"Push" science journalism, or how diversity matters more than size

I've been deemed a pusher, and that's a good thing.

The accuser is Colin Schultz, a busy, curious, and inquisitive young journalist who awarded a story of mine his first annual prize for "push" science journalism. First of all let me say I'm pleased, mainly because the story, " A Depression Switch?", about neurologist Helen Mayberg's experiment using deep brain stimulation to treat depression, is one of the most fascinating, enthralling, and rewarding I've ever worked on.

But what is this push journalism business? Push science journalism, says Colin, is science writing that elbows its way into the minds of readers who don't ordinarily read science. Schultz launched this award contest â one judged solely by him, using criteria he readily admits are squishy â as part of a broader program of critical head-scratching about science journalism, which also included a series of interviews with me and some other writers, including Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Nature's Nicola Jones, Discover Channel co-host Jay Ingram, and Ferris Jabr, Colin's fellow sci-journo on the rise.

Now he wanted to figure out what sorts of stories created push.*  .

I made an evaluation matrix, to help me try to remain objective when reading and judging the stories. I was hoping to grade the stories based on things I had determined would help reach a broad non-science audience. I scored them on eight different things, like: acknowledges the process of science, limits the number of new science concepts per story, uses metaphors, simple language, and references to everyday objects.

The stories were pulled from the 2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. And of those, for my own sanity, I stuck to print stories. Also, during interviews with some prominent science journalists, like Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs, and Nicola Jones, I asked them for examples of what they felt was their own best work. (Sorry Ed, I forgot that question.)

So why did my story A Depression Switch? outscore, soundly in some cases, some great stories by Yong, Zimmer, Jones, and Gary Wolf? Not even Colin argues that the eventual winner is overall better than the competition. (Those other stories are good. They've got moonwalkers and sexed-up fireflies and rare diseases and barcoded butterflies written up by ace writers working at peak form. And what's arguably the most demanding of them, Zimmer's "Now: The Rest of the Genome," perrforms a truly impressive feat: a history of genetics in about 2500 words. A downtown, upper-deck shot, that, but it scored only a 3, while my DBS story racked an 8.

What's up with that? I don't think anyone would say the DBS story is 266% as good as Zimmer's genome story. And that's not the point; the point isn't quality, but push, which involves quality and some other things. Ultimately the point â or the points â were that the matrix Colin designed to measure push suggested "Switch" would reach more unscience-y reader than the other stories did.

I can't get at Colin's scoring spreadsheet â the link's broken â so can't trace its doings. But as Colin suggested at one point, some of it has to do with story length. And on that I've a couple thoughts.


Length bears a paradoxical relation to what Coiln calls push â to what you might call a science story's curb appeal. As Schultz notes, longer stories tended to score better in his matrix, probably length allows you to work into the story some narrative and character elements, as well as interwoven themes or plot lines, that can appeal to readers along with the science. These elements can not only carry a reader through the story but get him to pick up, and carry himself, science of a weight that he might otherwise refuse.

So length, used well, helps you reach people. It lets you add elements that burn into the reader's psyche and memory. It lets you tell stories within stories.

Yet we're constantly told â we writers are, anyway â that people won't read long stories. They're hard to sell to editors, probably because editors believe they're hard to sell to readers. I think I read once â can't recall where, don't know if it's true, we're trusting my hippocampus here, which is a frail thing â that a major online news magazine found that readership of its stories reliablty fell off as the stories went past the 1000-word mark.

That's probably true. Yet if a long story is written with care, plenty of people read it. The Times's most-popular-story lists consistently includes long features among their top three entries. (My depression story was there several days.) Clearly length does not always dissuade. Yet the idea that it does dissuade holds strongly enough that writers seldom get the opportunity to write long â and thus to include the goods that will carry some readers through a science story.

So must we rely on long stories to do science writing's heavy pushing? I'd love to say yes, but I must say no â if nothing else, from a return-on-investment perspective. It takes five times as long to read a 5000-word story as it does to read four 1250-word stories â and it probably takes two to four times as long to write the 5000-word story as to write four 1250-word stories.

Think of it. I spent the equivalent of about six full-time weeks researching and writing (and re-re-re-re-writing) "A Depression Switch?" In six weeks, Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong write far more words than that and many, many more stories, plus a mess of blog posts. So in the time in which I've taken just one big whack at pushing some science, Carl or Ed would have pushed, I would wager, a lot more than my one story did. (I just started to add up their output over a 6-week period so I could compare it â but stopped because it was going to take too long and be too discouraging to me.) My story's readership might have a higher percentage of not-usuallly-science-readers â but the work Carl or Ed put out over the same time span will likely reach more unlikely science readers than I did. They will have produced as much push, probably more.

The point is not that one approach or the other produces more push overall. The point is that science writing benefits from a diversity of approaches. We're blessed to live in a time when good science writers pump out the push in more lengths, forms, formats, venues, voices, and media than ever. Long live pusher diversity.

*I confess to being confused by the pull-v-push terminology here, as the kind of story Colin speaks of might be said to pull the reader in, rather than force itself upon him. But not my place to redefine his terms. Just thought I'd mention it. 

NB: A few hours after I posted this, I went back to clean up a few typos. While I was here I tweaked a few phrases. Couldn't find the strikethrough feature on this new software, so did not leave the customary correction breadcrumb trail. This will have to substitute.


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