What journalists can learn from scientists (and vice versa)

Journalist Anne Jefferson has been tasked with writing about two versions of the same science story: one written by a scientist, the other by a science journalist. In a story published by geology and earth science news site Highly Allochthonous (allochthonous is geo-talk for rocks found in a place other than where they were formed) Jefferson notes that the first discrepancy she noticed was the headlines:

1. “The varying distribution of fresh water across the globe, involving complex patterns of rainfall in space and time, crucially affects the ecosystems and infrastructure on which human societies depend.”

2. “Climate change may be hitting home.”

Jefferson writes that both headlines have strengths and weaknesses, and “the two forms of writing serve very different purposes for very different audiences.” The real problem emerged once you dug down to the message each story carried. The first offered detailed, well-explained information about the connection between a warming climate and extreme precipitation — the “why.” The second — the one written by the journalist — explained the implications to the insurance industry, but skipped over the “why” part entirely.

Jefferson offers two bits of advice.

To scientists: “If you want to write better, start by carefully reading good writing.”

And to science journalists: “Explain not just what the paper of the week found, but why the result was obtained. Use those fantastic writing skills to communicate the science behind the science.”