this is how we write about a new study

by marjorieingall on January 5, 2011

Hello, Guardian writer fellow! You are brilliant! This is a bitterly amusing summary of how to cover science stories. (Hint: Badly.) Here you go, little aspiring journalists:

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

In the standfirst [this is apparently British for kicker or subhed] I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posting an inne question I have no intention of really answering: Is this an important scientific finding?

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about the research whatsoever.

The second graf should be about what existing ideas the new research challenges. Then the piece should go on to discuss how the new findings raise hope for sufferers/victims. Then the piece should elaborate on the findings, “adding weasel words like ‘the scientists say’ to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings onto absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.” The piece should not provide a link to the actual study. Then the reporter should have a quote from one of the scientists who did the study:

“Basically, this is a brief soundbite,” the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. “The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on,” she or he will continue.

The rest of the news story should provide “context” through cadging from Wikipedia and explaining that “while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.” Then there’s a bunch of fudging about how more research is needed.

Read the whole piece. Everything, including the “Related Links” section at the end, is genius.

Of course, the rules are slightly different if you’re doing this for a woman’s magazine. In that case, the pun goes in the headline, the subhed contains the inflammatory question, and the first three grafs are about a woman aged 20-38 suffering colorfully from whatever the problem is that the study purports to illuminate. The woman must be “relateable,” which means sympathetic, unless she is also to be photographed for the story, in which case it means thin and attractive. Bury the “while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true” part after the jump. Penultimate graf should be about how regardless of these new findings, the fact remains: you should eat right, exercise, and show your doctor that mole. Final graf should loop back to the relateable woman, and conclude either happily (now her life is on track) or somberly (it is too late for her, but perhaps what happened to her will not be in vain). Last line should be a heart-tugging reflection or question.

Good to go.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: