Expand Your Audience by Sneaking Up On Science

4 November 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

The view from behind the panelists' table. Photo by Kiki Sanford.

Science writers do a good job of conveying science news to people who are interested in science. But we don’t always do a good job of reaching people who aren’t interested in science. In fact, if you’re not interested in science, you’ve already stopped reading this post, because I used the word “science” three times in the first sentence.

Reporters are trained to put the news up front. If you’re writing about a new discovery in cancer research or cellular biology, that information is going to be highlighted in the first or second paragraph. But many readers assume that science is boring or that they won’t understand it. They think it’s not relevant to them, so they look for something else to read. Maybe the sports section. Maybe something on the economy.

I recently spoke on a science writers’ panel that was focused on finding ways to reach non-traditional science audiences – all of those people who are not predisposed to seek out news about science. My portion of the talk was about how to find and write stories that attract those non-science readers and then ambush them with science.

The basic idea behind my talk was that science writers can expand their audiences by tapping into people’s interests outside of science. I tend to do this in one of three ways (though I’m sure you’ll think of others, and would love it if you listed them in the comments).

Answering Everyday Questions

I’m a science writer, but I’m also a parent. My kids are constantly asking me questions. Often, they are very good questions that I can’t answer. I view these questions as story ideas.

I’ve written dozens of blog posts inspired by questions my children have asked me: Are black widows dangerous? What colors do bees see? How do bees make honey? (My kids like bugs.)

I take these questions to researchers with relevant expertise and get them to help me understand the answers. Then I can explain the answers to everyone else.

These posts tend to draw a fairly large audience – but they don’t necessarily draw them all at once. They have a long “tail,” meaning that they will continue to draw readers months or years after they’re first posted online. For example, the post on black widows is the sixth most viewed post on my university’s research blog this week – even though it first went online in May 2011.

This is because many of us now turn to search engines to answer our questions. Want to know about black widows? Or how bees make honey? Type your query in to Google and see what pops up. Apparently a lot of people asking those questions are finding my blog posts. I think it helps that I write blunt headlines for these posts. For example, the headline for my post on how bees make honey is “How Do Bees Make Honey? (It’s Not Just Bee Barf).” When people see that headline, they know that my post will answer their question in accessible language.

And while people who want answers to their day-to-day questions may not know they’re asking science questions, they’re getting science answers.

You may not be a parent, but you surely have interests outside of science, and those interests could lead you to questions that are worth exploring. How much less drag is there for the last rider in a peloton? What exactly makes chicken skin crispy when you fry it? Did having its seeds on the outside provide some evolutionary advantage to strawberries – and if so, why don’t all fruits do that? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I’m curious.

There is one clear challenge to this approach: the lack of a timely news hook. Why, an editor may ask, are we writing about this now?

The fact is that this approach won’t work for many conventional news outlets. But you can pitch this kind of story to outlets that don’t require a hard news hook (e.g., Mental Floss), or you can write about it on your blog.

Pop Culture

Many people who are unlikely to click on a story about materials science and engineering are perfectly willing to click on a story about superhero movies and comics. I’ve used that as an excuse to write a series of posts about physics and materials science related to Thor, Iron Man (twice!), and Wolverine. It helps that I know a materials researcher (Suveen Mathaudhu) who is also a fan of superhero comics.

Each of these posts got a good initial response. In part, I think, because I timed the posts to coincide with moments when each of the relevant superheroes has been very much in the public eye. For example, just before the release of the most recent Wolverine movie. But each post has also continued to pick up new readers over time. And while most of these comic book fans won’t become materials scientists, they’ll all leave the posts knowing a little bit more than they did beforehand.

So, if you see a way to use pop culture properties to lead in to scientific subjects, go for it. (Note: I call dibs on having an entomologist write a review of the forthcoming Ant-Man movie.) A great way to do this is to identify researchers who are also really interested in a specific aspect of pop culture and tap into their enthusiasm.

Hard News Stories

A third approach is to identify science angles to news stories that are very much in the public eye. Sometimes, this is easy. For example, it would be hard to write a story about Fukushima without touching on something science-related: nuclear engineering, public health, radiation, ocean currents, tsunamis, etc.

Sometimes it’s not. But it can still be done, and it’s important that it be done well. For example, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, there was a great deal of wild speculation about the shooter’s mental health, including references to autism. This speculation stoked fear and misunderstanding about people with autism, which was both misleading and hurtful.

However, some writers did a good job. For example, Amy Harmon wrote a post for the New York Times that took a look at the facts, spoke with experts, and avoided sensationalism. Harmon’s piece highlights the value of incorporating good science reporting into “mainstream” news stories.

Note: The other speakers on the “expand your audience” panel addressed a variety of subjects, and they were all great. A well-deserved shout out to Alan Boyle, Atif Kukaswadia, Joe Hanson and Kiki Sanford. If you’re not following their work, you should be. Thanks to Clinton Colmenares for organizing the session. You can also review the Twitter conversation about the session by searching for #expsci or checking out this Storify collection of tweets.

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