Narrative Science Journalism, Wolfgang C. Goede.

Wolfgang C. Goede

Science editor

PM Magazine




At the world conference of science journalists in Montreal in October 2004, Pat Roy Mooney addressed a scientific topic which has been announced as a solution to many problems: nano technology. „But in effect is a threat to everybody“, said the executive director of the Ottawa based “action group on erosion, technology and concentration“ (etc). “Nano particles in orange juice are already a fact“, he said, but nobody knows the consequences, nobody has approved it, nobody is regulating this new technology. Apart from health hazards it will disrupt the world economy. Nano additives in cotton, rubber, copper could affect especially the developing countries and widen the gap between rich and poor. “Who owns the technology, who calls the shots, how do society’s interests come in?“, asked Mooney and predicted that by the year 2011 this industry will have created a one trillion dollar market. Paul Root Wolpe, chief of the NASA center of bioethics, detected an even bigger hazard: Nano technology will merge with bio technology, information technology as well as cognitive research. This “N-BIC convergence“ could change life cycles, recreate the human form. “Are we playing God?“, asked Wolpe.


Certainly, science and technology will heavily influence life, but how can they be submitted to a democratic process, how do societies decide whether the new technologies are needed and whether they are beneficial to mankind or not? This question is being raised by the newly founded World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) which co-sponsored the Montreal conference. The preamble of its constitution pledges to “promote a new culture of science journalism, one that can cope with the challenges of the 21st century and live up to the principles of civil society and democracy. Only well-informed and educated people can understand the consequences of scientific issues, or the applications of research, and ultimately support or reject them“.


As of now, we are still very far away from this state. During the conference, there were many complaints that science journalists have the wrong role models, that they are confining themselves to be the loudspeakers or pipes of the scientists. “We must be more critical“, was a common demand raised in many sessions. This received unanimous acceptance, but at the same time another quality was stressed: to strengthen the storytelling capacity of science journalists. In other words, news and comments on new developments in science and technology are not sufficient. Media recipients must be provided with in-depth stories which describe the subjects of media attention from various angles. First of all, a concrete image needs to be transmitted as to how this new idea or application works. Generally, this remains in many traditional reports very foggy because the source did not explain it well or because the reporter did not understand it well and, worse, did not bother to ask for a breakdown of the technical terms and abstract language. However, this is an absolute must for any science reporter and ensures that he reaches non-experts and laymen.


This storytelling journalism, also dubbed narrative journalism, is cultivated in the United States, especially by the Niemann Foundation at Harvard University which organizes annual conferences. Well-known speakers and panelists who are regularly invited also address scientific subjects. Science and technology are among “the transforming forces penetrating so many aspects of daily life that it has never been more important to communicate ideas in an engaging way“, science author Edward O. Wilson recently observed. Science reporters who want to check their storytelling qualities should communicate complex ideas and theories to their bartender in under ten minutes, Wilson recommends. Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaches narrative journalism and adds: “One of the things good science writers do well is to make their subject not only clear but compelling.“ And: “Like all journalists science writers have to know their stuff, have a good eye for the story, but they have to write better than anyone else, because science is tough to sell. On a newspaper, the science writer has to be the best story writer“, she claims.


Ms. Blum tackles another deficit of the profession. “Too many of our science writers still take a gee-whiz approach – they are in it because they like science after all – and really lack the tools to do a good investigation.“ Workshops held in the US teach investigative reporting and empower science journalists to pursue questions such as the various interests behind scientific research, the money involved, the beneficiaries, and the potential dangers.


Storytelling was one of the main topics at conferences held in Europe in 2004. At the European Science Open Forum (ESOF) in Stockholm last August, a special panel drew a crowd of 200 people and turned out to be one of the most successful events of the entire conference. The session, organized by the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA) and sponsored by the European Commission, assembled science writers from England, Russia, France, Germany and Hungary. As one participant put it, “telling stories is problably the oldest form of communication which originated at the stone age camp fires“. There is a long tradition of storytelling which the bible gives impressive examples of; many famous ferry tales in the East and West demonstrate highly developed storytelling abilities. While many of today’s grandmothers are wonderful storytellers, younger science writers were never trained in this. The panelists, among them Peter Wrobel from “Nature“, agreed that this should be included into the curricula of European science journalists’ schools and receive high priority.


In October 2004, the German TELI celebrated its 75th birthday. It was founded in Berlin in 1929 by the “literary departments“ of big engineering firms which handled – as we would say today – the “public relations“ of the companies. Obviously, communicating technical subjects to the public required literary, storytelling qualities. This is what shaped the name of the organization. TELI stands for „technical literary society“ and is worldwide the oldest association of technical writers. At a special anniversary seminar, TELI member Manfred Ronzheimer reminded the international audience of this tradition. “We must tell stories and reinforce narrative journalism“, he stated, “illuminate the context and the background of research as well as the driving forces behind“. Only this will liberate science journalism, make it more independent from science and technology and lead to emancipation.


Last not least, storytelling and narrative skills were also emphasized at the conference “Wissenswerte“ (Need to Know) which the Bertelsmann Foundation launched in November 2004. German science communicators congregated in Bremen to assess the state of the art of their profession. Hans-Hermann Sprado, publisher of P.M. magazine – Germany’s leading popular science media – recalled the 26 year old history of the publication during which offshoots spread all over Europe due to the solid storytelling quality of P.M. articles. Klaus Liedtke, editor-in-chief, of German National Geographic introduced essential elements of this kind of reporting, for example using dialogues and scenic descriptions. “We must get rid of the very typical German style which is too dry and deadly serious“, he criticized. Uwe Walter, TV consultant, added further elements: human interest – what has the story to do with the lifes of the readers and watchers, simplicity, entertainment and sometimes suspense. “The story must empower people to learn something for their own lifes“, he concluded.


Despite all these debates, narrative science journalism has remained fairly much a white spot on the map of journalism, especially in the non-anglosaxon world. The World Federation of Science Journalists could add colours, transforming this foggy spot into a road map and thus providing directions how to tell the stirring scientific stories and issues of our century; this globally operating network could make sure that plain and easily digestible information gets out to the public of the five continents of this planet, so that its people can decide for themselves what to think about N-BIC convergence, how fast they want modern sci-tech society to progress and enter their own lifes – instead of being crushed by it.