Science Journalism (Fall 2017)

JOUR73007 Science Journalism, Fall 2017
Health & Science Reporting Program, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
Mondays, 2:00-4:50 p.m.
Room 430, Emily Laber-Warren,, (646) 932-4043
Office hours: By appointment

Science is slow, recursive and self-correcting. What we thought was fact last year might not be true today, and what we think is true today is probably wrong in some way. In science, each small finding builds to a greater understanding, but editors want to trumpet breakthroughs, not incremental discoveries. Responsible science journalists know how to cover research without overselling it, and how to report on controversial or unsettled research in a way that informs rather than confuses audiences.
This semester we will discuss cutting-edge developments across a wide swath of science, with a special focus on climate change. Skills sessions this semester will instruct students in basic statistical concepts such as P values and confidence intervals, how much scientific detail to include in stories for various audiences, problems with the practice of science, and how to report on risk.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: At the end of this class you should be able to:
• Keep up to date with the latest science news
• Quickly get up to speed on complex topics, becoming an “instant expert”
• Communicate science clearly and engagingly, knowing the appropriate level of detail for various audiences
• Find appropriate experts and ask insightful questions
• Create an explainer video
• Bring needed sensitivity to science coverage, reflecting awareness of the gender inequality and paucity of diverse cultural viewpoints within science
• Understand the various impacts of climate change on health, agriculture, cities and the natural world
• Report on resilience and sustainability efforts

Attendance: If you are unable to make it to class, you must notify the instructor with the reason. A medical or family emergency is generally sufficient reason for an excused absence, just as it is from a job.
Laptops: You may take notes on your laptop, with the stipulation that if you are observed using your laptop for a purpose unrelated to class, you will lose this privilege.

We will begin class sessions with a discussion of the science news of the week. Your participation grade will be based primarily on your contributions to these discussions.
     Read/listen to science reporting from a variety of publications. Some suggestions: The Atlantic, Buzzfeed News, The Guardian, LiveScience, Mosaic, Nature News, Nautilus, New Scientist, NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker Reuters, Popular Science, Quanta, Radiolab, Science Friday, Science News, Scientific American, The Scientist, STAT, Vox.
     You should also follow sites that provide daily science news releases. Some suggestions: EurekAlert,, Newswise,, ScienceDaily.

• Science Q&A (text)
• Study story (text or audio)
• Beat memo
• Video explainer (video)
• NYC climate change/resilience story (text, audio, or video)
• NYC climate change/resilience pitch

SCIENCE Q&A (250-300 words)
These should be modeled along the lines of the Science Q&A in The New York Times by C. Claiborne Ray, which answers quirky questions that scratch an itch for a broad swath of readers, even if they had not realized that they were interested in the subject. The hardest part here is to find the right question! It shouldn’t be a basic “What is this?” or “How does that work?” It needs to be more specific, without becoming so specialized that it would be of interest to only a narrow readership.
     I expect you to do original reporting, not just find the answers from secondary sources online. You must do a relevant journal article search. I would also like you to contact an expert—either to get the answer or to check that the info you’ve gathered is correct. I usually frown on email interviews but in this case, because it’s such a narrow topic and won’t be published, I’m ok with your corresponding rather than speaking (it takes less of the expert’s precious time).
     I also expect you (as Ray does) to hyperlink to the research you cite.

Model science Q&As:
Why Are Lobsters Blue and Why Does Cooking Turn Them Red?” by C. Claiborne Ray, The New York Times, Sept 16, 2013
• “Are Diamonds Really Forever?” by C. Claiborne Ray, The New York Times, June 12, 2017
• “Recalling Early Childhood Memories, or Not,” by C. Claiborne Ray, The New York Times, March 27, 2017
• “Achoo! What’s That About?” by C. Claiborne Ray, The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2016

STUDY STORY (500-750 words or 2-3 minutes audio)
The study story, as you already know, is the meat and potatoes of science journalism, and something you will probably do a lot of as an early-career staff writer or editor. It can be tricky to freelance a study story, because many publications handle study stories in-house, while others don’t publish single-study stories at all, because they prefer stories that provide more context and bring an angle to the topics they cover. Nevertheless, it’s possible to sell a study story if you find an intriguing one from a lesser-known journal that has not gotten much media attention. I hope (but do not require) that you will try to publish the pieces you produce for this assignment. For this assignment, I want you to do at least two interviews: one with an author and one with an outside expertPlease provide full-text of your study along with your story.

Remind yourself how to report and write a study story with this document: Study_Story_How2Find&Write_2017

The following publications would be good places to pitch your study stories. Links below are to their freelancer guidelines. I’d be happy to help you pitch.
New Scientist (covers all the sciences)
Popular Science (covers tech and wow/weird science stories)
The Scientist (this is a trade publication for biologists, but written for a general audience)
60-Second Science, Scientific American podcast

Model study stories:
Robot Suit Helps Children With Cerebral Palsy To Walk Better,” by Timothy Revell, New Scientist, August 23, 2017
• “How Goldfish Use Booze to Get Through a Hard Winter,” by Rachel Feltman, Popular Science, August 15, 2017
• “First Organ-Specific Tissue Sheets,” by Ashley Yeager, The Scientist, August 9, 2017
• “Mediterranean Diet Works–for Upper Crust,” by Christopher Intagliata, 60-Second Science, Scientific American, August 1, 2017

This beat memo is seriously abbreviated compared to the one you did last semester. This is your chance to employ what you have learned about taking ownership of a scientific topic. Health beats are acceptable—as long as the beat you choose is different from the one you covered in the spring. Also: You do not have to stick to your beat for the stories you produce.
Some beats students have chosen in previous years: Arctic science, bioremediation, cosmology, climate change and the oceans, climate change and agriculture, developmental psychology, food technology, the human/animal bond, mycology, invasive species, marine biology, optogenetics, personal tech, pharmaceuticals, robotics, sleep, sociology of the Internet, space exploration, synthetic biology.

Download the beat memo here: BeatMemo_ScienceJournalism_2017

VIDEO EXPLAINER (2-3 minutes)
One of the most challenging tasks for a science journalist is finding engaging ways to present technical material. In this assignment, the idea is to convey a highfalutin idea through appealing, low-tech visuals. Many video channels have entered this arena in recent years, among them: ASAP Science, It’s OK to Be Smart, StatNews, MinuteEarth.
You must find a question that has not already been covered as an explainer video. Start by researching the topic thoroughly. You will interview experts, not just grab stuff from Wikipedia! Your final product will be breezy and accessible. Think Tim Burton meets Albert Einstein. Think construction paper cutouts, finger puppets, cartoons on whiteboards, found objects, computer-generated graphics. You may work on this assignment alone or in pairs. You will turn in a script and shot list and receive my edits before making the video.

Model video explainers:
What Is Muscle Memory?” by Kevin Reilly, Business Insider, April 17, 2015
• “Why Does Semen Get Stickier in the Shower?” by Levi Sharpe, Medical Daily, January 8, 2016
• “How Touchscreens Work,” by Erin Brodwin, TedEd, December 5, 2013
• “How Do Muscles Grow?” by Kevin Reilly, the WhyFiles, August 5, 2013

Model script/shot list: MODEL_SCRIPT_SHOTLIST_Sharpe

NYC CLIMATE CHANGE/RESILIENCE STORY (700-1,250 words or 3-4 minutes audio or video)
Cities are at the forefront of climate change response because they have dense populations and financial assets to protect and because planning and change are in their DNA. New York City has been a leader among U.S. cities in resilience and sustainability. The current plan, developed under Mayor de Blasio as a continuation of Mayor Bloomberg’s policies, is called OneNYC.
The latest iteration of the plan is this 2017 progress report. Two of its four “visions” are relevant to our topic areas: “Vision 3: Our Sustainable City” and “Vision 4: Our Resilient City.” Within these areas, the city is planning all kinds of projects: increasing curbside composting, analyzing the role of street trees in reducing flooding and air pollution, making solar energy more affordable, converting streetlights to LED light, and other programs, both small and large.
For your story, I want you to drill down into a specific program, neighborhood or park and cover not just what the city says it plans to do but what is actually happening now on the ground.
Other potentially helpful resources: The Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation,
U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit

And here’s a useful list of climate change scientists who are up for speaking to the press.

Model NYC climate change/resilience stories:
• Read “Exclusive: Critics Blast de Blasio’s Flood Protection Plan for Leaving Low-Income Areas Vulnerable,” by Erin Durkin, New York Daily News, April 4, 2016
• Read “Bronx Planting Caps Off a Drive to Add a Million Trees,” by Lisa Foderaro, The New York Times

• Read “New York’s Buildings Emit Most of Its Greenhouse Gases. The Mayor Has a Plan to Change That,” by Brady Dennis and Kayla Epstein, The Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2017

This document will help you create your feature: The Health & Science Feature_How2Find&Write

Truly local news gets far too little attention, though there is an audience and a market for these stories: at the Daily News, Gotham Gazette, City Limits, Brooklyn Paper, DNAinfo, Voices of New York, and elsewhere. Your stories will be timely, local pieces on a topic that is increasingly of interest to editors, and should find a home.
It’s easier to write a pitch after you’ve done the reporting, but bear in mind that editors don’t usually want writers to turn in already-finished pieces, because they want to put their stamp on them. Your pitch should not mention that you have already written the piece for class. Your pitch needs to be directed to a specific editor at a specific publication.

Model pitches:
ELW’s pitch on urban trees for Audubon magazine (solicited)
Melinda Wenner Moyer’s fat pitch for Slate
• A great resource to know about is the pitch database at The Open Notebook, a blog for science journalists.

Due dates: Work must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. on the day it is due—always a Sunday.
File naming protocol: The file name for each of your stories should be a three-part compilation: Your last name, a descriptor of the piece, then the date. For example: Smith_politicsstory_093017.docx or Jones_videoscript_102117.docx. If you revise the story, change the date!
Source lists: Please include a list of interviewees and primary sources at the bottom of your stories (name and contact info for interviewees; weblinks for material).
Revisions: Revisions are welcome for all assignments, including the video and the beat memo. Revisions are welcome at any time, but all are due by Wednesday, December 13. Grades on revisions will be averaged with the original grade.
Extensions: Students wishing to request an extension must contact the instructor at least 48 hours before deadline and explain the reason, barring a last-minute emergency. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Late assignments: Unless you have been granted an extension (see above), late assignments will be docked 5 points per day.

REPORTING REMINDER: Scientists are busy people. To avoid missed deadlines, contact potential sources early. If your sources “didn’t get back to you in time,” that’s no excuse. You should have time to reach out to a second round of sources if the first ones don’t respond within a day or two.

Your grade for the semester will be calculated as follows:
Q&A: 10 percent
Study story (text or audio): 15 percent
Beat memo: 10 percent
Interview & research notes for explainer video: 5 percent
Script & shot list for explainer video: 5 percent
Explainer video: 10 percent
Intro section of NYC climate change story: 5 percent
Reporting notes & story outline for NYC climate change story: 5 percent
NYC climate change story (text, audio, or video): 15 percent
Pitch for NYC climate change story: 5 percent
Participation, science news discussions: 5 percent
Turning in classroom assignments: 5 percent
Professionalism (attendance, attentiveness, respect for classmates, response to constructive criticism): 5 percent

A+ (97-100): Copy that is ready to be published without a single change. Near to perfection.
A (93-96): Excellent work, ready to be published by a professional news organization with only a few small changes.
A- (90-92): Strong story that needs some additional work – reporting, writing or both.
B+ (87-89): Work that needs additional reporting and/or improved writing and could use a rewrite.
B (83-86): Average work. A rewrite would be a good idea.
B- (80-82): Middling work that should be rewritten.
C+ (77-79): Substandard work with problems several in number and serious in scope.
C (73-76): Weak work, unacceptable in a work environment.
C-: Unacceptable work.
D range: CUNY does not offer this grade at the graduate level
F: Failure on most, if not all, levels used to measure performance.

Reporters who make up sources, quotes or descriptions or who plagiarize are fired. Student reporters who make up sources, quotes or descriptions or plagiarize (including lifting from any source without attribution) will be reported to the proper J-School officials. Plagiarism may involve copying text from a book or magazine without attributing the source, or lifting words, photographs, videos, or other materials from the Internet and attempting to pass them off as your own.  Student work may be analyzed electronically for plagiarized content. Be careful: plagiarism often happens by accident!


WEEK 1 — August 28
Class plan
We will divine some of the hallmarks of science journalism and discuss the cheerleader problem. We will go over the syllabus and look ahead to the body of work you will produce this semester. In particular, we’ll go over the Q&A format, to prepare you for the assignment due in our next class.


WEEK 2 — September 11
Assignments due this week (Sunday, Sept. 10):
Q&A (10 percent of final grade)
Submit abstracts of at least two potential studies for your study story

[NOTE on Q&A: The hardest part may be finding the right question. Start emailing ideas to Emily ASAP—it may take a fair amount of back and forth to hit on the right one.]
[NOTE on studies: Here, too, it may take a fair amount of back and forth to hit on the right study to cover. You are looking for a study from a legit but not wildly popular journal that did not get much media attention but is intriguing to a general audience]

Read Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark, WritingTools_Foreshadowing (scaffolding)
• Read and listen to model study stories (see above)
• Read section on Elizabeth Holmes in “Five Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World,” by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, T Magazine, The New York Times, October 12, 2015
• Read “Scientists are Skeptical about the Secret Blood Test that Has Made Elizabeth Holmes a Billionaire,” by Kevin Loria, Business Insider, April 25, 2015
• Read “Hot Startup Theranos Has Sturggled with Its Blood-Test Technology,” John Carreyrou, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 16, 2015 

Class plan
We’ll review the strategy for producing study stories. Scientific detail: How to adjust the level of scientific detail to your audience. Guest Kevin Loria (CUNY H&S ’12) of Business Insider’s science desk will talk about his investigation of Theranos and the rise of investigative science journalism.

WEEK 3 — September 18
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Sept. 17):
Study story (15 percent of final grade). Please also provide full text of the study you covered.

• Read Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark, Tool 32: WritingTools_GoldCoins
• Read “The Uninhabitable Earth,” by David Wallace-Wells, New York magazine, July 9, 2017
• Read “Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?” by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, July 10, 2017
• “Climate Progress, With or Without Trump,” by Michael Bloomberg, The New York Times, March 31, 2017

Class plan
We’ll talk about various climate predictions, and why climate change is so difficult to cover. We will workshop your study stories and highlight “gold coins.”

WEEK 4 — September 25
Assignments due this week (Sunday, Sept. 24):
Beat memo (10 percent of final grade)
• Two ideas (and partner if you have one) for video explainer. (Do a search to make sure your ideas have not already been done as an explainer video.)

Watch all four model explainer videos (see above)
• Read Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark, Tool 16, Seek original images

Class plan
Video explainer workshop: The topics that lend themselves to video explainers, and best techniques. Guest Kevin Reilly (CUNY H&S ’12), who makes video explainers for Business Insider, will discuss script writing, storyboarding and other techniques and help with your video plans. We’ll experiment with creating metaphors and analogies.

WEEK 5 — October 2
Assignment due this week (Sunday Oct. 1):
Interview & research notes for explainer video (5 percent of final grade)

• Read “Risk Reporting 101,” by David Ropeik, Columbia Journalism Review, March 11, 2011
• Read “Radiation Cleanup at Park on Staten Island to Take Years,” by Lisa Foderaro, New York Times, November 25, 2013
**NOTE: When reading this NYT article, think about how well it handles the issue of risk**

• Read “On an Embargo-Driven Beat, Science Writers Aim for Context,” by Matthew Battles, NiemanLab, Feb. 10, 2011
• Listen to “Embargoed Science,” On the Media, Sept 29, 2006 (5 minutes)

Read “Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them,” by Nicola Twilley, The New Yorker, February 11, 2016

Class plan
Physics: We will discuss the reading on gravitational waves, one of the biggest physics breakthroughs in recent memory. Reporting on risk: The key questions to ask when covering a story that involves risk. Embargoes: the good and the bad. Students will present one find from their beat memos.


WEEK 6 — October 16
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Oct. 15):
Script & shot list for explainer video (5 percent of final grade)

Read “Simplicity,” “Clutter,” and “Bits and Pieces” from On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Class plan
Simplifying science: Explaining something complicated in simple language is the backbone of science writing. We’ll work on clarifying and simplifying the language in your scripts.

WEEK 7 — October 23
Assignment due this week:
None—you should be working on your video explainer

Familiarize yourself with the OneNYC website
• Peruse/skim the OneNYC progress report 2017, visions 3 and 4
• Read and watch the model NYC climate change stories (see above)
• Read this excerpt from News & Numbers by Victor Cohn and Lewis Cope (sorry it’s a bit blurry but the original file was too large for me to upload! I emailed you all the better version.)
• Read these three press releases from the NYC mayor’s office: Cool Neighborhoods programBuilding mandate proposal, 1.5 degree plan

Class plan
Climate change & city planning discussion. Statistics for science journalists.

WEEK 8 — October 30
Assignment due this week (MONDAY, Oct. 30):
Explainer video (10 percent of final grade)

Read “Shirtstorm,” by Phil Plait, Slate, Nov 17, 2014
• Read “Culture Dish: Promoting Diversity in Science Writing,” by Apoorva Mandavilli and Nidhi Subbaraman, Scientific American, Oct 15, 2014

The following is a trilogy related to a 2013 scandal at Scientific American:
• Read (and watch) “Responding to No Name Life Science Blog Editor Who Called Me Out of My Name,” by Danielle Lee, October 11, 2013, Scientific American
• Read “Scientific American’s Troubling Response to Its Blogger Being Called an Urban Whore,” by Amanda Hess, Slate, October 14, 2013
• Read “Don’t Be a Creep,” by Laura Helmuth, Slate, October 17, 2013

The following are both related to a recent incident where Radiolab was accused of insensitivity:
• Listen to “Yellow Rain,” Radiolab, Oct. 5, 2012 (25 minutes)
• Read “The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of Hmong Experience,” by Kao Kalia Yang, Hyphen, October 22, 2012

• Read Stephanie Foo on diversity in public media, The Transom, October 8, 2015

• Read “Here’s How Geoff Marcy’s Sexual  Harassment Went On for Decades,” by Azeen Ghorayshi, Buzzfeed News, Nov. 11, 2015

• Read “Black Workers Really Do Need to Be Twice as Good,” by Gillian White, The Atlantic, Oct. 7, 2015

Class plan
The diversity problem in science journalism: Why it matters that science journalism is monolithic. Guest: Kendra Pierre-Louis of Popular Science.

WEEK 9 — November 6
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Nov. 5):
At least two story ideas for NYC climate change story. For each idea, please provide a paragraph or two including your news hook, angle, and the sources you expect to tap.

• Read “Has the Moment for Environmental Justice Been Lost?” by Talia Buford, ProPublica, July 24, 2017

Class plan
FILM FESTIVAL! Guest Talia Buford of ProPublica will talk with us about climate change and inequality.

WEEK 10 — November 13
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Nov. 12):
Intro section, NYC climate change story (5 percent of final grade)
1-2 questions you would like to ask guest Michael Shaikh

Read “Let’s change how we report truth in science journalism,” by Sharon Dunwoody, July 22, 2014,
• Read “How the Toronto Star Massively Botched a Story about the HPV Vaccine,” by Julia Belluz, Vox, February 21, 2015. [If you want to glance at the now-removed story, it’s on the WayBack machine, here:  “A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side.”]
• Read “GMOs, Journalism and False Balance,” by Keith Kloor, Collideascape, April 24, 2014

Class plan
Guest Michael Shaikh, deputy director for external affairs at  the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency, will brief us on the many ways in which NYC is girding for climate change and making itself more resilient. Scientific controversies and the problem of false balance: We’ll consider the proper place of anecdotes and the problem of “false balance.”

WEEK 11 — November 20
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Nov. 19):
Reporting notes & story outline, NYC climate change story (5 percent of final grade). What I am looking for here is that A) you have conducted at least two interviews. I’d like you to provide a brief summary of the best material you got from each interview, and I’d also like to know who else you intend to interview for the story. B) I’d like you to create a story outline based on the feature structure we discussed last semester and that is summarized in this document: The Health & Science Feature_How2Find&Write. Please include a revised version of the Intro section that you turned in last week, as well as a Body section and an Ending section. If you are doing an audio or video story, your outline will consist of the announcer intro, then your opener material, and the topical flow of the rest of your story–i.e. you will make this point and then that point and then that point and then end here. For each of the stops on your outline please provide highlights of your tape or at least the source whom you expect to speak to this material.

Class plan
Individual conferences. SIGN UP HERE

WEEK 12 — November 27
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Nov. 26):
None—you should be working on your NYC climate change story

Read “Science Isn’t Broken,” by Christie Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight, August 19, 2015
• Read “Psychology is WEIRD,” by Bethany Brookshire, Slate, May 8, 2013
• Read “How Reliable Are Psychology Studies?” by Ed Yong, The Atlantic, August 27, 2015
• Read “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” by David Freedman, The Atlantic
• Read model pitches

Class plan
Why science is not always right: We’ll discuss why it’s crucial for journalists to recognize the fallibility of science. Pitching: You’ll write your climate story pitches in class.

WEEK 13 — December 4
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Dec. 3):
NYC climate change story (15 percent of final grade)
NOTE: You may turn in your pitch this week and the story next week

Reading/Listening/Viewing: None

Class plan
FIELD TRIP: We will get a behind-the-scenes look at the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History.

WEEK 14 — December 11
Assignment due this week (Sunday, Dec. 10):
Pitch for NYC climate change story (5 percent of final grade)
NOTE: If you turned in your pitch last week, you can turn in your story this week

Class plan
Pitch slam and CELEBRATE!

NOTE: All revisions due by Wednesday, Dec. 13


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