Page last updated at 16:54 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Top ten tips: Reporting on science

The BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh gives students his top 10 tips for reporting on science stories.

BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh
Savour every moment of reporting on science, says the BBC's Pallab Ghosh

1. Ask yourself: Why is the story important? It's part of BBC News' philosophy that the "why?" is as important as the "who, what, where and when" in a news story.

This is particularly relevant when covering science stories which can be detailed and complex.

The answer to the "why?" question is often the most interesting part of the story.

For example, this was what I said about the launch of a new space telescope: "It will be the first to take high definition snapshots across the entire Sun every three-quarters of a second - enabling scientists to see solar processes unfold in greater detail than ever before".

2. Tell the story to someone else before you write it. I've often gone into an edit suite with my script, ready to voice over a TV report, only to tear it up and start again after I've explained the story to the picture editor I'm working with. That is because, however good you are at writing, you will always convey a story more directly and engagingly if you tell someone else what it is and why it's interesting, in two or three sentences.

3. Your job is not just to enthuse. When I first started out as a science journalist, most people in the profession saw themselves as cheer-leaders for science, enthusing about the wonder of a particular piece of research. There was also a view that science journalists should artfully explain complex, jargon-ridden science.

Now we report on controversial topics such as GM crops, cloning and climate change, which have a political, as well as scientific, dimension. In addition, scientists with one eye on their next grant can, with the help of their press officers, hype their research. As a science journalist, your job is to challenge what you are told.

4. Sometimes it's OK to enthuse. Although science journalists are careful to stick to the facts and not get carried away, occasionally something is so exciting, so awe-inspiring and so fantastic. For example, none of us could contain our joy at reporting on the potential marvels of the Large Hadron Collider when it was first switched on. In cases like this, it is appropriate to cheer from the rooftops!

5. Science is not the truth. The Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman famously explained that when interviewing ministers he would think to himself: "Why is this person lying to me?"

Now, that's not to say that scientists fall into the same category as politicians. But it is worth realising that there's plenty of debate in all fields of research, and science journalists should not take what one particular scientist says at face value.

When covering a particular piece of research, ask other scientists what they think of the work. You might find that the story doesn't stand up or, as is more often the case, it's even more interesting than you thought.

6. Find out whether the research has been published in a scientific journal. Publication in a scientific journal means that a piece of research has been checked by other experts in the field, is deemed to be new and its conclusions can be justified.

It's no guarantee that the research is solid. For example, a leading scientific journal published claims that Korean researchers had cloned a human embryo, which were subsequently found to be untrue.

However, a story is more likely to be solid if it is in a journal.

7. Research doesn't always have to be published for you to report on it. Research presented at scientific conferences won't have gone through the rigorous checking processes it would have if it were published in a journal.

But, because the work is being presented in a public forum by reputable scientists, science journalists do report these stories. It's a good way of getting ahead of the pack - but if you do report it, say that the work is unpublished.

Also, during national emergencies, leading scientists are called upon by government to carry out research to help tackle the problem. This was the case in the recent swine Flu epidemic and the foot and mouth crises of 2001 and 2007.

Because of the urgency of the situation, there's no time to put the research through the normal checking process. But we do report this research because it has been informally assessed by leading experts.

8. Get out more. It is all too easy to wait for press releases to drop into your inbox. But these stories also end up in the inboxes of hundreds of other journalists. That's why you'll probably see the same mildly interesting stories in newspapers and on radio and TV. But the really interesting stories are out there in the thousands of laboratories we have across the world. So try and get to interesting labs and talk to interesting people.

9. Follow your passion, not the crowd. Just because everyone else is writing about stem cells, it doesn't mean you have to. If you become a science journalist it is probably because you are fascinated by the stories. Don't lose that fascination. Rely on it to help you follow great stories.

10. Enjoy yourself. You get to talk to fascinating people about some of the most interesting stories of our time. Science journalism is the best job in the world. Savour every moment.




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