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How to cover Nobel Prizes in science

daniel_shechtman

Posted October 17, 2011
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I tried to write an article about the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. I had no background knowledge about all the schools in economics or their theories. I checked out three books from the library, spent an afternoon reading them and interviewed an economics professor afterward. It was very difficult to assemble too many pieces together and difficult to make the article look easy to understand.

This time when the Nobel Prizes were announced, I looked at different news outlets’ coverage of Nobel Prize in chemistry. It was almost impossible to schedule a personal interview with the prizewinner, and The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian did quite similar reporting, though with different beginnings.

I am always thinking, “What could be the best approach to write an article on something that you neither have knowledge of nor have interest?” Journalism offers you one thing: the formula. The journalistic formula makes journalism easy and objective. However, using the formula also risks losing the best reporting. There are several things included in all the coverage of the Nobel Prize:

1. The significance of the discovery. All the reporting talks about how innovative the discovery of a quasicrystal is and how it could be potentially used in commercial applications. It answers the basic question, “Why people should care?”

2. Narrative. If significance determines whether there is a story, narrative determines whether the story is successful. All three news outlets have some narrative within their coverage, mostly focusing on the how the prizewinner was exiled from his research group when he discovered this quasicrystal. It was not a good story because all news outlets used the same one, but it was better than none.

3. Opinion from other people. What we need is balance. Although journalists tend to claim balance is not their goal, using balance while reporting is always a technique adopted by every journalist. Sometimes a balanced view adds another layer to the story, but sometimes it adds objectivity. Here, it adds credibility when you want to praise someone for his or her accomplishment.

4. A bio in the end. I really like the New York Times approach to put the winner’s bio at the end of the article. For every reason, it is the least important information. People might care which university he works for if he belongs to any of the academic schools, otherwise, irrelevant background information always goes to the end.

What’s the scientific part when making a news article like this?

Everyone can cover science if they put these contents into their reporting.

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C3 Transforming Life Sciences Through Collaboration X Computation X Communication University of Missouri HHMI