Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Journalism from the bottom up

I've been thinking lately about what exactly it is I'm trying to do here, and I've decided, after a brisk walk around this bland office complex, that I'm simply practicing bottom-up journalism -- I suppose a fitting endeavor for a nanotechnology writer. Stay with me, and I'll explain.

I rarely find the time to post messages on other people's blogs, but my fingers seemed to move on their own accord on this Poynter Institute journalism site. I lecture a bit about how gadget-equipped citizens might think themselves journalists by catching a news event on a Webcam and immediately beaming it to their blogs, but there will always be a place for journalists who can skillfully place the event in context through the old-fashioned art of newswriting and storytelling.

I think the cool Michigan air might have knocked a bit of sense into me, because I realized that what I'm doing on this Weblog, and attempting to do at Small Times with very limited success, is experimenting with molecular-level storytelling. That's why you'll see some silly stuff here like pictures of naked men running (see previous post) and other images or analogies that you don't ordinarily find on a science or technology news site. Sometimes, it's just plain silly, but with any luck maybe a few readers can latch onto just one molecule of understanding and be prepared for the next phase of their own self-assembly process.

Serious science writers can legitimately call it kids' stuff, but take a look at the way important science policy issues are being presented right now (including some of the nanotech writing I've pointed out on this site), and you're forced to think that maybe it's time to ... well, start small. The way the public is being "educated" about genetically modified foods, cloning, global warming and the possible dangers of childhood vaccinations (more on that later), is through the mainstream press seeking out extremes on the issues, then giving them both equal weight. The papers and TV news can't really be blamed because it's conflict that will get readers into the story in the first place. I've gone on ad nauseam about that on these pages every time the "gray goo" scenario is given equal time with reality.

But this miscommunication of science is really all my fault.

Well, not mine, specifically, but all of us in science/technology niche media who are so impressed with ourselves and our knowledge that we fail to do our jobs: properly communicate these complex and nuanced ideas to the public, and to the mainstream journalists who read us as they try to get a grasp on the issues before they write about it. The more I learn about how a misunderstanding of basic science has lead to backward laws and misplaced boycotts, the more I see how serious this issue is, and how we are failing in our basic mission to help create an informed citizenry.

During my recent experience at the Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, I spoke to scientists who could accomplish in their sleep more than I was ever able to achieve during my lackluster academic days. So, I usually opened my interviews with a little speech about how I'm probably going to ask dumb and obvious questions, but I want to make sure I understand what they're telling me so I can effectively communicate it to a lay audience. Rather than the reaction that I expected -- a roll of the eyes, and a "who sent this bozo" -- I caught some delighted smiles. These nanotech geniuses love what they're doing so much that they want the entire world to know and understand it, but cannot necessarily communicate it effectively, themselves. Turns out, they love dumb writers like me, as long as they know how to put their ideas in simple terms without oversimplifying.

This kind of storytelling is difficult. The danger of telling a story by assembling one anecdote and analogy on top of another is similar to what I was railing against in my post on the Poynter Institute site: creating a montage of simple snapshots that fails to illuminate the front, the back and the spaces in between.

My father is a Vietnam veteran who served as a surgeon during the TET offensive in 1968. He gets a bit upset when he sees that famous picture of a Viet Cong soldier's summary street execution -- an icon of photojournalism as well as the war. The photographer did not capture what went on just before that scene, when the VC soldier had killed the gunman's family.

That's the kind of internal and external battle I often face as an editor and writer. If you're going to tell the small stories, the human stories, the ones that attempt to form a connection with readers through horror or humor (or attempts at it), the ones that tell a very complicated story by beginning with a human-level connection, then you better make sure you leave no molecule behind.

Despite its flaws, I still find bottom-up preferable to the top-down method of science and technology journalism, where we'll dazzle you with our supposed grasp of the words and concepts, yet utterly fail to communicate.

Yeah, I know, I'm rambling a bit too much off the topic of nanotechnology. But it's my blog, and I'll cry if I want to.


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