Knight Center
Knight Center


Seven tips in science journalism for finding good story ideas

Creating narratives in science journalism can be difficult, demanding and time consuming. In many cases the topics are dry, scientific publications are complicated to understand and the research is not always easily accessible. To facilitate the entry of their findings into the media, many universities and scientific magazines periodically pitch story ideas to reporters. This helps, but can also create a detrimental effect: the production of near-identical stories in every publication.

How do you avoid this trap and instead produce original and creative content that appeals to the public? The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas spoke with several renowned science journalists in Latin America and compiled some tips on this topic. Don’t be surprised if a majority of these also serve for journalism in general. After all, the principle behind good science stories is the same as those in other areas: investigation.

"--What are you doing? -- Waiting for a story." Waiting for ideas to come to you is a common error, especially in scientific journalism. (Source: Online Course on Scientifc Journalism of the WFSJ and SciDev.Net).
  1. Develop primary sources – and keep them organized. “The main difference between one journalist and another are his sources”, says Alicia Ivanissevich, executive editor of the monthly magazine Ciência Hoje. To get a better grasp in matters that require a high technical understanding, such as science, these sources normally are scientists, academics or staff at universities who know what is being produced there. “Make and organize a list of sources and periodically stay in contact with them, be it through email, phone, or personally,” advises Alicia. But how do you find these sources?  On university websites, the internet, interviews, seminars, conferences…which takes us to our second point.
  2. Mix it up: leave the newsroom!  Just because scientific journalism involves a lot of reading and study doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find things outside of the newsroom. “We should realize how passive we are,” says Carla Almeida, who serves as Ciência Hoje’s website editor and also holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “We should also reach out to the researchers, expand that network of reporters and scientists,” she recommends. Going to conferences, seminars, conduct personal interviews, connecting with universities and "chasing the story" are essential ways to find good sources and leads. The Online Course on Scientific Journalism of the World Federation of Scientific Journalists (WFSJ) and the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) offer tips on developing sources in science.
  3. Be a journalist 24 hours a day. This may be obvious advice to find ideas on a daily basis, but the gap between science and everyday life can also occur in the media. This is the main piece of advice from Valeria Román, a science and health journalist for Argentine Clarín newspaper and former vice president of the WFSJ. "For example, I saw a recital in support of the Wichí people in 2011 and heard that a young woman was studying at the university towards a career in nursing. I asked the organizer to notify me when she arrived and that is how it happened. The result was a story on the first Wichí university nursing student, published in Clarín," she says.
  4. Be critical. Does scientific journalism mean explaining research and findings produced by the scientific community to the public at large? Yes, but not just that. Many good story ideas occur just as we notice the faults in defined processes, including the scientific ones. "Should science journalists be 'revealers of the rotten' in pursuit of heroic takedowns, or should they embrace steadier values?", asked Jay Rosen, media professor at New York University and author of the blog PressThink, during a 2012 conference of science journalists in the United Kingdom. Scientific fraud, for example, could be sources for good story ideas. One example is Ed Yong, known both for his informative science stories and his investigative reports published in the prestigious magazine Science. More tips: Retraction Watch monitors articles that were removed from science magazines for various reasons (known as retracted papers) and can be a good source for ideas. Another observation, Embargo Watch monitors how news embargos relating to science impact newsmaking and the publicizing of science.
  5. Monitor the media. International platforms like the Guardian, New York Times, Wired and BBC have great science sections. In Latin America, one good example is SciDev.Net, which publishes content, analyses, and information on science and technology in developing countries. The blog MIT Tracker, part of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, comments and critiques coverage on science from news organizations all over the world. The Mexican magazine, ¿Cómo ves?, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, also can be an inspirational source, as well as the Brazilian magazines Ciência Hoje and Revista Fapesp. The blog Questões da Ciência, written by journalist Bernardo Esteves, for the magazine Piauí, also is a great place to understand the most recent quid pro quos in the world of science. That is, by the way, a tip from the blog network from the webpage for National Georgraphic, Phenomena. "There is no recipe to find good story ideas," adds Bernardo. "To have good ideas, you need to have bad ideas. It is like sculpture: you begin with a block and, for the final result to end up well, you need to have a lot of unused material on the floor."
  6. In 1983, Veja magazine was tricked and reported that researchers had created a hybrid with cells from beef and tomato, the famous "boimate" case.

    Participate in social networks and journalist groups.  In Argentina, the  Argentine Network of Scientific Journalism (Red Argentina de Periodismo Científico, in Spanish) shares contact information and recommendations about sources. "The words and ideas of colleagues will always enrich your coverage," suggests Valeria Ramón, of Clarín. Twitter, as always, is a great source for leads: follow the more interesting scientists, reporters and scientific bloggers such as Wired's David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs), Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer); blogger and columnist for the New York Times; and Ed Yong (@edyong209). Discussion groups in Facebook about specific themes also can help. Alicia indicates, for example, the group Astrobiologia no Brasil, where journalists, scientists and those interested in the issue exchange links, articles, critiques and ideas.

  7. Watch out for scams. Sometimes a story idea that appears incredible ends up backfiring, or a magazine that appears presitigious is actually a fraud. An example of the former case is the classic "boimate", from the Brazilian magazine Veja. The publication was tricked on April 1, 1983, by the American magazine New Scientist and published a note --  taken from an infographic! -- about German scientists who fused tomato cells with those of beef. An example of the latter are the fake conferences and academic periodicals that, with names very similar to their originals (for example, the fake Entomology-2013 and the original Entomology 2013), deceive scientists and reporters in the world of false academia.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter "Journalism in the Americas"

Boletim Semanal (Português)
Boletín Semanal (Español)
Weekly Newsletter (English)
Marketing by ActiveCampaign