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Local science writing experts share experiences, offer advice for science reporting

Consider how news science-based stories are framed for the reader. Ask scientists about why a natural or human-caused occurrence happens. Take advantage of Madison-based science resources.


Training event attendees included students, journalists, science communicators, and freelance writers.

Those are some of the suggestions offered at “Secrets for Success in Science Journalism,” the spring 2017 training session presented this month by the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The training was generously sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin State Journal. The UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication generously provided classroom space for the training.


During the “How I Learned to Love Science” session, Rebecca Wallace reminded attended that journalists and scientists are a lot alike.

Trainer Ron Seely, a freelance science and environment writer and senior lecturer in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication said science, and evolutionary science, is found in every day reporting. Reporters, he said, need to listen to people in their communities, explore the natural world, and ask questions, particularly “Why?”

Rebecca Wallace, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory, and Mark Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel health and science reporter, discussed how their careers led to writing about science. Wallace said she and scientists at the forest lab needed to overcome mistrust when she was hired to write about their work. “One of the most effective questions I asked is what do people get wrong about your research?” Wallace said.  Johnson said he began as a general assignment reporter but learned to love science by researching and writing about a deceased whale and the scientific research undertaken of its carcass — which included potential implications on human health.

Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison science writer, and Adam Hinterthuer, director of programs at the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources and communications for the Center for Limnology at UW-Madison, reviewed a number of resources available to science journalists. They discussed top science writing handbooks and websites, national science writing fellowship opportunities, campus resources for story ideas and sources, and an extensive list of science resources unique to Wisconsin. SPJ Science Journalism Success AH+KAT

Dominique Broussard, chairwoman of Life Sciences Communication, said science reporting is often consumed by readers who have their own biases and perceptions. Often science is believed when it reinforces a preconceived notion. As a result, how stories are framed is important, as is who delivers the message, she said.

Gregory Nemet, UW-Madison associate professor of public affairs and environmental studies, suggested that it might be a good idea for journalists to let scientists review descriptions of their work to ensure accuracy – something he experienced in Germany.

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