Shout “science story” in a crowded newsroom and you’re liable to spark a stampede of (over caffeinated) reporters toward the exits.
But similar to a firefighter running into a burning building, School of Communication professor Declan Fahy would head directly to the assignment desk, fighting his way through the wave of fleeing journalism, English, and literature majors.
“For me science reporting was never about just taking what the specialists say and somehow translating it into lay persons’ terms, whatever lay persons’ terms are,” the American University professor said. “Science reporting has always been so much more than that. It’s about explanation, but it’s about putting all these different areas of expertise together in stories and really exploring the social and cultural dimensions of scientific work.”
'Cultural Dimensions of Science'
A native of County Longford in the Irish midlands, Fahy developed a passion for both science and journalism through the work of American authors like Tom Wolfe and Michael Crichton.
“The way cultural dimensions of science could be explored within popular communications channels intrigued me,” he said.
So after studying journalism at Dublin City University, Fahy earned a master’s degree in science communication. He then embarked on a reportorial career in which he wrote numerous science stories for papers including the Irish Daily Mirror and Longford Leader. At the Irish Times he worked extensively on stories about the foot and mouth disease crisis of the early 2000s.
“Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Irish economy, so this was a story of huge relevance,” he said. “It combined the economy with politics with individual people’s lives, but it also had this fundamental scientific dimension. It was a real grounding in science reporting. You’re talking to scientists, yes, but you’re also linking their ideas and views to what’s happening in culture. In your stories you’re merging what scientists say with what politicians say with what individual farmers say with what consumers say, so you’re providing a rounded picture of the implications of scientific work in a wider context.”
Exploring wider—and deeper—contexts led Fahy into academia, and in 2010 he joined American University’s SOC, where he teaches science reporting, understanding media, and directs the SOC portion of its joint international media degree with the School of International Service.
Fahy also is working on a paper with his colleague, SOC professor Matthew Nisbet, on the changing nature of science reporting.
“Science reporters now are undertaking a variety of roles,” Fahy said. “It’s not just reporting on the latest research from scientific literature, although that remains a big part of it. It’s more about taking on a role of the science critic or an interpreter of science. You report on the process of science in the way that political reporters report on the process of politics. There’s movement toward this kind of reporting in science which I think is long overdue and hugely welcome.”
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The media’s shift online has not excluded science reporters. Once privileged gatekeepers, they now play a role closer to the moderator of a forum open to all.
“We were talking to one science editor who said that he [tells] his reporters when they finish writing a story, that’s just the beginning of the process, it’s not the end as it was previously,” Fahy said. “There’s room for feedback, and different points of view. It’s a more ongoing, interactive process.”
But one principle taught in journalism schools for decades remains relevant.
“The role hasn’t changed in the idea of being a watchdog of elites in society,” Fahy said. “Science is an elite. There still needs to be a voice that can critique that institution and be very transparent in how it’s performing its critique.”
The intersection of science with big news stories is more common than one might think. Climate change, vaccinations, and evolution are among the topics that remain in the public consciousness. It’s not necessary for a reporter to have a PhD in physics, chemistry, or biology to cover these stories; rather, Fahy said, they must understand the basic mechanics of the scientific process.
“The skills of science reporting are about analysis and synthesis of information,” he said. “Science is a beat like any other beat. It’s not about learning equations or learning a lot of facts, it’s about understanding how science works. It’s often a false view that science is somehow abstract or removed from human concerns. It’s not at all. It’s a fundamentally human endeavor.”