Talking shop with science journalists


A panel of leading journalists gave a talk titled “Pulling Back the Curtain” on Wednesday, Oct. 21 in Honors Hall.

HANNAH WELZBACKER | Evergreen reporter

The WSU Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach (CERO) hosted four leading journalists Wednesday evening to discuss the field of science communication.

The event, titled “Pulling back the Curtain,” followed Tuesday’s presentation by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ken Weiss.

CERO Director Stephanie Hampton started the event by talking about the training that will occur on Thursday and Friday for 17 WSU scientists to improve their communication skills and help them better present their research.

Nancy Baron, who will be conducting this workshop, is the outreach director of the Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS).

“People talking to people changes society,” Baron said.

The presenters discussed the changing media landscape and the necessity of environmental journalists.

“There is an entire community of journalists that cover the environment, and their job is to make science more interesting and engaging,” said Jeff Burnside, investigative reporter for Komo 4 News in Seattle and a WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication alumnus.

He is also the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, the mission of which is to strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism across all media and to advance public understanding of environmental issues, according to its website.

The journalists stressed they are readily available, and scientists need to make relationships with writers so stories can be accurate and understandable.

“We cannot worry about sounding stupid”, said Ashley Ahearn, environmental reporter at KUOW radio. “You have to check your ego at the door.”

Science journalists must balance accuracy in a story with the need to create human connections, she said. With her writing she aims to take what is specific in science and make it universal by relating it to human themes.

“If I can make one person go hiking and see the world differently, I feel like I won,” Ahearn said.

Another presenter was Weiss, who has covered science, the environment and public health. He said he believes scientists and journalists both work to uncover and reach honest answers instead of what is popular opinion.

“More commonalities exist between scientists and journalists than differences,” Weiss said.

Many communication majors in the audience asked questions about the declining job field and asked the presenters how they approached declining viewership.

“The public has more access to better quality science journalism, but the job isn’t paying more,” said David Malakoff, deputy news editor for Science Magazine.

Most of the journalists were not scared by low viewership numbers, instead looking forward to new forms of media.

“If we don’t adapt now then news will die. I think mainstream media needs to change, which actually makes journalists happy,” Ahearn said.

“There is a disconnect between policy and science and the missing link is journalism,” she said.