Dr. Shybut Goes to Washington: Behind the scenes of science news and science writing

Mikel Shybut
Mikel is a fellow at the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS) in Washington, D.C. from the University of California, Berkeley where he recently earned his PhD in plant biology. He is funded by the UC Global Food Initiative as part of the communication, literacy and education for agricultural research (CLEAR) project.

Mikel in the GENeS office at the University of California, Washington Center, D.C.

GENeS: It’s in the name.

It was my first day at Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS) and we were discussing new story ideas. I offered up a few press releases I thought were interesting, including one for an upcoming paper about how incorrect cloud modeling may have underestimated the effects of global warming. Though the paper went on to receive mainstream coverage, my idea was quickly shot down.

GENeS is unique, I learned. We are a non-profit news service that connects journalists and policymakers with scientific experts in a given field. But we have a set of operating principles to work primarily on genetics-related stories in human medicine, agriculture, and the environment.

This focus is a strength of GENeS–not publicity-driven but guided by our principles to cover relevant, impactful stories such as our recent piece on the 2nd case of gene-edited human embryos, and to increase the pool of scientific experts available to the media. These experts provide 3rd party critiques of recently published articles and offer journalists a 2nd opinion.

So while the cloud-modeling story was interesting, it wasn’t related to genetics.

This should’ve been obvious to me. ‘Genetic’ is literally in our name. But I hadn’t considered how news organizations may have to say no to a story, especially an interesting story that is likely to get coverage.

But that’s exactly why I’m here, to figure out how an organization like GENeS functions by peeking behind the curtain of the science news process.


So, how does news work?

I mean, I know how news works. Things happen. Journalists write articles about those things. Those articles get published. Rinse and repeat.

But how does news operate?  That is, how do journalists decide what to write about and how do they get their stories published?

To get a sense of what science journalists do and how to get started, my colleague recommended I attend the D.C. Science Writers Association’s (DCSWA’s) annual Professional Development Day. This event is where early career science writers in the area convene with seasoned journalists to share stories and strategies for success.

So what do journalists do and what do they recommend for interested science writers?

After my first week working for GENeS and attending DCSWA’s Professional Development Day, I’ve uncovered a few answers and some helpful tips for aspiring science writers.


‘Write what you know!’

As a DCSWA Professional Development Day scholar, I covered a panel discussion on writing for alternative markets, outlets other than big-name newspapers and magazines.

The speakers praised freelancing as an essential tool for anyone interested in writing and highly recommended that all writers freelance, even if fully employed.

But how should a writer decide what to write about?

“Write what you know!” advised Amy Rogers-Nazarov, who has been freelancing since 1990, suggesting that a writer’s passion for a topic will be reflected in the quality of the story.

For graduate students or anyone with a full-time job, freelancing can be an important way to diversify their portfolio. Writers can use freelancing to write about topics they care about but may not be directly related to their work.

Knight professor of journalism and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum discussed her passion for science journalism, calling it “one of the best and most important jobs in the world.”

And there’s no better time to get involved than now.

She encouraged writers to engage at this moment, when science and technology are overlapping more than ever, as one of the best times to be in science journalism.


How to get started?

What’s an easy way to get started?  Plug into your regional science writers association!

The D.C. Science Writers Association has over 500 active members and organizes dozens of events, tours, workshops and happy hours.  For Berkeley students, the Northern California Science Writers Association is also very active and a great resource.  And there’s also the National Association of Science Writers.

I attended just a single event but left with a bunch of ideas.  There are many ways to get started, you just have to pick one.

You could even attend an event at your regional science writers association and then write a blog post about it.


DCSWA Professional Development Day Session Summaries by Scholarship Winners:

Northern California Science Writers Association:

National Association of Science Writers:

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