I wrote my first astronomy story recently. It was one of those stories where the journal/research organisation press release sounds amazing and you think, ‘wow, this story is going to write itself’.
Then you look at the actual paper and you can’t even understand what the title means. Reading the abstract makes your brain leak out your ears and trying to read the study itself makes you wonder if they’re even communicating in the same language.
This is usually when I preface my interview of the expert by saying, “I’m very sorry, but I’m going to ask some really stupid questions.”
But sometimes asking stupid questions can help because it reminds the scientist to take it down a notch, to think and talk in simpler terms for a lay audience rather than assuming that they’re talking to someone with background in their field of expertise.
This reminds me of question that seems to dog science and medical reporting: do you need a science/medical background to write about science and medicine?
I used to think ‘yes’, but I’m now of the view that it’s much more important to be a good journalist – to be able to ask the questions your audience would ask, and to ask the questions your audience might not think to ask but which are equally important.
(Having said that, I firmly believe in the importance of having dedicated science journalists in the mainstream media because covering a beat means you build up a vital store of contextual knowledge and background that can help you judge the importance of a story, and clue you into some of those tricky questions to ask.)
I have a general science background only. I did a Bachelor of Science at university, majoring in biology. I don’t have an honours degree or a PhD but I grew up in a medical household so I like to think I have absorbed a fair degree of medical knowledge as well.
But none of that is any help when writing about astronomy, quantum physics, fast-moving consumer goods, industrial relations or politics, all of which I have written or spoken about on radio at one time or another.
Instead, I just have to work out the right questions to ask, often starting with painfully stupid ones and working my way up to the incisive ones.
Taking that approach to my astronomy story (which you can read here) worked out in the end.