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"Cracking the Code: Anthropologists and Science Writers"

by Merry Bruns
CASC Director

Scientists, anthropologists, and media have a history of mutual wariness, which is inherant in the differences in their goals and methodologies.

Anthropologists' fears about dealing with media stem from their perception that the media will misrepresent their work. The perception is too often that this is due to carelessness on the part of the science writer, and a lack of respect for the scientific material.

Yet current research conducted on science writers and scientists reveals that the goals of both are actually more similar than would be imagined - both want to present the science corrrectly and demonstrate why it's important.

The points of difference lie in
  • each group's presentation of the material,

  • the audience each is trying to reach,

  • and the constraints under which each group works.

Science writers communicate science to the public, making scientific concepts understandable and relevant to peoples' lives, but it isn't always easy:

Their Editors demand stories that appeal to a wide general audience, and are written in easy-to-understand language.

Difficult science concepts must be written so that the average person can understand them.

Science writers are journalists, and journalists write in "inverted pyramid" style:

The conclusion comes first, and the development comes afterwards.

The opening sentence ("lead") must be an attention-grabber. Even if a science journalist is writing a long feature story, the goal is to lure the reader with an intriguing lead, promising a story that has interest to the reader.

Space constraints can force shorter stories and sacrifice of detail. Quotes must be brief and to the point, and content must often be brutally summarized, leading to science stories that are often too short to offer much detail.

Above all, science stories must have a news "hook," news "timeliness," provide "answers" (not questions) about the research, and demonstrate its relevance to readers' lives.

In contrast, scientists write for their peers,and articles are written for thoroughness, in-depth explanation, breadth of information (no matter how lengthy), and absolute accuracy. Conclusions come at the end of the article, necessitating vast amounts of information to get through before reaching findings.

Readability is not a prime concern with most academic articles, and articles and reports may take months, or even years, to complete.

These methodologies and requirements are often in direct conflict with the constraints of journalism. And when both groups'requirements are understood, it's not hard to see why science stories often look quite different when written for a general audience.

An awareness of the rigid set of rules by which science writers are obliged write can help anthropologists understand some of these conflicts and why they occur. Dialogue betwen science writers and anthropologists can lessen the misunderstanding of motive and methodology, and improve relations between the scientists who create the research, and the science writers who present it to general audiences.

It's important to give anthropologists a chance to discuss these issues with the science writers who make their work available to the general public. Roundtables between anthropologists and science writers, in which both groups get a chance to air their views, can go a long way in lessening the mistrust between these two groups.

Reprinted with permission of the Anthropology Newsletter, November 1997.

Information is based on research being conducted by Merry Bruns into the relationship between science writers and anthropologists.

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Copyright 1998.CASC.
Merry P. Bruns
Washington DC
All Rights Reserved.
Jan.1998