Covering the ‘Wow’ Beat: an Interview with Ed Yong

12 March 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: hisks/stock.xchng

This blog focuses on science communication from blogging to institutional communication to mainstream reporting. It was almost inevitable that I’d end up interviewing Ed Yong, who started in institutional communication, moved to blogging and now writes for mainstream news outlets ranging from Nature to Slate while maintaining his “Not Exactly Rocket Science” blog on National Geographic’s science salon site, Phenomena.

A lot of reporters go on to become public information officers (PIOs). Few PIOs go on to become reporters. I wanted to ask Yong about that transition, and how he manages to crank out so many stories.

Communication Breakdown: You blogged steadily for several years before making it a full-time job. What made you start blogging in the first place?

Ed Yong: A friend of mine actually forwarded an email that I sent her when I first launched my blog. So here are my reasons as expounded by 2006 me: “It’s an outlet for me to flex a couple of interests - science and writing - and get some good practice in combining the two. It’s also a chance for me to write without worrying about the usual constraints of accessibility, journalistic styles, finding stories that others haven’t covered yet etc. It’s just me, writing for the sake of it, about stuff wot I find fascinating, in the discursive narrative style that I feel most comfortable with.”

CB: Prior to becoming a full-time blogger/reporter – which appears to be a distinction without a difference in your case – you worked as head of the Health Evidence and Information unit at Cancer Research UK. Did your experience on the public relations side of things help or hinder you in any way as you transitioned to full-time reporting?

Ed Yong (Image courtesy of Russ Creech, @RussCreech)

EY: It helped in two big ways. At CRUK, we tested a lot of our leaflets and other materials with people most at risk of cancer, including people without much education, or those from low-income communities. It was an amazing lesson as to what level of scientific language and explanation a truly “general reader” can cope with before tuning out. There’s no more interesting lesson for a science writer than to watch a focus group behind a one-way mirror as they read what you wrote.

Second, we answered emails from people who had been confused/misled/angered by something they read in the paper. And we had to go on TV and radio and be the voice of reason, when the rest of the media were falling into misconception. Both of these experiences showed me how destructive bad science PR or journalism can be for readers, and how horrible it can be for interviewees and sources to be misquoted or misrepresented. I think they’ve helped me to be a better journalist. Certainly a more empathetic one.

CB: You’ve written about everything from “functional necrophilia” in frogs to research into collective decision-making. Is there a consistent theme that connects the research topics you’re interested in?

EY: It’s that I’m interested in them? I don’t give a monkey’s about importance or public relevance or other such criteria. The only one that matters to me, as far as my blog is concerned, is that something interests me. That is excites or inspires or amuses me. I say on Twitter that I cover “the wow beat,” which is a bit of an affectation but is also basically true.

Also, I largely stick to biological topics – what Phil Plait might describe as fleshy science. That ranges from animal behaviour to psychology to neuroscience. I tend to avoid areas like physics or geosciences that I’m not well-versed in. There are plenty of great journalists in these fields and readers will be better served delving into their work than sampling my shallower efforts.

CB: Out of curiosity, what do you think is the most bizarre subject you’ve written about?

EY: No idea. I’ve written about bees sensing electric fields of flowers,and wasps that turn caterpillars into head-bangers, and the bungee penises of alligators, and bacteria that ride hurricanes, and other bacteria that form living electric cables, and illusions that can give you out-of-body experiences. When you do this job, “bizarre” rapidly becomes “day-to-day.”

CB: You publish an impressive number of stories each month (I counted 10 stories in a single week in January). What is your process for going from “journal article in hand” to “story posted online”?

EY: We’re talking news stories here, right? Roughly: read paper; call researcher to ask some questions and send paper out to independent people for comments; write story; file/publish. The writing bit unpacks in many different ways but involves lots of background reading, jotting down snippets of sentences and explanations along the way, going through the paper again, highlighting good bits from interview transcripts, simmering, and stirring regularly.

And regularly reading the Internet for reasons that best escape me.

CB: You have established an enthusiastic following online. How have social media tools helped you as a reporter?

EY: Blogs are social media, surely? My blog boosted my profile, showed editors what I could do, and gave me the most invaluable thing a writer can get – daily writing practice. Most of the rest – Facebook, G+ – are completely dispensable. But Twitter has been essential. I use it to find and keep in touch with sources, keep an eye on debates in the fields I’m interested in, find out about conferences and upcoming events, just talk science with nerdy comrades, check facts, crowdsource explanations of difficult concepts, get copies of PDFs I don’t have access to, and promote my own work. And to find stories. Finding stories always involves a certain degree of serendipity. Twitter is a serendipity engine.

And it’s FUN.

CB: You’re also part of the ScienceOnline community. Has your involvement with ScienceOnline helped you professionally? If so, how?

EY: Several tiny ways but two main ones. First, Bora invited me to Scio10 to chair a panel on the future of journalism. I could pick my own panellists. I was a noob who had first begun thinking of himself as a journalist maybe 6 months before, and was still bumping against a lot of curmudgeons spouting the daft “bloggers aren’t journalists” schtick. And I somehow chaired a panel with Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs and John Timmer. I find it hilarious when people say they’re nervous about meeting me at ScienceOnline because that’s exactly how I felt back then. So, the experience gave me lots more confidence with speaking at conferences and the courage to talk to some of these people whom I respected from afar.

And I’ve met some truly wonderful people through the conference. It’s not networking in that classic, slightly sinister sense of making “connections” that will somehow help you. That’s... icky. It’s about finding a community of people bonded by friendship and/or mutual respect. It’s the “horizontal loyalty” concept that Krulwich spoke about. We build each other up, and ScienceOnline is often the place where we start doing that.

CB: You write on a wide variety of subjects, turning out a new piece every day or two. Do you think you’ll ever write in the longest of long-form formats (i.e., a book)? If so, what do you think it would be about?

EY: Don’t know. Always thought I would. Now I wonder where I’d find the time. It would be about HEY LOOK OVER THERE... <dustclouds, car door slams, tires screech>

CB: You have an entire section on your blog devoted to the “Origin of Science Writers,” featuring advice from Tim Radford, Deborah Blum and a host of others. If you could give aspiring science writers only one piece of advice, what would it be?

EY: You are not an aspiring science writer. You are either writing and are thus a science writer. Or you are not writing and are not a science writer. So, write. Write, write, write. WRITE. You will continue to suck until you get enough practice that you don’t. You will continue to go unnoticed until you do enough that you aren’t. Related to this is John Pavlus’s thing: Everything is Generative.


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