Reading The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age gave me a glimpse into the world of full-time magazine writing – a world which I may never enter but still view with enthusiasm and curiosity. 

Science journalists spend their lives digging through the mud of news content, research articles, conversations and experiences for gems – ideas that, when polished into queries, will capture the attention of editors. Some journalists even spend their vacations building the background structures of local stories.

Science journalists look for ideas and polish them. Photo Credit: bored-now via Compfight cc

A science article may start with a very rough idea that needs extensive polishing. Sometimes, just a sparkle or flash indicates the value of the query within. A query e-mail cannot be simply a discussion of a topic – it needs a newsworthy angle and some exploration of the potential arc of the story.

As journalists explore their subject matter, they use audio and visual tools to record their surroundings. These tools may include tape recorders, cameras and note-taking equipment. Part of their work during interviews is to capture the context of the stories – personal details, local color, and other highlights that give stories personality and depth.

When science journalists are ready to build their story lines, they use a range of newswriting structures. One of the structures is called a “layer cake” because it alternates between scenes and their context. Putting together a story is an intuitive and experimental process similar to assembling an artistic or architectural model.

Architectural model
Putting together a story is like constructing a 3-D model or artwork. Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

On reading the handbook, I resolved to include more concrete details in the stories I produce. My experiments with visual descriptions have turned out well in the past. Both with print stories and multimedia, I see the process of journalism as being like creating a three-dimensional piece of art – adding some elements, removing others, and seeing how the structure hangs together.

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source:

This roundup of posts from this blog shows my quirky, dry and occasionally grim sense of humor.

My sense of humor is one of the reasons I began this blog. I believe there should be a place in the world for science jokes. And since I rarely make science jokes at work – I stick to business during working hours – I make them on weekends.

Humor can be professionally risky. But most of the feedback I have received on these posts has been positive.

Here are my favorite posts from the humor section of this blog:

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the CDC zombie apocalypse blog post.)

How to Bring Your Newsletter Back from the Dead – This Halloween post is based on my experiences reading and reviving newsletters.

The Powerpuff Approach to Energy Efficiency – This post is about an energy education program featuring heroes who look like a multicultural, coed version of the Powerpuff Girls. These heroes fight to save power, of course.

Zilowatt’s energy efficiency superheroes (Source: Zilowatt website)

What Science Communication and Cooking Have in Common – Telling science stories can be like writing down recipes. Read this post to see why.

Why a Zombie Apocalypse Story Helped the CDC – Does it surprise you that people would rather learn how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse than get ready for a hurricane?

How to Add Zest to Your Website – You, too, can spice up your website and add a slice of lemon.

The Real Science News Cycle – In this post, I reinterpret a cartoon from Ph.D. Comics.

Don’t forget that the sun will turn into a black hole, sucking the Earth and the Moon into an invisible abyss, unless you follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

claimtoken-50a01a203f085What makes energy journalism worth reading? Critical thinking, synthesis of information and perspectives, and coverage of the real-world impacts of programs can differentiate quality energy writing from other energy news.

I curate and write energy news for the Clean Energy Finance Center. So I’ve sorted through thousands of RSS posts and many Google alerts, looking for content that contains quality analysis and newsworthy ideas.

After reading these articles, I began asking questions about how energy journalism can be improved. A recent article from Grist explores this question from an industry-wide perspective. In this post, I’m offering a counterpoint to the Grist article by taking a “nuts and bolts” approach and brainstorming about how writers can improve their work.

A blog post from SmartPlanet has critiqued the absence of critical thinking and data analysis in some energy journalism. In January, I wrote a follow-up post with suggestions about how writers can ask questions about their data and get better results.

Thinking about the sources and reliability of data is just the beginning of retooling energy journalism, though. To make energy writing jump off the screen and catch readers’ attention, writers should try synthesizing information in original ways and reaching outside the field for ideas from other sources.

The Energy Efficiency Markets Blog* stands out as a very strong example of information synthesis. The authors of this blog draw ideas from multiple sources rather than writing single-sourced articles. They also develop interesting and original angles for stories.

Synthesizing ideas from multiple sources is one way to add depth to news stories and to combine ideas from interviewees who may disagree with one another. This can make energy journalism both more useful and more engaging than it would be otherwise.

Drawing on ideas from multiple stakeholders can also introduce practical perspectives. Practical perspectives can strengthen news articles, connect ideas to everyday life, and add human interest. I would encourage energy writers to reach beyond their usual lists of sources. For example, an article on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might benefit from quotes from workforce development professionals, people whose homes have been weatherized, and green jobs training program graduates.

Weatherization photo
Including quotes and photos of weatherization can be one way to tell the story of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Source: Photobucket)
Energy efficiency and renewable energy decisions are not just theoretical mathematical exercises. Including the everyday stories of people who participate in these programs and/or benefit from them can add human interest to these stories and help a broader audience relate to them.

If you take the idea of synthesis to its logical conclusion, you’ll arrive at interdisciplinarity. One reason I combine communications ideas with writing about technical subjects is that I’m convinced these two fields can benefit from collaboration. Communicators can benefit from learning more about math and science, including how to cover it accurately. Engineering and science professionals can also benefit from learning communications skills.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, have recommended training science graduates in media skills and paying them to do outreach.

Some energy organizations encourage researchers to write articles already. Many of the best articles I see on energy efficiency and renewable energy are produced by researchers, not media professionals. If research organizations start investing more in outreach than they do today – a step which I believe is necessary in the face of climate change and widespread science illiteracy – some of these researchers may end up as communicators.

Some of the skills that improve research – synthesis, critical thinking and awareness of practical outcomes – are the same skills which can strengthen energy journalism. So I’d encourage energy writers to think like researchers. I’d also encourage energy researchers to learn media skills and write news articles.

* Disclaimer: I collaborate with one of the authors of the Energy Efficiency Markets Blog.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

This post is a response to a question I received from Climate Access. How does one put a human face on images of global warming?

Local images engage audiences. In recent years, lack of locally relevant images and stories has damaged media sources’ ability to communicate about global warming. Now that we are beginning to see global warming is damaging infrastructure, flooding island communities, and displacing people, it is becoming easier to find images that capture global warming’s effects.

Flooding in Manhattan
Potential levels of future flooding in Manhattan. (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

This map of projected New York City flooding is from Union of Concerned Scientists and was republished by Gothamist. Showing a map like this to New Yorkers on a downtown street – and videotaping their reactions – could create a strong wake-up call for urban residents.

Beach vacation spots are also at risk. Given that flooding maps project that the entire southern tip of Florida will be affected by sea level rise, an image of tourists on a beach like the one below could appeal to people who value their vacation destinations.

Beach photo
Florida beaches like this one may disappear as global warming progresses. (Source:

In Alaska, roads are beginning to crack for a variety of reasons. One cause of the damage is global warming, which is shifting the permafrost underneath the highways. The image below, from the New York Times’ Science section, shows a road in the Yukon which is starting to break. A video of a driver attempting to traverse a broken road would put a human face on global warming in the far north.

A cracked road in the Yukon
Cracking on the shoulder of the road north of Burwash Landing, Yukon. (Source: Government of Yukon)

In Texas and other states, hurricanes may increase in strength due to global warming. The predictions vary. Once more information is available, it may be true that images like the one below capture one facet of global warming. The photo below was taken in Seabrook, Texas and appeared in National Geographic. The woman in the photo returned to her home to find it flattened.

A woman viewing her house after a hurricane
A woman standing on the remains of her house after a hurricane. (Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

With global warming, it’s hard to pinpoint some cause-and-effect relationships. Although sea level rise is well known, other issues, such as migrating fish populations and erratic weather, are more difficult to attribute to global warming directly. Multiple causes may be at work. As we learn more about the results of global warming, science communicators will know which images to use with confidence and which to set aside.

I may not be able to travel to Austin this year to attend international conferences about online journalism, but I can always track down the tweets of people who are there blogging. The Nieman Center produced an in-depth online story composed of tweets from the International Symposium on Online Journalism in April.

What’s so fascinating about an online journalism conference? The talks allow visitors to peek into the future of web-based media and see new developments that may be on the horizon. Reading the notes is like watching a TED talk – it’s a way to discover new ideas.

If you’re curious about this topic, I encourage you to read the full story. But here are some highlights which attracted my interest:

  1. Online, finding one’s niche is crucial because people subdivide based on their interests, values and views. (I’ve been working on rebranding this blog partly for that reason.)
  2. Marshall McLuhan said, “Every medium begins as a container for the old.” We can see this in the evolution of newspaper websites as they transition toward a digital model.
  3. It would be useful to create new models for in-depth journalism that are oriented toward online audiences.
  4. In Africa, mobile phone use and community media are catching on, especially with younger audiences.
  5. Newspapers are struggling to develop new business models and cross-pollinate their skills with technology expertise to increase their innovation.
  6. Data journalism is changing how people define journalism as a profession. Some people are moving from computer science into journalism.
  7. The LA Times is automating the production of some simple news stories.
  8. Students in one research study were blocking out environmental news from their lives because they felt powerless to change the situations.

These are just a few ideas which caught my attention. If you want more information, here’s the live video of the event.

When teaching people about science online, what tools should you have in your toolbox?

Science communication, at its best, cuts past popular intimidation about science and math to reach any audience. This video shows why it’s important to make science communication exciting.

What is Science Communication? from Morag Hickman on Vimeo.

Here’s a list of concepts to add to the tools you use when communicating science online.

1. Learning Styles

Although you may be a visual thinker and learn well by using mind maps or flow charts, your audiences may prefer listening or participating in active demonstrations. When I was working in a factory in 2001, I found that my coworkers on the shop floor preferred handling three-dimensional prototypes to reading files and printouts.

Some of your audiences may prefer concrete examples to abstract information or prefer synthesizing ideas to breaking them down. Science communication in classrooms usually favors abstract concepts, visual and auditory learning, and breaking down ideas. This leaves many students – especially ones who prefer concrete examples and active learning – out in the cold. This is one reason that science developed its “chilly” reputation.

2. Storytelling

Why does storytelling matter in science communication? For many reasons. If you’re trying to craft a message or idea that audiences will remember, a story line can act as a hook to increase their interest and help them remember the information.

People who provide on-the-job training are aware of the power of storytelling and use it frequently. I’ve seen one example in which a trainer used storytelling to teach an audience how to remember people’s names.

Storytelling is especially important if you want to encourage an audience to take a socially positive action. Smartmeme is one organization which uses storytelling about social issues to capture the attention of audiences.

Poynter’s News University offers storytelling courses for journalists. I recommend their video and audio storytelling classes highly.

3. Analogies

Comparing an unfamiliar science concept to a known one – especially an everyday experience – is a great tool for science communicators. You can use analogies to show differences in scale – for example, comparing the size of the sun to the size of other planets. Analogies can become very important if you’re describing things that are difficult to see or imagine, like nanoparticles.

You can also use analogies to compare and contrast human experiences with those of other species – for example, to describe the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. While it’s tempting to compare humans to animals, sometimes the similarities can lead to people personifying animals and thinking that we are more similar to them than we are.

I wrote this post in honor of chocolate. The chocolate harvest is now endangered by global warming.

I’d like to see a chocolate bar replace a polar bear as the symbol of global warming’s devastation. One cost of global warming is emotional safety. People equate chocolate with reassurance, romance, affection and many other things that have little to do with the chemical makeup of a candy bar. Chocolate doesn’t really make us happy – it’s a placebo.

Some people might object to a “Save the Chocolate!” slogan for health reasons. Interestingly, there are similarities between our relationship to global warming prevention and our relationship to dieting – at least, in the United States. Dieting tends to be both ineffective and plagued by guilt (which does not work for global warming prevention either). Dieting involves major lifestyle changes; reducing one’s environmental footprint is an even more difficult process.

What is often missing from both dieting and environmental lifestyle change? Social marketing. Dieting may be popular, but it certainly isn’t easy or fun. Environmental lifestyle change is rarely marketed as fun, popular or easy.

But why shouldn’t they be promoted this way? One could choose exercise and food options one enjoys, design programs that are simple and easy to follow, and remove guilt by introducing flexible decisions.

Maybe if we start enjoying the process of trimming our environmental footprints now, we’ll still be able to enjoy chocolate later.

Chocolate heart
Chocolate doesn't influence love... at least, not chemically.

I’m very skeptical about the effectiveness of social marketing messages related to death and destruction. Although the end of the world may come soon if we don’t quit smoking, start exercising, and end environmental justice violations, I’m not sure audiences will listen to us if we tell them so.

The tradition of being a lone voice in the wilderness is very well-established in the environmental movement. I wrote a paper about John Muir’s communication style for a science media course during grad school. However, being a lone voice doesn’t work well in marketing or social media. It’s a new era; we need a new style.

On Twitter, I see many environmental headlines proclaiming death and destruction. Reframing health crisis messaging is difficult, but I believe it has to be done. Here are three reasons to rewrite those headlines:

  1. Compassion fatigue and news burnout may discourage audiences. Although bad news attracts page views, I’ve seen little to no evidence that it’s an effective tool for promoting socially positive actions. Fear-based messages may be practical for some types of outreach, but they aren’t particularly effective for encouraging long-term behavior change. For example, resistance to cigarette smoking now appears to be a matter of peer acceptance – not fear of cancer.
  2. Female and/or minority audiences may already believe their actions will not make a difference. Social marketers should build audiences’ confidence and support them in taking action.
  3. Health crisis messaging may discourage audiences that haven’t experienced the problem directly. Cancer patients are often assertive advocates, but their zeal doesn’t necessarily translate into a larger mass movement.

Social marketers who want to address health issues need a new toolbox. We need language that’s persuasive, confident and encouraging. Think “Oprah,” not “Metallica.”

As I hear public conversations about green jobs programs, I find it puzzling that so little attention has been paid to marketing these programs to trainees, businesses and unions.

Regardless of conservative spin, green jobs are a win-win solution to many social issues. If conservatives want to get tough on crime, reduce drug abuse, improve social cohesion in low-income neighborhoods, and practice the bootstrap approach they advocate, supporting green jobs programs is a logical response. The costs of incarceration and poverty are very high.

Let’s take a look at the source of the stigma green jobs programs face. These programs have, from the start, been framed as a socialist solution to capitalist problems. I find it disturbing that these programs – which, ideally, could support businesses, unions, and low-income populations – are being labeled socialist at all.

There is nothing socialist about green jobs programs. These programs support capitalist production and employment. Their structure is, if anything, economically conservative. They direct resources toward educating potential employees and giving them the skills they need to succeed in the workforce.

The only excuse I can see to reduce support for these programs is racial bias. I believe the idea of hiring minority and working-class employees has been used to intimidate many potential allies of green jobs programs.

Businesses stand to gain substantially from green jobs training. In fields where there is a shortage of workers, there is no reason qualified employees shouldn’t step in to fill the gap. This is classic capitalism – supply and demand. There is nothing socialist about this approach.

The only “socialist” part of green jobs training is the fact that some public and private resources are redirected to prepare new employees for work. Currently, college tuitions are skyrocketing in the United States. Expecting lower-to-middle-class young people to fork over a large amount of their future pay to gain job qualifications is not realistic. College dropout rates are related to students’ after-school commitments. I documented the effect of part-time jobs on Latino college students for the PoliMemos project.

The picture that emerges from these facts is far different from the media spin. I see large numbers of people who have the initiative and entrepreneurial potential to succeed and improve their neighborhoods, but who are held back by lack of resources and lack of access to social networks.

Let me make this clear – it is social capital and money that holds green jobs trainees back, not lack of ambition. It surprises me that I haven’t seen any social scientists step up to the plate to challenge this damaging media message.

One can design effective green jobs programs by listening to audiences, including businesses. In the aftermath of the recession, this approach is essential. This is not a luxury. This is a bread-and-butter, capitalist solution to severe social problems.

The only reason I can give for the resistance I see is a lack of awareness that these are ambitious young people who deserve a chance to shine. We may not be able to get them all of the resources their peers can access, but at least we should give them job training.

I saw a rock carving in Gloucester, Massachusetts a while ago which said, “When work stops, values decay.” This is not a radical idea. Although I don’t know about changes in values, I do know unemployment leads to depression and a host of other social ills. What surprises me is that so many people are unable to see that their tax dollars also support prisons and drug treatment programs. These dollars could be sending young people to college.

To the extent that green jobs programs are ineffective, it is because they lack the investment, messaging and coalition building to make their promise a reality. Like Obama’s “hope” slogan, these programs cannot deliver without work.

I’d like to see people put their shoulders to the wheel and make a solid effort to back up the promise of the American dream.

Note: All of the statements here are based on conclusions I reached independently. None of these views reflect the perspectives of any of my employers – past, present or future. I am willing to provide additional information to support any of these statements.