What does it mean to be a science writer? Finding common ground at NASW

Glen Canyon Dam
“Excuse me, what are the numbers of the back of your shirt?” inquired the middle-aged bearded man beside me. We were on a tour of the Glen Canyon together as part of the National Association of Science Writers conference. A young women turned her head, “Ya, I was wondering that too. What are those?” The answer is they’re the GPS co-ordinates for the tree depicted on the shirt but that’s not the interesting part of the story. After answering them, I turned to a friend and noted how funny it was that no one had ever asked me that before. She laughed and said, “Yes, but you’re on a trip with journalists now. That’s what we do.”

Earlier this month I attended my first meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). I’m a new member (just admitted in August) and a non-traditional member, one without journalism training and writing mostly about science education. For me, an important part of the experience was trying to understand what it means to be a science writer in an age when so much about science writing is changing.

The NASW was founded in 1934 by a dozen science reporters seeking a forum to help promote good science writing and improve their skills. The original charter, from 1955, declares that the association strives to “foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public.” For most of its history, it has been an organization primarily for professional science journalists working in the magazine, newspaper and broadcast industries.

Membership in journalistic and writing organizations, like the NASW, is changing though. The International Federation of Journalists reported in 2006 that about 30% of members in their affiliate groups would be described as atypical media workers, with multimedia, part-time and freelance contributors making up an increasing portion of the media workforce.[i] The NASW itself has transitioned in recent years to welcome members beyond the press, including university and research center Public Information Officers (PIOs), who publicize and promote the research at their institutions, non-journalist science bloggers and even science education writers like me.

Significant transitions like this are difficult because they challenge the identity of both the organizations and their members. A Field Guide for Science Writers, a book that might be considered the unofficial handbook of the NASW, illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between science journalists and PIOs despite their common professional membership.

“…Some of the practices recommended here [in a section of the book describing PIOs] will not always meet with approval and acceptance from journalists. We caution that the mission of PIOs sometimes runs counter to the mission of journalists, and we urge all young journalists reading this book to become champions of one of the principles on which NASW was founded: the promotion of full and free access to the news.” (p. 258)

Similar tensions around blogging have calmed down recently but there have been bitter episodes of disagreement about practices, ethics and credibility.  Jay Rosen has argued the recurrence of these tensions may really be rooted in difficult changes and conflicts in journalists’ roles and professional identities.

Despite this unease, the Field Guide advocates that being a science writer transcends these disputes and differences of practice:

“All science writers share some common goals. Whether they write for a news organization, university, medical center, nonprofit, government, or industry, they find out what’s new and intriguing, or new and useful, or new and just plain fun to write about, and they explain it in a language that nonscientists will understand.” (p. 258)

Science writerjournalistblogger, Ed Yong, expressed a similar sentiment in his post “Am I a science journalist?” written about his experiences on a panel at the World Conference of Science Journalists this summer in Doha, Qatar:

“Am I a journalist? Honestly, I care less about the answer than I once did. I am not being blase – I care very deeply about journalism, but there are few things more boring than journalists arguing over what counts as journalism. We live in a world full of stories, about amazing people doing amazing things and terrible people doing terrible things. I will use every medium I can to tell those stories. I will try to tell them accurately so people aren’t misled. I will try to tell them well so people will listen.”

As new member of NASW, though, I wondered how this would play out in person. Would the conference be mostly segregated, with attendees preferring to mingle and attend sessions only with others in their own industry, or would it be united? Would the feeling be one of polite tolerance or truly of shared purpose?

I was a little bit surprised that the answer came on the field trip. As part of the conference, the organizers planned a rafting trip through the Glen Canyon, which ends just about where the Grand Canyon begins. We started our tour at the Glen Canyon Dam, built between 1956 and 1966 to meet the interstate water sharing agreements of Colorado River Compact and also to generate hydro-electricity. It was in the turbine room of the dam that I was asked about my t-shirt but my answer about shared purpose started forming as soon as we boarded the bus in the morning. We left in the early sunrise twilight of Flagstaff and drove two hours past hoodoos and vermilion cliffs. We climbed high above the valley and looked down at Marble Canyon below. Through most of the drive, curiosity reigned (well, mixed with some tiredness of course). Our guide was journalism professor and nature writer Peter Friederici, and he patiently answered an onslaught of questions about the history, geology and social economy of the region. One of the passengers, a PIO, joked with Peter that he was going to be sorry that he volunteered to drive because we’re all writers and he’d be sick to death of our questions soon.

Cool, an old turbine
And this was only the start. Everything on the dam tour, the canyon rafting trip and the drive to and from the location was subject to intense and genuinely curious questioning. Our guide at the dam showed us new turbines being installed. The originals, made from mild steel rather than stainless and now over 40 years old, are worn from cavitation, the creation and immediate explosion of bubbles in a liquid when the pressure drops quickly. Questions from the tour group ran from the technical “Is that the same process that affects boat propellers?” and “Are there turbines in the bypass channels?” to the economic “Did any US companies bid on the large contract?”  We asked about the grass field planted at the base of the dam (it keeps the dust from getting into the vents) and the leftover signs from an old self-guided tour (dropped due to security concerns). We asked about the wicket gates laid out for installation (they direct the water into the turbines) and about how the water level in the dam lake affects power generation (it only really has an impact below a certain threshold).

After touring the dam, we were divided into groups to board rafts with a river guide (ours an aspiring science teacher) and a USGS or local university scientist. Our group cut a cross section through the NASW membership. There were senior staff journalists, editors, PIOs, bloggers, freelancers, journalism professors and me.

Writer and Scientific American blogger Jennifer Frazer dutifully taking notes
Entering the canyon sparked questions about visible features such as, “What is that black film on the canyon?” (it was desert varnish), and about dam operations, “Does the sediment get deposited in the canyon or the lake? How is that monitored?” The non-native tamarisk treesand the beetle introduced to control them were particularly interesting. We were surprised to learn about its high water absorption and the disruption it has caused in nesting, asking questions like “Where did the flycatcher make nests before the tamarisk was introduced?”, “How can that little tree take up all the water?” and “This water absorption that you’re talking about, is there any evidence that it makes a difference?” Answers to these questions and more were scrawled in ever-present notebooks.

Journalistic identities have for much of their recent history been defined in a way that is specific to institutional media – to newspaper writing and news broadcasting on radio and television. These identities and ideologies help to bring communities together, to defend against external criticism and also to police from within. They give guidance to new members about what journalism and journalists should ideally stand for and practice.[ii] Traditionally, those values include have included service to the public, strict objectivity (an important value but one that has also been accused of leading to false balance reporting), writer autonomy, and immediacy and speed of reporting.[iii]

When science writers were almost exclusively science journalists, these same values and commitments would have guided their work and their relationships with each other. But what happens when the role of the science writer changes, when they are no longer all full time institutional conduits and translators of science news? What happens when they aren’t all journalists and when, even journalists included, they are also sometimes agenda-setters, watchdogs, civic educators, curators and advocates?[iv] How can they be a cohesive enough group to share a professional association?

What I saw in the Glen Canyon is that they can do it by turning to a shared value that underpins all of those roles: curiosity, questioning and wonder.  I don’t think there was any explicit or executive decision about this but that’s what I experienced at NASW 2011: people united by a shared practice of always asking to know more.

On the drive home from Glen Canyon, we were treated to an informative chat with a social scientist, an expert in Hopi and Navajo cultures from the USGS. After hearing her stories of getting to know community members and doing local research on food and housing practices, one of my NASW travel companions relayed a touching conversation she had with Hopi women working at the Glen Canyon Dam. She explained in beautiful detail the difficulty and compartmentalization necessarily for the women to sustain both a traditional and a modern life. She told us how the women tried to manage her job alongside the time and concentration needed to engage in traditional flour and bread making activities with her family. The social scientist, who had just told us her own stories of how long it took her to gain the trust of community members and really learn about traditional cultures, looked surprised. She has worked in the area for over 20 years and it had taken a long time to learn all that she has about Navajo and Hopi people and communities. “Wow,” she exclaimed, “you had quite the conversation.” My tour companion laughed and said again, “That’s what we do. We’re all writer types here and we ask way too many questions.” I smiled quietly to myself in the back of the van realizing that I’d learned something important about how such a diverse group gets along and finds a shared value in what they do.

Inside the Glen Canyon

[i] Fahy, D., & Nisbett, M.C. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 12(7), 778-793.

[ii] Deuze, M. (2005). What is journalism? : Professional identity and ideology of journalists reconsidered. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 6, 442-464.

 [iii] Deuze, M. (2008). Understanding journalism as newswork: How it changes, and how it remains the same. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 5(2), 4-23.

 [iv] Fahy, D., & Nisbett, M.C. (2011).


3 responses to “What does it mean to be a science writer? Finding common ground at NASW”

  1. Marie-Claire, I thought the same thing. At Lowell Observatory I heard one of the guides remark to another that our group was really interested in everything they had to say. When they switched the big telescope from looking at M16 to peer at Jupiter, I had so many questions that I DIDN’T have to ask because everyone was asking for me!

    I felt such a sense of community. We all ask questions, so it was permissible to ask questions. I’m normally a little anxious in social situations, but I could tell at the conference, these were my people.

    • Hi Marissa – Thanks, I felt much the same way. I learned so much at the dam because of the questions everyone asked.
      It was great to meet you at the conference, hope to see you there again!

Leave a Reply