The Curious Cynic

By Madeline Bodin

Cornelia Dean, currently on leave as editor of The New York Times’ science section, said she was concerned that her presentation, “Political Science: Science narratives for an election year” was too bleak.

She gave example after example of the pitfalls that await even the elite of science journalists. That, it’s true, may not inspire anyone to run out and beg for a science beat. But as someone who has covered science, I can tell you her examples rang true. I’ll use many of the tips she gave in my next article.

But for me, the overarching “tip” was this: In speaking about science and science journalism, Dean shows a remarkable mixture of cynicism and wonder.

She recalled a colleague who called some breakthroughs in microbiology “new hope for the dead.”

Dean once pitched a story on a fountain of antimatter in space for the front page of The New York Times with the argument that it was just really cool. Sometimes, she said, in science journalism, the answer to the question, “What is the implication of this?” is just that. (“Because it is really cool.”)

That balance of cynicism and wonder in myself is something I’ll be thinking about the next time I sit down to write a science story.

Madeline Bodin is a freelance science writer.

Posted in mistakes in reporting, science, sessions.Science Narratives for an Election Year, speakers.Cornelia Dean on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Describe, Don't Decide

By Elizabeth Walters

"Make every word count" is a phrase many beginning journalists are instructed to remember and write by. It can be a difficult process cutting out all those little extras we constructed so carefully. But in his session "Shaping Realities," Jack Hart showed us that we can't stop at a spare, accessible style and call an article ready. In our exercises, we learned that, in fact, every word does count, so we'd better be sure that we mean each word we place on the page.

The assignment seemed innocuous -- we were given some facts and a description of a man and then had 10 minutes to write a narrative lede about him. In the first exercise, he'd won the lottery; in the second, his son had died in Iraq. We wrote our paragraphs, using only the information on the paper -- and then found out that much of our writing was based on assumptions we couldn't prove.

How did we know he'd change because he won the lottery? How did others of us know he wouldn't change? How did we know the drought was to blame for the failed crops? Maybe he was just a lousy farmer. How do we know he's sad about his son? Maybe they hated each other.

And so on. We quickly learned that much of what we hold to be truth in a story, especially in description and characterization, is based on our own assumptions and values. But Hart made it a painless lesson -- after all, once we're aware that we're working from assumption, we can do more legwork and work from truth.

But Hart cautioned that we shouldn't shy away from description. "We also go wrong," he said, "by holding back too much of ourselves."

P.S.: He also said everyone needs to read "The Art and Craft of Feature Writing" by Bill Blundell.

Elizabeth Walters is a copy editor for the Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H.

Posted in ethical reporting, mistakes in reporting, sessions.Ethics of Framing the World with Narrative, speakers.Jack Hart on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Media Reality vs. Actual Reality


By Matt Thompson

What's the poorest city in the U.S.? asked Bob Herbert.

"Detroit!" some participants shouted out. "Baltimore!"

One guy got it right ... Miami.

Miami? Like, "Golden Girls" Miami? South Beach Miami?

That's the media picture we get of the city, reinforced by news headlines screaming football and glamor, strangely different from the actual picture. Much like the recent news about the dip in unemployment. "If you look at the headlines in the past couple months," said Herbert, "you would think we were approaching some sort of economic nirvana." Unemployment plunges to 5.9 percent! crow the headlines. Best numbers in nine months, say economists!

Too many of us journalists, Herbert said, forget that nine months ago, everyone was decrying the post-apocalyptic state of the economy.

But ordinary people -- those searching for jobs in this supposedly sizzling economic upturn, social workers who say it hasn't been this dire in years -- they remember. They'll give you some reality, said Herbert.

Get out of the newsroom; that's Herbert's idea. Get off the phone with the economist, and talk to that guy on the street. What has the economic upturn done for him lately?

Matt Thompson is a reporter for Poynter Online.

Posted in business, economics, & work, cross-cultural reporting, mistakes in reporting, sessions.Real Lives and Tough Times of Ordinary Americans, speakers.Bob Herbert on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink