Reporting that hits home: Covering science for local audiences
When Sabrina Moreno joined the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia as a general-assignment reporter, she wasn’t planning to write about health or science. Then, on her first day in March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and the virus started infiltrating Moreno’s reporting, too.
As case counts climbed, Moreno had to pivot from her usual focus on county governance and immigrant communities and figure out which COVID-19 stories she should cover. She interviewed health-care workers about supply shortages and traced the rapid spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. She also tied in her old beat by investigating how immigrant families were navigating predominantly English public health messaging.
Even after she became the lead COVID-19 beat reporter for the Times-Dispatch and learned the list of ingredients that went into the Moderna vaccine, she still didn’t think of herself as a science or health reporter—that’s an identity that she has only recently embraced. “In the beginning, COVID was seen as a beat that only the health reporter wrote about,” she says. “People didn’t understand how this was going to go into every single person’s beat.”
Science has been part of the fabric of daily life since even before COVID-19 began dominating headlines. Many local reporters just like Moreno have been called upon to cover complex science or health topics, such as the marks of climate change on local ecosystems or the effects of public health policies in communities. And audiences are eager to read stories like these from local sources. Half of U.S. adults turn to local media for COVID-19 news, according to a 2020 Pew survey. They trust local news more, too. A 2019 Knight-Gallup survey revealed that 45 percent of Americans highly trust local news compared to 31 percent trusting national news.
Local reporters’ connection with communities means that how they choose, report, and write stories can make a big impact on their audience. They are in a unique position to inform and empower readers with science stories that matter for their everyday lives, such as the importance of routine health screenings or the environmental value of local wildlife. But at the same time, they may have to tackle these stories on their own, without the support of a dedicated science desk—which many local and regional outlets lack or have lost. Some journalists might have to advocate for including science in their stories on other beats and seek out their own experts to guide their science-news sense.
Getting readers invested in topics as small as a virus or as big as changing weather patterns takes a unique skill set. Reporters writing for a local audience need a solid understanding of who their readers are, what they know, and what they want to learn. They must also have a keen eye for local science stories, which often pop up in places other than the laboratories and hospitals that usually serve as backdrops for national science news. Finally, they have to distill scientific minutiae into stories relevant to readers’ lives—all without diminishing what makes the science important or even just fascinating.
Getting to know your audience
To write local science and health stories that are both relevant and accessible to your audience, you have to know who exactly is in that audience. This deep understanding will help you find stories they will be eager to read and will build their trust in your reporting. Moreno, for example, has a particular interest in covering topics relevant to Latino and immigrant readers—and identifies as Latina herself—so she has fully immersed herself in these communities. “I shop where they’re shopping, I go out to eat where they’re going out to eat,” she says. Patrons in these locales have often helped her find people with interesting stories to tell. For example, a local Spanish-language radio host helped Moreno connect with local Latino faith leaders who had successfully battled severe COVID-19 for her reporting on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Latino community.
But engaging with her community as a journalist didn’t come easy at first, Moreno says. Many members of Richmond’s Latino community refused to speak with her during her first year as a reporter out of distrust of her employer. Many newspapers like the Times-Dispatch have promoted racism and covered their readership inequitably throughout their histories.
Moreno’s strategy to counteract these historical patterns and build trust with her readers is simple: “Keep showing up.” It is especially important to not just contact sources when you need something from them or if an issue affects their community, but to check in periodically, she says. To help her stay organized, Moreno has a spreadsheet that contains not only the contact information for many of her community sources, but also facts that she has learned about them: their favorite food, birthday, whether they have kids. These details make the conversation more personal. “It’s clear that you were actually listening, and not just having this transactional conversation,” she says.
Relationships with her readers have even prompted Moreno to make some of her important public health stories more accessible, by advocating to remove paywalls when possible or personally translating a story into Spanish.
Strengthening readers’ trust in your reporting is especially important when covering science and health, where topics such as climate change and vaccines can easily become charged. Transparency is a major part of building that trust, says Sarah Wade, a freelance journalist and former reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier, which serves communities in southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. “I make sure it’s clear that I’m working for them,” she says. Doing that, Wade says, includes answering sources’ own questions about her reporting and sharing her process of verifying information she gets from tips.
It’s also important to show that you’re prepared to learn from members of the community. “Be open to not being an expert,” Wade says. For example, after reporting on the health impact of air pollution seeping from a Virginia landfill for Southerly magazine, Wade hosted a listening session with a local environmental-justice group and community leaders to hear their concerns about the landfill. Taking the time to listen to community members also helps journalists expand their idea of expertise for reporting science stories. As Moreno puts it, “People living in this community every single day are experts to their own life and their experience.”
Finding the science in local stories
On a local beat, science stories can hide in plain sight. Reporters can use some key strategies to stay on the lookout for these stories, no matter how far-flung from the lab.
One of the first science stories that reporter Mark Johnson wrote started with a giant, dead blue whale that a tanker accidentally pulled ashore in Providence, Rhode Island in 1998. Johnson was intrigued to learn that scientists had convened to take pieces of the pungent whale carcass for their studies, so he pitched a story to The Providence Journal—where he worked at the time—about the spectrum of research projects that this one whale would enable.
Johnson, who now covers health and science at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA Today, has been training his eye on local science stories for over a decade. He says he finds that stories building on what piques his curiosity tend to engage his audience too. From there, he also tries to make sure the story will teach readers something new: information that will inform their daily choices, or just a tidbit that they’ll be eager to share with friends. “I try to figure out day-to-day, week-to-week, What is the most important story that I can tell readers?” he says. When selecting stories, Johnson says it’s important that even if the technical details of a study are complex, the scientists’ goals are simple. For example, some of the scientists taking samples from the blue whale planned to study its eight-foot larynx for research on sudden infant death syndrome.
Articles featuring a local cast of characters can also connect with audiences. For instance, Johnson has covered the science of embryonic stem cells since 2008, after biologist James Thomson at the nearby University of Wisconsin–Madison started trying to reprogram human cells. Suspecting that readers would devour stories about such scientific marvels in their own backyard, Johnson has continued chronicling this field and Thomson’s work, right up to the biologist’s upcoming retirement.
As Moreno and countless other local reporters have found in covering COVID-19, science stories can come from within an audience’s community. Find voices that will carry your story, says WNYC/Gothamist health and science editor Nsikan Akpan. For example, in a story Akpan edited, health reporter Caroline Lewis covers New York City’s first supervised drug-injection site by including the testimony of clients and local residents alongside the scientific evidence backing this public health approach.
Journalists can find inspiration for science stories within communities by figuring out which online platforms their readers frequent. For instance, Wade found that her readers were active on Facebook, so she plugged into Facebook groups, such as those of parents with children at a particular local school—always being upfront about her position as a journalist.
Reaching out to community groups, such as neighborhood grassroots organizations and environmental nonprofits, can be another way to learn about local issues and meet key sources. Freelancer Amy Qin met environmental-justice activists by going to city council meetings, for example. And when she was reporting on pollution near Chicago-area schools for the nonprofit news outlet Block Club Chicago, she found local teachers through the Chicago Teachers’ Union.
Science can be infused into stories on other beats as well. For example, Akpan notes that while working on a story about fear of subway crime in New York City, WNYC/Gothamist reporters Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky and Stephen Nessen interviewed psychologists about the science of trauma in addition to mining police data and talking with subway riders. Similarly, in another Gothamist story, about zoning laws and property development in New York City, reporter Nathan Kensinger pulled in data about intertwining issues, such as sea level rise and pollution. Adding science angles to local stories like these can give them a greater sense of depth and relevance to readers’ lives.
Sifting through the science
All science writing requires carefully dodging unnecessary complexity and jargon. But doing so is especially important in local reporting, where readers tend to look for actionable information in science stories, and excessive technical details might turn them away. Fortunately, local reporters have close access to readers in their own communities, so they can discern what their audience needs to know and calibrate their writing accordingly.
Journalists can gauge what depth of science to include in their stories through their interactions with community members. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Moreno chats with locals, for example, she informally asks them what questions they have about topics such as COVID-19 vaccines. This has helped her not only choose which stories to cover but also tune the level of scientific detail to delve into. She discovered, for example, that her readers were more interested in learning about the side effects of vaccines and hearing from people who had been vaccinated than understanding the underlying science. “That was a really big lesson for me,” she says. “What I think people want or need might not be the information that they want or need to read about.”
It also helps to think about which scientific details readers might need to know as they make decisions and learn about issues in their area. While writing about the landfill, Wade worried that the topic risked being too technical. There were chemicals with complicated names like hydrogen sulfide, and fully understanding how the landfill was interacting with gas wells would require an engineering degree. To prune unnecessary jargon, Wade asked herself if each technical detail was critical. She included the names of some chemicals, such as benzene, because they were important terms she wanted readers to be able to recognize in public records. But when explaining the reactions that were creating the polluting fumes, she skipped the weedy science and stuck to clear ideas, such as overheating piles of trash.
When reporters have to wrangle scientific data into their stories, it helps to add a local lens. National trends may not always match what’s happening on the ground, Moreno says. For example, she realized early in the pandemic that Latinos comprised almost 50 percent of cases in Richmond, dwarfing nationwide statistics, so she focused on this local trend in her stories.
By breaking down local data, reporters can also empower their readers with information they can act on. For example, as Akpan notes, people in New York City are very aware of weather and rising sea levels. That means that stories unveiling the science of unseasonably high temperatures and other climate change issues will resonate with his publication’s readers. “There is more focus in a local beat on giving people things they can use to live safer and happier lives,” he says.
Achieving that can mean taking a few additional steps. When Qin was unpacking a study for her school-pollution story, for example, she and the study author worked together to calculate extra statistics, not included in the study, that would be more relevant to Qin’s readers. Although the study was complicated, Qin says she chose it because it offered an interactive map she could embed in the story, so city residents see how pollution affects their own children’s schools. “There is a direct implication for people’s lives,” she says.
Aparna Nathan is a Boston-based freelance science writer whose writing has appeared in Popular Science, PBS NOVA, and Drug Discovery News. This piece was originally published at The Open Notebook. It is being republished with permission.
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