Download the syllabus as a PDF here: bit.ly/jour130b
While scientific progress has brought extraordinary medical and technological advances, today’s hottest political debates surround scientific issues that are overwhelmingly misconstrued, misunderstood, and misreported. In the face of increasingly sensationalized and politicized scientific issues, what is the role of journalism in delivering scientific news and information to citizens? What other social actors dive into these debates and why?
Ultimately, this is a journalism course and students will be introduced to the skills needed to cover medical and science news. The course will focus on how to report and write daily news stories, blog entries and longer features. But science journalism is not just about mechanics. In light of the current debates raging around issues like autism, genetic engineering, and climate science, this course will also explore the ethical, social, and political issues raised by the press coverage of science and medicine.
Science journalism is about cultivating a more informed citizenry by focusing on facts not arguments; it’s about revealing the agendas, funding, conflicts of interest, and social systems surrounding a scientific issue; and it’s about reporting responsibly on those issues for our readers. Whether headed for a career in scientific research, non-profits, public relations, or journalism, this course will help students become better consumers of scientific information and better producers of science journalism in the public interest.
About the instructor
Aleszu Bajak is a senior writer for Undark, a new magazine from the Knight Science Journalism Program at M.I.T., where he was a fellow in 2013. He is also the editor of Storybench.org, a guide to the art and science of digital storytelling, and LatinAmericanScience.org, a resource for science news and opinion out of Latin America. Before freelance reporting from Latin America, he was a producer for the public radio show Science Friday and once upon a time worked in the gene therapy department at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, the Boston Globe Magazine, Esquire, Nature, Science, New Scientist, and Guernica, among other outlets. He has taught several journalism and design courses at Northeastern University and one on foreign correspondence at the Harvard Extension School.
- Students will learn the mechanics of journalism, including:
- research, sourcing, and generating story ideas
- interviewing, note-taking, and organization
- fact-checking, editing, writing for story, structure, and formatting
- Students will appreciate the digital landscape within which science journalism exists today by learning:
- blogging in science journalism (honing your craft, developing a voice)
- how to get work (pitching and staying relevant)
- the value of social networks for science journalism (sharing stories, finding stories, joining discussions and finding sources)
- digital strategies employed by major news organizations (data visualization, multimedia, community building)
- Students will understand and appreciate the role science journalism plays in society by examining how scientific issues are shaped and/or misconstrued by the public, the media, industry, and politicians. We’ll learn about:
- the spectrum of science communication: who’s doing what and why?
- conflicts of interest, fact-checking science, and uncovering multiple perspectives
The mechanics of science journalism
Class 1 – Jan 19 – What is science writing?
Class 2 – Jan 26 – Deconstructing science journalism; First blogpost due
Class 3 – Feb 2 – Building a news story; “Event coverage” due
Class 4 – Feb 9 – Story ideas and the art of the interview; “Build a news story” due
Class – Feb 16 – Spring Break – No class
Class 5 – Feb 23 – Pitching stories and talking beats; “News story” pitch due
Science stories in society
Class 6 – March 1 – The importance of P.R. in science; Second blogpost due
Class 7 – March 8 – Profiles, op-eds and understanding flavors of news; “Your news story” due
Class 8 – March 15 – Scientists telling their own stories; “Feature story” pitch due
Class 9 – March 22 – Discussing and reporting on controversy
Class 10 – March 29 – Digital tools for science stories; Third blogpost due
Class 11 – April 5 – Going social; Outline of “Feature story” due
Class 12 – April 12 – Community and reinventing journalism
Class 13 – April 19 – The future of science journalism
Finals – May 10 – “Feature story” final draft due
What is science writing? There are lots of different ways to communicate science, from writing journalistic stories or press releases to curating museum exhibits to designing websites or graphics. This class will focus on science news writing, a skill which is relevant to all of these. During this first meeting, we’ll go over the syllabus and then discuss what is expected of students (blogging, Twitter) as well as go over your first written assignment. We will talk about the key differences between being a scientist and writing about science, being an institution that writes about its own work, and being a science journalist covering science news, trends and advances. We will discuss a spectrum of examples of science communication and talk about the rise of the celebrity scientist.
Readings for Jan 26:
“Curing Hepatitis C, in an Experiment the Size of Egypt” The New York Times, Donald McNeil.
“Why so many of the health articles you read are junk,” Vox, Julia Belluz.
“How to Write a Lede Your Editor—and Your Readers—Will Love,” The Open Notebook, Robin Meadows.
Assignments for Jan 26: Tweet a “bad” science or health story to #JOUR130B. Begin thinking about what event you’re going to cover. Your first blogpost is due January 26. Make it short and make it sweet.
Deconstructing science journalism. Imagine yourself, notebook in hand, trudging into the jungle for that story that no one else has. That’s us! We’ll deconstruct a science story and understand how it was researched and what it means to “report” a story. Students will learn the vocabulary and mechanics of sourcing and research. We’ll learn about structure and understand the questions that underlie each movement and segment of a news story. Egypt story here, deconstructed. First blogpost is due. (In class: Choose a NYT article, a RT article, an Independent article, a BuzzFeed article, OR a STAT article, PLUS the press release and the original study on the recent Iceman story.)
Readings for Feb 2:
“Bubonic plague hung around in Europe,” Science News, Helen Thompson.
Assignments for Feb 2: Tweet the science and health stories you’ve been reading over the last week with the hashtag #JOUR130B. Attend your off-campus event. Submit your 150-word event coverage assignment by Feb 2.
Building a news story. “Event coverage” story is due. We’ll briefly peer edit stories in class in order to understand the importance of having another set of eyes on your work. It’s humbling, yes, but extremely helpful. Then, we’ll learn how to amplify this kind of event coverage into a real piece of journalism. We all know how to write, but writing as a journalist is different. To understand the structure of a journalistic story, we’ll build one from scratch. Finally, we’ll dive into the art of finding story ideas and plumbing the depths of scientific conference literature.
Readings for Feb 9:
“How Training Without Helmets Could Reduce Head Injuries,” The New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds.
“Seven steps of interviewing,” Nieman Reports, Isabel Wilkerson.
“How to talk to a scientist,” The Open Notebook, Geoffrey Giller.
“Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims,” Nature, Sutherland et al.
Assignments for Feb 9: Tweet the science and health stories you’ve been reading over the last week with the hashtag #JOUR130B. Due February 9 is a polished, 250-word version of the “Build a news story” assignment we started in class including mentions of two directly related studies. Explain, in the story, why they’re related, what they say and why you’ve included them. Why are they so important that you had to include them? What do they have to say that the reader should know? Are you including them for contrast or because of their similarities?
Story ideas and the art of the interview. “Build a news story” final draft is due. We’ll discuss other ways journalists find story ideas. Next, we’ll talk about developing stories and arguments. When does a journalist know she’s on to something and when does she realize there’s no there there? Then, we’ll talk interviews. Interviews can make or break your story. A good journalist knows how to identify good sources and, more difficult still, get them to open up.
Readings for Feb 23:
“How to pitch articles to editors,” The Guardian, James Randerson.
“How not to pitch,” The Open Notebook, Laura Helmuth.
Assignments for Feb 23: Tweet the science and health stories you’ve been reading over the last week with the hashtag #JOUR130B.
Pitching stories and talking beats. Over spring break, think about what you’re going to write “Your news story” about. We’ll go over pitch strategy, which includes a fine mix of doing some legwork, picking the right outlet, massaging editors, and demonstrating expertise. We’ll also learn about “beats.” Beats are themes that journalist’s specialize in–i.e. clinical trials in biomedical research, or digital tools used in climate modeling. We’ll talk about pros and cons of specializing in science and what goes into developing a beat. The pitch of “Your news story” is due by the end of today’s class while its final draft is due March 8.
Readings for March 1:
“The incredible tale of irresponsible chocolate milk research at the University of Maryland,” Vox, Julia Belluz.
“Science Reporting by Press Release: An old problem grows worse in the digital age,” CJR, Cristine Russell.
“The power of a press release,” NatGeo, Virginia Hughes.
“Why is reporting on health and science so bad? Because the reporters can’t do their jobs,” Adam Calhoun’s blog.
Assignments for March 1: Tweet a science or health story that you suspect has been heavily lifted from a press release using the hashtag #JOUR130B. Your second blogpost is due March 1.
The importance of P.R. in science. Public information officers (PIOs) are employed by agencies, institutes, organizations and companies as managers of the information those entities want to disseminate. Whether you call them press officers, public relations specialists, or publicists, these people are often the go-between between journalists and scientists. A highly professional PR officer who understands the science they’re representing is essential to the journalistic process. But, because of the Internet, many science entities are now directly publishing the information that years ago they would need to establish a relationship with a journalist or mainstream media outlet to disseminate. Or else just market it. This is all to say that anyone with an Internet connection–whether a professional communications person or not–can directly communicate scientific information to the public. We’ll explore examples and weigh the benefits and potential pitfalls of this growing trend.
Readings for March 8:
“Sarah Reisman: Better synthesis of natural compounds,” Rachel Ehrenberg, Science News.
“A Conversation with Jane Goodall,” The New York Times, Claudia Dreifus.
Extra: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce,” Tom Wolfe, Esquire.
Assignments for March 8: Tweet the science and health stories you’ve been reading over the last week with the hashtag #JOUR130B. “Your news story” final is due March 8.
Profiles, op-eds and understanding different flavors of news. The seasoned science journalist, just like the clever citizen, knows how to read between the lines. We’ll learn the different formats and styles traditional journalism comes in. We’ll also explore new ones being pioneered and figure out if and how they’re effective. In groups, we’ll read the “Your news story” assignment, due today. We’ll discuss style and diction, too.
Readings for March 15:
“A critical evaluation of science outreach via social media: its role and impact on scientists,” Liz Neeley and Craig McClain, F1000 Research.
“How Scientists Engage the Public,” Pew Research Center, Feb 15, 2015.
“Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?” Matt Nisbet, BigThink.
“Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism,” Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Guardian.
Assignments for March 15: Tweet the science and health stories you’ve been reading over the last week with the hashtag #JOUR130B. Come to class with three well-formed story ideas for your feature story pitch, which is due by the end of class on March 15.
Scientists telling their own stories. “If you are a scientist asking yourself serious questions about the true value of your knowledge to the world around you, you are the type of person we need talking about science online.” That’s Paige Brown Jarreau, one of countless scientists passionate about blogging, social media outreach, and the importance of communicating with the public and journalists. We’ll look at the literature on public engagement by scientists and talk about what affects their willingness to do it. We’ll explore why so many are reluctant to become their own cheerleaders. Is there a difference between advocacy and popularization? Then, we’ll switch gears and look for sources, develop story ideas in groups, and work on writing a pitch for your final feature story. Your feature story pitch is due by the end of class today.
Readings for March 22:
“The problem with science journalism: we’ve forgotten that reality matters most,” The Guardian, Brooke Borel.
“Study Determines Wall Street Journal Less Likely To Discuss Climate Impacts, More Likely To Negatively Frame Issue,” Media Matters, Denise Robbins.
Assignments for March 22: Tweet a controversial (or uncomfortable, or untenable) science story with the hashtag #JOUR130B.
Discussing and reporting on controversy. The scientific method relies on empirical research to test and find the truth. It’s a objective method, or at least the most objective we’ve found, with which to unravel nature’s mysteries. So how can controversies arise in a practice that’s inherently “objective”? That’s partially the point of this course. Where does society and culture find problems with science? Where do scientists find problems with the public? And how do journalists tread the space in between? We’ll explore these questions and learn about the responsibilities of journalists to their readers. We’ll introduce some case studies of digital journalism and data visualization as in introduction to next class.
Readings for March 29:
“Using Buzzfeed’s listicle format to tell stories with maps and charts,” Storybench.
“Eight tips for multimedia journalists,” ijnet, Valentina Gimenez.
“How to tell science stories with maps,” The Open Notebook, Greg Miller.
Assignments for March 29: Tweet a compelling (or poorly executed) scientific data visualization with the hashtag #JOUR130B. Third blogpost due.
Digital tools for science stories. “Science journalism lends itself pretty nicely to building a story around a series of graphics.” That’s what Peter Aldhous, a veteran science editor and reporter for BuzzFeed Science, told me in an interview last August. Despite his age, Peter has demonstrated a knack for telling science stories in visual ways with the latest digital tools all while maintaining his journalistic rigor. While we won’t be learning R or D3, we’ll learn some simple-to-use, out-of-the-box tools for building visualizations (like charts and maps) that complement your final feature stories and talk about when to visualize and why. This visualization will accompany your story and be presented in the final class meeting. Third blogpost due today.
Readings for April 5:
Assignments for April 5: Tweet a compelling social media campaign involving a science story (e.g. a social media quiz addressing a public health measure, a great use of a social media-optimized video for a science story) with the hashtag #JOUR130B.
Going social. How does a journalist stay relevant? With shrinking newspaper subscriptions, how does a news organization find readers? Where has the newsstand gone? Social, social, social. Whether you love it or hate it, social media is here to stay and we better learn to get along. We’ll talk about the innovative uses for social media and learn some of the best practices for science journalism and science communication. Next, we’ll outline our final feature story and go over the ideas in groups before presenting them to the class. This outline will be due by the end of class.
Readings for April 12:
Assignments for April 12: Tweet a science story produced by an unorthodox news organization/innovative storyteller/storytelling medium (e.g. Pictoline) with the hashtag #JOUR130B.
Community and reinventing journalism. Can you design an Instagram of science? Using tools and techniques borrowed from human-centered design and business school workshops, we’ll experiment with entrepreneurship and design a new platform for scientific storytelling that holds the story, the storyteller, and the community at its heart. First, we’ll review some case studies of entrepreneurial journalism and storytelling and apply what we’ve learned this semester about the mechanics of and challenges with science journalism.
Readings for April 19: “Unpopular science,” Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, The Nation.
Assignments for April 19: Tweet your favorite science story of 2016 to the class with the hashtag #JOUR130B.
The future of science journalism. That’s anyone’s guess. We’ll try to make it an educated one. We’ll review what we’ve learned this semester and talk about science stories we want to tell in the future. We’ll present our final stories in class.
Read various sources of science news and tweet them to the class before our weekly meeting using the hashtag #JOUR130B. Good places to start include The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, Nature News, Nautilus, Aeon, The New Yorker, and blogs like blogs.scientificamerican.com and phenomena.nationalgeographic.com.
- Required course reading:
- Reading assignments appear in the schedule below. This syllabus, like science in the news, is a living, breathing thing. So there will be blind spots in the reading assignments below. We’ll fill them in as the semester and news cycles progress.
- Essential reading:
- “Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015.”
- * If you want to be a science journalist, your personal library should also include:
Writing is essential. Plus, it’s fun! There will be weekly writing assignments. Some will be informal blogposts, others in-class exercises, and a few will be traditional written assignments. Since writing on deadline is a key point of this class, grades will be dropped at least a half-point if you miss deadline. The later an assignment is handed in, the more the grade will fall.
- Goal: Hone your craft→ The only way to get better at writing is to practice.
- Format: Your written assignments will consist of in-class exercises, three blogposts, three short news pieces (250 to 400-words, see below), and one 800-1,200 feature story.
- Grading: Written work will be graded on accuracy, objectivity, news judgment, quality of reporting and writing, use of quotes, and creativity. Effort and improvement will count in your favor. All assignments must be submitted on LATTE by 2pm E.T. on their respective due dates.
These days, most science journalists start honing their craft by blogging. Over the course of the semester, students will be required to keep a blog. Blogs are the sandbox where writers get to try out new things. (Write short. Write long. Write in the 1st person. Write in the 3rd.) The best blogposts make succinct, well-informed, and well-researched points.
- 1) Write for a popular audience with a high school level of scientific fluency;
- 2) Translate the esoteric into the digestible while making a specific argument;
- 3) Have fun discussing scientific issues you encounter in other classes or outside of school. Each blogpost should have a stated point and students should stick to it. In other words, keep it specific.
- *Pro Tip: Don’t tackle the entire health care debate. Instead, discuss an interesting case of one kind of patient in one town in Massachusetts. Don’t write the definitive story on creationism in American schools. Rather, point us to an interesting and newsworthy story from a specific school district.
- Format: The class blog, https://blogs.brandeis.edu/jour130b/, will be hosted on WordPress on the Brandeis network. It will be private. Every student will have a login. If you have any problems with the basics of publishing blogposts on WordPress, read this. The blog’s format is very flexible. Students can publish:
- 1) Listicles of science stories they’re reading, watching or hearing, e.g. “Top 5 science podcast episodes I listened to this month”;
- 2) Brief, informal posts about scientific studies students find interesting and why, e.g. “Why the Zika virus may not be the only thing to blame for Brazil’s spike in microcephaly cases”;
- 3) A pointed reaction piece to a certain scientific issues circulating in the media, be it a new diet or a political talking point, e.g. “What Marco Rubio forgot to say during last night’s debate about how he’s fighting sea level rise in Florida.”
- Grading: Though students are encouraged to blog weekly, only three blogposts will be submitted for grading. Though they’ll be posted to the student blog, submit the published URL to Aleszu by 2pm E.T. on January 26, March 1, and March 29. Feel free to tweet it!
Twitter is a great venue for sharing stories, finding stories, joining discussions and finding sources. It’s also a great place for young writers to get noticed and join conversations halfway around the world.
- Goal: Sharing stories, finding stories, joining discussions and finding sources. Demonstrating you’ve found, read and are capable of summarizing science stories.
- Format: Students will be expected to tweet science stories they are reading in between class meetings. Before every class meeting, every student will be expected to tweet at least one story they have read that week to me @aleszubajak or use the hashtag #JOUR130B. A headline and a link will suffice. Providing extra context is better. Emojis are fine, too. If you find yourself drawing comparisons between stories or themes, tweet the connections you’re making. Come prepared to explain what your story is about, why it’s important and, in general terms, how it was reported. You must use this hashtag or mention @aleszubajak or I won’t be able to find your tweet! *Students with privacy concerns should feel free to create a private or anonymous Twitter account. Twitter is public: be careful what you write!
- Grading: Twitter activity will be counted towards your participation grade. Students must come to class prepared to explain, in a few sentences, the science stories they’ve read and tweeted.
This course will be heavily discussion-based so attendance and participation is expected at every class. We will be sharing ideas about the profession, stories we read, debates we’ve heard, and each other’s written work, both during class and on the class website. Every class will start with a discussion of topical science stories you’ve tweeted using the hashtag #JOUR130B or by tweeting at @aleszubajak. You must use this hashtag or mention @aleszubajak or I won’t be able to find your tweet! Though every student will be required to tweet at least one story before class, we’ll only discuss a handful.
Your grade will be determined by combining your scores on various written assignments with your in-class and online participation.
Participation, attendance, Twitter activity 10%
Blogposts (3) 10% each
Build a news story 10%
Event coverage 10%
Your news story 10%
Feature story 30%
University Policies and Standards
- We should respect our fellow classmates and work under the assumption that what is discussed here stays within the confines of the classroom.
- For your awareness, members of the University’s technical staff have access to all course sites to aid in course setup and technical troubleshooting. Students enrolled in online courses can expect that individuals other than their fellow classmates and the course instructor(s) may visit their course for various purposes. Their intentions are to aid in technical troubleshooting and to ensure that quality course delivery standards are met. Strict confidentiality of student information is maintained.
If you are a student with a documented disability on record at Brandeis University and wish to have a reasonable accommodation made for you in this course, please contact me immediately.
Academic Honesty and Student Integrity
Academic honesty and student integrity are of fundamental importance at Brandeis University and we want students to understand this clearly at the start of the term. As stated in the Brandeis Rights and Responsibilities handbook, “Every member of the University Community is expected to maintain the highest standards of academic honesty. A student shall not receive credit for work that is not the product of the student’s own effort. A student’s name on any written exercise constitutes a statement that the work is the result of the student’s own thought and study, stated in the student’s own words, and produced without the assistance of others, except in quotes, footnotes or references with appropriate acknowledgement of the source.” In particular, students must be aware that material (including ideas, phrases, sentences, etc.) taken from the Internet and other sources MUST be appropriately cited if quoted, and footnoted in any written work turned in for this, or any, Brandeis class. Also, students will not be allowed to collaborate on work except by the specific permission of the instructor. Failure to cite resources properly may result in a referral being made to the Office of Student Development and Judicial Education. The outcome of this action may involve academic and disciplinary sanctions, which could include (but are not limited to) such penalties as receiving no credit for the assignment in question, receiving no credit for the related course, or suspension or dismissal from the University.
University Caveat: The above schedule, content, and procedures in this course are subject to change in the event of extenuating circumstances.