Postcard from a Summer Science Writing Workshop

This past summer, two renowned science journalists, Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson, perhaps best known for their work at The New York Times, held the 12th annual Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop at Ghost Ranch Santa Fe, the sister ranch to Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico home. This six-day event promotes communication of science in all media. The 40 participants included scientists — chemists, physicians, and molecular biologists — as well as science writers, editors, and public communications professionals. As a developmental psychologist, I was the only researcher from a behavioral or social science field.

In a place reminiscent of summer camp, veteran journalists and editors described how they select and put together science stories. They detailed their interactions with researchers, analyzed pros and cons of the stories they’d written, and even told of the occasional fallout from stories they’d published. Participants, in turn, labored over original pieces for the journalists to critique. The exploration of ideas continued over breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Throughout the week I was struck by the deep respect and intellectual passion these journalists have for the science they cover and by their ability to link new findings not only to a broader scientific context but also to pressing social problems. These were seasoned journalists who had long covered science, nature, health, and the environment. I began thinking how much the behavioral sciences could benefit from more of that journalistic enthusiasm and curiosity.

For instance, journalist John Horgan, who spent 11 years at Scientific American, discussed his book The End of Science, in which he claimed that the big discoveries in the physical, chemical, and biological sciences are mostly over and predicted that real groundbreakers will come from behavioral, social, and neurological research.

Horgan also boldly professed his disbelief in objective science journalism. Similarly, science journalism scholars say that each journalist uses an interpretative frame, made partly of the journalist’s knowledge and world view and the viewpoints of the scientists spoken to. The frame helps the journalist select among research findings, settle on analogies and anecdotes, and weave facts into a compelling tale with a poignant or provocative message. The process is similar to Georgia O’Keefe’s description of artistic abstraction: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”

In the journalistic process, even the reporter who cares deeply about a subject can easily be led down the road of reporting hype, conjecture, and bias. At a mock press conference where participants were instructed to cover two scientific presentations as journalists, writing “ledes” and sketching viable stories, I saw first-hand how someone who lacks in-depth knowledge of the research on a topic can become captivated by a brazen visionary scientist whose words make for artful copy, if not for conclusions grounded in scientific facts (as one chemist in the audience pointed out).

In another session, the name of a single behavioral scientist was invoked 12 times by a journalist who was describing a range of topics he’d covered. The writer clearly had found a trusted resource; just as clear, though, was that reporters covering behavioral science might benefit from a larger Rolodex. Indeed, they’d welcome it. Good journalists want to understand the scientific context of a researcher’s findings, and want their facts to be accurate and their conclusions to be well-informed.

For me, this experience offered hope that behavioral researchers can meet the challenge of connecting with the broader public to encourage a more accurate understanding and appreciation of psychological science, and to correct a public image of psychology drawn largely from popular media figures that can have questionable scientific expertise. Psychology should, for example, do what other sciences have done and create venues, such as journalist “boot camps,” to support writers who report on “hot topics” in behavioral research and to broaden and enhance their relationships with behavioral scientists.

Though I’m quite happy to return the journalist’s hat, I came away even more convinced that all psychologists could benefit from trying it on. The field needs more scientifically trained psychologists, both inside and outside the academy, who can bring behavioral science to the public either through mass media or through their own projects. At a minimum, it requires building relationships, honing communication skills and becoming more media savvy. The Ghost Ranch at Santa Fe is a great place to start.


Observer Vol.20, No.9 October, 2007

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