Expert Commentary

Research chat: Discovery News writer Marianne English

Interview with writer and student Marianne English about evaluating and using research in her journalism

Marianne English is a freelance health and science writer whose articles for Discovery News often focus on academic research. While pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she continues to publish pieces on a wide variety of subjects — everything from baseball and education to sharks and HIV.

As part of our “Research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource asked her about her research process and principles, and she offered some tips to other young, aspiring journalists who want to get more plugged in to the world of scholarship.


Journalist’s Resource: What’s your research process in terms of finding interesting and relevant studies?

Marianne English: I generally have a list of journals and sources I routinely look at. I find a mixed approach works best. For instance, I’ll ask, “What types of press releases are coming out? What areas in science are still growing? What are federal research agencies and policy-makers up to? What trends are other colleagues in the field writing about and where can a different facet of an issue be covered?”

Many of my colleagues do a wonderful job writing about science news production, so I often see what they’re looking at — and more importantly — how they’re critiquing these topics. Writing for Discovery News, I also benefit from a group of experienced editors and writers who know our readership well.

As enticing as some studies sound, they’re not always worth covering. This is something I’ve learned through experience. It’s not only important to look at who’s funding research, but also whether it’s been through the rigor of peer-review and is designed to produce the clearest results. Small sample sizes in studies or preliminary data being presented at conferences are also areas of caution. I’ve learned it’s not always the best idea to report from conferences, especially if there’s a chance the data are incorrect or haven’t been reviewed by other experts in the field.

JR: In reading academic scholarship, do you have any tips or rules of thumb for interpreting? Pitfalls to watch out for?

Marianne English: My rule of thumb is to always attempt to read the study I’m writing about. Often, I’ll need to email a press officer or the authors themselves to obtain a manuscript, which might seem like extra work, but I think it pays off in the long run. This allows me to provide information beyond press releases to really get at the nuts and bolts of what’s being studied. Also, I like to include details about the scientific process in my writing.

Until I really became involved in the profession, I had this romanticized idea of how science was conducted. My work has benefited from knowing more about what comprises research — funding, equipment, lab support, access — and how they shape the quality of science news. Frankly, I think knowing the details makes these topics all the more interesting.

It’s worth mentioning that reporting on science and medicine is no different than covering other areas such as politics. In some cases, the institutions and people you interact with have agendas and may hype their findings or exclude pertinent information needed for readers to form an opinion. In this light, science journalists still perform their “watchdog” duties by examining findings critically and questioning the larger implications of claims.

As for pitfalls, there are many. What I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way — is not to lend too much credence to one study. It’s difficult, because most science news relies on the academic journal publishing cycle. In essence, the act of an article being published (regardless of its quality) is newsworthy. I’ve tried to avoid this by providing context for readers and explaining where the work fits into the larger body of research. There’s also plenty of room for humility. As a science communicator, I’m more than willing to admit that I lack the knowledge and expertise to understand topics the same way as scientists. Asking researchers questions not only ensures readers that you’re trying to get the facts right, but it also helps us build working relationships with sources.

JR: How do you balance fidelity to complex findings with the imperative to communicate clearly to a wide audience?

Marianne English: Sometimes it’s hard to make findings interesting to readers, especially if it’s one small piece in the bigger picture. I try to provide context for readers so they can better understand the complexity of what’s being discussed. As a blogger, I may link to other studies with supporting or conflicting results, or perhaps highlight the caveats in the research’s methods or conclusions. Depending on the study’s design, it’s important to be cautious when sharing results with readers.

Without a strong community of science and health journalists, I would not have been able to adopt these principles in my work. I recently attended (and highly recommend) an excellent workshop for health reporters called the NIH Medicine in the Media. The course teaches reporters what to look for in studies, how to assess evidence in research as well as how to report meaningful results to readers and viewers. It definitely flipped everything I knew on its head — in a good way, of course.

JR: What kinds of research do you prefer to write about? What are some of your favorite recent studies?

Marianne English: My curious side is drawn to very basic research, including why our bodies and brains behave certain ways. I like to say this is my HowStuffWorks — another site I freelance for — personality coming out. I also enjoy writing about areas in which science and society intersect. At present, much of science’s future rests in the hands of the general public and policy-makers. Unfortunately, some areas of science are not well understood by the people they serve, which is something I’d like to help remedy.

As a writer, I’ve covered topics ranging from mental health and schizophrenia to the evolutionary implications of pruney fingers and controversy surrounding gene patenting. Each assignment allows me to learn something fantastic and new about us, our society and the fascinating world we live in. I couldn’t ask for a better profession.

For other students or journalists interested in this type of writing, my advice is to jump in head first and learn from other veterans. I can’t emphasize enough how supportive the science and health writing communities are in ushering in and helping new writers. The National Association of Science Writers is also a great place to start. I’ve also been delighted to learn from the many responsive readers who comment on my work and enjoy learning about the world with me.

Tags: research chat, training

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