12 weeks of reporting science from the inside: Looking back
A bit more than 12 weeks ago, I embarked on a project to report from the inside of a well-known research institution about the daily work of scientists. I stayed at the institute for three months. During this time, I had a key, a desk and a more or less free pass to explore the premises, a bit like an embedded reporter with the military. No flak jacket, though. (No flak either.)
Being this close to her subject over a considerable length of time is a very privileged position for a reporter. I was able to observe experiments and procedures firsthand and had very easy and informal access to scientists and technicians, many of them leading experts in their field.
As a result of this closeness, for better or worse, the resolution of the reporting is very high. I looked at very small sections of research projects, both in time and scope, and was able to examine them to a level of detail quite uncommon in regular reporting. Many were extremely specific, others may seem quite mundane. In my opinion, this bottom-up approach works, but only in a longterm-reporting context, where many of these „miniatures“ can build up to a wider, mosaic-like picture. Otherwise, they risk to remain isolated vignettes, nice maybe, but with little information value.
I found this mode of observation very rewarding on many levels. I also found it very difficult.
It requires not only patience (on both sides, the reporter and the reported), but also a considerable amount of discipline, and, at some point, a pair of very narrow fitting blinders, because otherwise you will be drowning in possibility and nothing will be achieved. Eventually, you have to pick your stories and stick with them, regardless of all the other fascinating things you will continue to discover. As in most documentary settings, you will have to make peace with the fact that – on a good day – you will miss eighty per cent of what would be interesting and reportable. Most of the time you will miss much more. And more often than not, you have to decide about what to keep and what to let go not in the quiet concentrated distance of your office (or, in my case, the editing room), but right on the spot.
Time is a crucial factor. Three months seem massive, but out there, in the field, they rapidly melt away. There is so much more that I would have liked to try out, and there is (despite the blinders) still a huge pile of material that I haven’t used. So, to me, while some parts may have worked, the project still feels incomplete. To portray a process, it seems, one really has to be in for the long haul.
Is this still journalism?
Many of my journalist colleagues have been sceptical about this approach to reporting, and by many standards the results of this project may not be considered journalism. I didn’t report any news, I didn’t investigate any dark secrets, and on some occasions I self-censored my writing, especially when it concerned unpublished results.
I am also aware that parts of what I wrote for this project can be perceived as PR (as can parts of many other articles, too). For me, that is acceptable as part of the bargain, as long as there are no attempts to directly influence my writing (and there weren’t).
I also think, however, that I did manage to provide some insights that other modes of reporting might not. As with almost everything, the closer you look, the more there is to discover, and while many claimed that the process is mostly boring, I have found no evidence for that.
Of course I don’t think that this could (or should) replace other forms of journalism. But I find it complements them in a useful way as it allows to step out of the „paper-of-the-week“ machinery that drives much of science journalism and to take a slower, more documentarist approach that can focus on different, but equally important aspects of science.