Write science right

By Henrylito D. Tacio

 

I was riding a bus and was reading my favorite newspaper.  A few minutes later, the woman sitting next to me asked me if she could read the other pages.  An article on diabetes caught her attention.  She told me that her father died of the disease and wanted to know if it is hereditary.

 

On another occasion, a man asked me if he could borrow the magazine I was holding which I was not reading.  One of the articles discussed in the magazine, as its cover said, was geothermal power.  He wanted to find out more what about the subject since his family lives near Mount Apo.

 

These two incidents have proven two points.  The first is that ordinary people read anything related to science.   The second is that when nonscientists are looking for scientific information, they turn to mass media (newspapers and magazines, television, or radio).

 

Yes, people are now reading science articles and features these days.  As Queena N. Lee-Chua wrote in the preface of her book, Cogito ergo sum and other musing on science, wrote: “Like any other human endeavor, science has gone beyond its traditional confines of textbooks and journals into the public realm of sci-fi, daily news, poetry collections, personal musings, cable channels, interactive museums.   Science has also freed itself from the conventional triumvirate of bio-chem-physics and has blossomed into interdisciplinary and applied areas.  Science has become ubiquitous in our world.  Science is now hip!”

 

I became a science journalist by choice.  When I was starting my career as a journalist, I didn’t know what beat to join.  It was not after attending a workshop convened by the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) on environmental reporting that I finally discovered my place under the sun: science writing.

 

I was on the right track.  My article on disappearing marine turtles and endangered coral reefs earned me citations from the science journalism awards sponsored by PPI.  In 1995, my series on vanishing Philippine species won me a third prize in the science journalism awards. 

 

For winning the grand prize in 1997 (for an article on diabetes) and 1998 (for a collaborative effort on global warming with my sister Elena D. Tacio), I was elevated to the hall of fame by PPI.

 

“I asked editors who are present here to use more science articles and features in their papers,” I told the audience when I accepted the award in Makati City.  “More often than not, science stories are buried in inside pages.  Science stories are also the first to go in case there are breaking stories.”

 

Oftentimes, science stories are long because they need necessary explanation.  But editors want those stories short because they think only very few people read them.  “When I was working on a newspaper,” recalls American science writer Susan West, “the editors would cut any science story down to 500 words.  They didn’t believe there was anything important enough in science that couldn’t be said in 500 words.”

 

It is my dilemma, too.  I write long articles and features.  This is one of the reasons why editors won’t publish them.  “Can you make your stories short,” they asked me.  But it’s very hard to do. 

 

In most cases, the story suffers.  Listen to the explanation of Patrick Young, a science writer for a news service in the United States: “If we’re trying to explain, for example, the various research techniques used to high-energy physics, we really can get bogged down.”

 

Now, if the Ten Commandments were to written in present time for newspapers, the report would be something like this: “The Lord God issued ten commandments today.  The three most important were…”

 

Yes, it is a very hard task to write a science report if you are given limited words.   When I wrote the series on vanishing Philippine species, I had to explains such words as “carrying capacity,” “biodiversity,” “hotspots,” “endangered,” “facing extinction,” and “endemic.”

 

Science writers usually have more science background than general assignment reporters and consequently have an easier time dealing with complex scientific subjects.  But when a science story is given to someone who is not equipped to write such story, the tendency is just quoting the expert and writes it the way the words were spoken.

 

“They don’t have enough background to ask intelligent questions or write intelligent stories,” observed Ron Kotulak, science reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  “They take the easy way out; they go for the jugular.”

 

In the past, only very few editors gave space to science stories.  Today, some publishers and editors are giving one whole page or two for science articles.  For instance, the Philippine Daily Inquirer comes up with a science page every Saturday (where articles on medicine, environment, technology, and agriculture are published).   Sun Star Davao and its sister publications are also following suit. 

 

Despite the recognitions science received in recent years, writers who report those innovations, technologies and breakthroughs that affect human lives are not given due respect.  The words of Edward Edelson, science editor of the New York Daily News, come to mind: “I have the feeling that science writers generally are treated like plumbers.  A plumber is someone you call in when you need technical information.  You pay for the information, but you have no particular respect for the plumber as anything but a fixer of plumbing. In the same way, a science writer is paid well for writing about genes or whatever technical, and is sent to the back row when affairs of real importance arise.”

 

But on second thought, thanks for science reporting, I was able to attend international scientific gatherings in various parts of the world:  Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bali, Indonesia; Durban, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia; Bangkok, Thailand; and Florida, United States.  I had also the pleasure of attending the fourth world conference of science journalists in Montreal, Canada.

 

Had it not been for science reporting, I won’t have those opportunities of hobnobbing with famous experts in their chosen fields.  When I attended the 13th AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, I was able to talk with Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela who urged not to discuss where AIDS started or came from.  “The disease is already here,” he said.  “We have to find ways how to combat it now!”

 

Science reporting, anyone?

 

For comments, write me at henrytacio@gmail.com

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