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"Seducing the Reader-Suggestions from a Science Writer"

by Susan Skomal
Press Officer
American Anthropological Association

"People seem to love the science section. It's the one place where you can find good news and you can talk about sex,"

observes Natalie Angier, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times. Readers are more than ever interested in news from all branches of science, particularly those touching on experiences close to home - the social sciences. Her advice to fellow reporters is equally relevant to anthropologists working with the media or preparing to publicize their research results.

"Public levels of ignorance about science are astonishing,"

Sports writers feel no need to translate such terms as ERA or RBI, nor do they bother to explain the significance of the 10-yard line each time it's used. Even business and economics reporters use jargon freely. Yet, when covering a scientific topic for the general public, Angier has found it necessary to "seduce" the reader. The trick is to convince the public that science is neither too hard nor too boring to understand.

Readers "do not like didactic writings; they do not like condescension."

Despite the public's general unfamiliarity with scientific terms and concepts, the average reader does not read the tutorial sections of most science articles.

To help readers digest an unfamiliar subject without seeming to preach, Angier suggests the following:

"Make the unseeable visible."

Use your imagination to describe an abstract concept in readily accessible concrete terms. Anthropologists have an edge over other scientists in this department, for we are talking about human behavior. For example, rather than expecting an audience to grasp the concept of diffusion in the abstract, describe the effect through the eyes of a single person.

"Tell what you need to tell to keep the story moving. No more. No less."

Don't underestimate the patience of your readers. By thinking of your piece as a short narrative, with a plot and punchline, much of the extraneous information can be eliminated. It may seem important to you as the expert, but it will have a greater impact to non-anthropologists if it is short and to the point.

"A good journalist hates to make an error just as much as a good scientist does."

Anthropologists frequently complain that reporters have misrepresented, simplified, or sensationalized their work. Many even expect to see a copy of the article before it is printed, so that they can check it for "accuracy". Angier reponds to such requests with the observation that reporters are not hired for their ability to regurgitate facts. A reporters job is to interpret information using several sources - a task we frequently assign our graduate students and certainly a skill we expect of professional anthropologists.

Newsroom Culture

The culture of a newsroom contrasts sharply with that of an academic journal. A news item will not be featured if the deadline is not met, while scholarly publishing is usually not so time-sensitive.

After former Vice-President Quayle's denunciation of the lack of American family values, the AAA Press Office was contacted by CNN for experts who could comment on the issue. It was a Friday at the end of Spring semester, when many colleagues were busy tying up loose ends and preparing for vacations or fieldwork. CNN was in a hurry, the offices in Atlanta had to make the New York studio's deadline for that afternoon. Of the ten anthropologists we recommended, only one was interviewed.

In our interactions with the media, we scientists will have the most success if we are sensitive to their limitations. A reporter simply cannot accomodate requests to FAX copies of his or her article to three different experts. As practised observers of human behavior we are all aware that three different informants will have at least three views on a subject. Most journalists take seriously their obligation to take the differing interpretations into account, while trying hard to minimize errors.

Reprinted with permission of the American Anthropological Association.

Reprinted with permission of the Anthropology Newsletter, American Anthropological Association.

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Email: Merry Bruns, Dir.

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