundly shapes modern life.".


"Ultimately, the science a person does, no matter how important, won’t matter to the lay-person unless it is communicated well."


Things like applying for further funding, or something as simple as explaining to judges during a science fair (especially to those who are not science-minded), all require good verbal and/or written communications to be accessible. An important way to communicate science-related ideas to others, especially those with little science knowledge is by using an “elevator pitch.” The pitch needs to be tight and easily accessible. For example, there is a scene in a S.T.E.M. Hollywood movie called ‘Spare Parts’ in which a young Latino high schooler is trying to explain to judges in an underwater robotics competition what parts his team used and how the robot functions. In the movie, his team wins not because they used the most technical terms or were even “accurate” about what to call the functions or pieces of the underwater robot, but because the team could explain what they did and how the robot functioned well enough for the judges to understand. 


When I first started reporting on S.T.E.M. topics the summer after my Freshman year of college, I felt a bit lost. My editor didn’t give me much guidance, other than what topics to cover. Essentially, I had to become a self-taught science reporter. There weren’t many comments from either those I reported on, or from my boss. The only comments I heard were that my articles sounded too much like Public Relations pieces, and not enough like Science Journalism – go figure. 


Eventually, I pursued other types of journalism in newspapers and magazines in Tucson. By the time I was a Junior in college, I was invited back into the world of science journalism, via the NASA Space Grant Consortium internship with the Tucson Citizen. This time, I got more feedback from both my sources and my editor. However,  I was no longer reporting for a student newspaper. I was reporting for the entire city of Tucson, and even Southern Arizona. There were instances when I (and/or my editor) made errors. We always promptly fixed errors online and ran corrections in print in the next issue. My best estimate is that these issues arose from a “lost in translation” dilemma. While journalists like to imagine themselves as having a breadth of knowledge on many different subjects, we don’t really know very much about any one topic, other than how to report the news.


There was a specific article in which I was reporting on a rock (or possibly water/ice) leaving a trail on the planet Mars. The distinction was important to the findings. There was a difference between notoriety and rocks just leaving a trail. The University of Arizona’s Space program was assisting NASA in researching and recording these trails on Mars. A problem arose because the details of the rolling rocks/water or ice was initially misreported.


I still contend something happened in the editing process. My editor claims it was me. The researcher didn’t care; he just wanted the story fixed. We fixed it online immediately and printed a correction the next day. I personally had to apologize profusely to him as well.


Then there was a time I had a successful reporting venture. I was given an opportunity to get a scoop on the Southern Arizona Regional Science Fair, which plays host to over 1,000 high school and middle school students. The fair was going to lose some (and possibly most) of its funding. The cut in funding was going to affect the next year’s fair, which hosted close to 1,500 student-scientists. I felt empowered by the story, not simply because it was a page 1-above-the-fold article (a big deal in the news business), but because it was shedding a light on what a travesty it was that this important science fair was going to lose its funding.

FEATURED AUTHOR

Matt Lewis


Matt Lewis is an Arizona native and lover of all things science. He comes from good stock. His grandfather received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a Chemistry specialization. His grandfather worked on polymer chemicals, earning numerous patents, and worked for a variety of oil & gas companies, until he retired from Dow Chemical, where he served as an Executive Vice President. Lewis’s mother got her B.S. degree from Oklahoma State University in Geology (probably where Matt got his love for rocks). While Matt did not pursue a S.T.E.M.-related field in college, he did cover science topics for a variety of newspapers in Southern Arizona, both as a young cub reporter and as a more seasoned intern. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a B.A. in Journalism. He then went on to work as an editor and multimedia reporter in Central Arizona. Eventually, he would work at Intel Corporation as a Manufacturing Technician for more than two years. Currently, he serves as the Director of Special Events for the Si Se Puede Foundation, a 501 c-3 nonprofit that focuses on S.T.E.M.-based learning in Chandler, AZ. The foundation works with Title 1 schools in the Phoenix-metro area and around Arizona to improve educational opportunities for those with less access to resources. His work currently centers around youth robotics, which encompasses the FIRST® LEGO League and SeaPerch (underwater) robotics competitions. For more on Lewis, please visit: https://matt20hew.com/bio/.

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