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Journalism from the bottom up

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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.

The complete commentary can be found on Howard Lovy’s NanoBot.

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