Write like a human! A report from SciWrite 2020

The pandemic has a few upsides: students from Science Writing (ENG 520) got to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers from their office chairs. Here is the first of a series of posts with their perspectives.

Write Like a Human – Tips from Veteran Science Communicators on Reaching Your Audience

By Mason Hayes

Sometimes, when boiling down research for productive topics in science writing, it’s easy to forget the importance of recognizing the humans on the other side of the screen. Now, when the need for humanity to find its way into our science coverage seems greater than ever before, all of us who participate in science communication can use some reminders of how to do this.

Below are some major points taken from panelists and presenters at the most recent National Association of Science Writers Conference, ScienceWriters2020. These tips tackle hot button issues of race and climate change, and suggest some ways science writing can meet them head-on.

Highlight the “why” in issues of diversity
In a year highlighted by examples of systemic inequity, news and science journalists are instrumental in making changes to the way science treats and benefits diverse groups of people. Robert Samuels of the Washington Post points out that, in the context of issues like the COVID-19 crisis, the responsibility lies on the shoulders of science writers to highlight the experiences of BIPOC communities. And, Samuels, suggests, giving these communities the spotlight is not enough; when confronted with higher rates of death and exposure, we must be willing to interrogate the why of the issue and expose the inequities responsible for the observations we make.
Get interdisciplinary
You may not often find yourself looking to non-STEM disciplines for material for science communication, but freelancers like Natalie Rogers point out that doing so can be  beneficial for adding the human perspective to your writing. Even in intensely technical fields, finding an angle from the humanities and social sciences can help science writers to ask unique and generative questions. In doing so, an avenue is also provided for inclusion; not merely of outside disciplines, but of the human issues behind all of the science you report.
When possible, find the humor in your topic
This can be a tough recommendation to follow for some, but sometimes the best way to bridge a gap on a polarizing issue is to humanize the approach itself. Maxwell Boykoff, climate communicator and professor at University of Colorado Boulder points out that there exists no single, silver bullet for getting the existential impact of climate change across. Instead, he suggests, we need to be using “silver buckshot;” targeting new and unexpected pathways for learning about the climate in places not previously explored. One of these areas, Boykoff suggests, is humor. Making the right joke about a major issue can help to show its absurdity, or to show a contradiction in the way some of us approach a topic. Additionally, the earworm-like quality of humor can sometimes be more memorable than simply reporting the facts.
Search for common ground on divisive issues
In conversations about politically divisive issues such as climate change, veteran communicators like Karin Kirk have found that pointing a finger at disbelievers is no longer going to cut it. Instead, Kirk suggests that the only way to bridge the divide in belief on climate change is to figure out where we can agree. This can be done by starting with science for it’s own sake, as Kirk suggests that “people do like science…not when it intrudes on their freedoms, but there is still an awe appeal there.” We can start by using science to more effectively show the “cool” factor of new solutions to climate issues. Kirk also emphasizes a need to break down the barriers perceived by expertise, and has found that when scientists communicate in direct, unobscured settings to people uncertain about the magnitude of the climate crisis, it becomes fairly easy to sway them in the right direction. The best way to bridge divisiveness, though it may take some practice, is to meet people where they are and build trust.