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Volume 14, Number 9
November 2001

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Deadlines, Creativity, Letting Go

In the Newsroom When Disaster Strikes

Communicating About Science

Series
Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Science Writing
Keep the Audience in Mind

It was a story with sex appeal: "Widely-used antidepressants may help slow the progression of Parkinson's disease!" Lots of people use antidepressants, and lots of people are affected by Parkinson's, including some very famous people. Readers would be interested. It had the chance of making it into the paper at a time when column inches were being eaten up by the terrorist attacks and America's response.

But as I researched the story, I came to believe that therapeutic potential of antidepressants for treating Parkinson's was the most speculative aspect of the research reported in Science magazine, and from a scientific point of view, not the most interesting.

To make it worse, the research was done on rats! How many times had I grumbled over a news story hailing findings from rodent research as evidence of the newest cure or treatment for the disease du jour? And here I was writing one. Ack!

My challenge was to lead off the story with the most speculative aspect of the research, but then go on to explain why it was speculative, and explain what was most important and interesting about the research from a scientific point of view. And still keep it interesting.

To be honest, I did a middling job.

I think in my fervor to point out the tentative nature of the conclusions, I slipped back into an academic mode. I didn't focus enough on explaining the background, methodology, and findings of the study in way that was accessible to the average, non-academic reader. As a result, the story was hacked a bit in the editorial process, and the end product was not particularly enlightening.

I don't think I did much to educate the public about neurology, but I did learn something about reporting on science: the primary importance of keeping the audience in mind.

Thankfully, the other story I wrote that week was a pleasure to work on, even though I didn't think it would be at first. When I was assigned to write about "Chessie the manatee" who had made an appearance in the Chesapeake Bay, it seemed a little too cute for my taste.

Despite myself, I enjoyed talking to a Virginia Marine Science Museum volunteer who was very excited about her first personal encounter with a manatee. And I learned some very interesting things about manatees. For example, most of them have multiple scars from boating accidents, and this is what allows researchers to identify individuals and track their movements. I began to see the story as an opportunity to educate the public about a very unusual animal, whose survival as a species is in jeopardy. This time, I think I was more successful in my efforts.

This week (my fourth), I've been working on two other stories: one about plants' ability to adapt to global climate change, and another on why leaves turn red in the fall. Although the autumn leaves story is a somewhat tired annual repeater, I did have fun writing it. I found some interesting legends about why leaves turn colors in the fall, and compared them to what we know scientifically.1 How often do you get to do that when writing journal articles?

Editor's Note: This report is part of a continuing series of updates from Locantore during her media fellowship at The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

1According to Native American folklore, celestial hunters slay a great bear in the autumn sky, and the blood drips down to earth, painting the trees scarlet. Another myth credits the artistic efforts of elfin Jack Frost, who turns leaves red and purple by pinching them with his icy fingers. Scientists at the University of Madison-Wisconsin have proposed their own theory about why leaves turn red in the fall. They suggest that red pigments in plants such as maples, oaks and dogwoods act like sun screen. As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops in the fall, trees start breaking down nutrients in the leaves and pulling them back into the tree. This process destabilizes photosynthesis, making it more susceptible to stressors such as too much sunlight. Yet continued photosynthesis is needed to fuel the nutrient reuptake process. Large amounts of red pigment are produced at this time to shade fragile photosynthetic tissues from the sun, the scientists propose. This theory fits nicely with observations that autumn hues are most vivid when the days are sunny and bright, and that shaded leaves are less colorful than leaves that get full exposure to the sun.


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