8.4- Writing a science news story
In 2010, scientists revealed that sporadic couplings between our ancestors and the Neanderthals as well as a related group the Denisovans left many of us with traces of their DNA in our genomes. Now a team of scientists led by Peter Parham, professor of structural biology and of microbiology and immunology has shown that these genetic exchanges significantly strengthened modern human immune systems. "This is really the first evidence that there was something functional that was contributed from this admixture that was useful for modern humans, " says Laurent Abi-Rached, a research associate in Parham's lab and first author on the report in science.
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In this next module I’m going to review one specific type of article that science writers write, the science news story. The science news story is the bread and butter of science writing. Many magazines and newspapers have entire sections devoted to science news. Most science news stories report about a single recently published paper. For example, the media covers many of the papers that come out weekly in science and nature. The science news story has a very scripted format just like a scientific journal article, so it’s a fairly easy type of story to master. I’m going to review the format in this module. I just want to start by reminding you of something you probably learned in grammar school. Any good news story should answer the five W’s and the H, the who, what, where, when, why, and how. So keep that in mind. News stories follow a basic formula just like scientific journal articles. In fact, after I point these elements out to you, you’ll start noticing them in every news story you read. A news story contains a lead, and then a nut graf, and then a first quote, and then the body of the story which delves into the scientific study and then finally a kicker. I’m going to go through each one of these elements in turn. I’ll note that news stories are typically about 500 to 800 words long but they can be shorter or longer than this. The piece I’m going to use as an example in this module is actually a little bit longer than this. The new story starts with a lead which usually encompasses the first paragraph of the story. This is the hardest part of this story to write. Coming up with a lead takes time, thought and creativity. I often spend more time coming up with the lead for a story than I do writing the rest of the story. The lead has to grab the reader’s attention. So it has to be catchy and relatively short. Should be usually about one to two sentences though in some instances it can be longer. The lead should convey the heart of the matter, with some of what the story is about but it doesn’t need to give away all of the five W’s and the H. It can also complement and doesn’t need to repeat information that the reader already got from the headline. Using good verbs can help make the lead engaging, a surprising fact or statistic, a short description or a person’s story may all make a good lead. Here’s an example of a lead from a story that I wrote. Before they went extinct Neanderthals and a less well known as stone age group called the Denisovans had interbred with humans. So we got some Neanderthal genes in our gene pool. Some of those genes are still in the human gene pool today. This story was about some research done at Stanford that tried to explain why these genes are still hanging around. The lead reads, when the Neanderthals and other prehistoric human cousins went extinct around 30,000 years ago, they didn’t disappear completely. A little part of them lives on in many of us. Notice that I didn’t give away all the details. I’m just giving a flavor for what the story is about and enticing the reader to read on. Shortly after the lead the nut graf flushes out the story. Graf is short for a paragraph. The nut graf is usually contained in one paragraph although it occasionally extends over multiple paragraphs. The nut graf gives the nut of the story, the heart of the story. It flushes out the who, what, why, when, where and how. It tells the reader what the story is about. When I work with young writers the thing they most often leave out of their stories is the nut graf. They fail to include a paragraph that tells the reader what the story is about. You need this paragraph. You need to tell the readers what this story is about upfront. Don’t keep readers guessing or you’ll lose them. Here is the nut graf for the Neanderthal story. It’s the second paragraph of the piece and it reads. In 2010, scientists revealed that sporadic couplings between our ancestors and the Neanderthals as well as a related group the Denisovans left many of us with traces of their DNA in our genomes. But the evolutionary impact was unclear. Now a team of scientists led by Peter Parham, professor of structural biology and of microbiology and immunology has shown that these genetic exchanges significantly strengthened modern human immune systems. Now we know what the article is about. There was some previous research that established that Neanderthals left genes in our gene pool but we didn’t know if there was any evolutionary reason why those have persisted. The news here is that a new study at Stanford found that these genes strengthened our immune system. That’s basically the what, why, and how, the when is now, the who is professor Peter Parham. We aren’t explicitly told the where but this was an article for a Stanford publication, so I didn’t mean to say explicitly that Parham is at Stanford. Somewhere not long after the nut graf news stories will usually have a first quote The first quote often gives a big picture overview of why the research is important and then there may be quotes throughout the article. Quotes are a lot of fun. It can get scientist if you can get scientists to talk in lay person, friendly terms, then you can quote them directly. It gives a human dimension to the story and makes the reader feel like they’re sitting there talking to the scientist. Also quotes can provide evidence. Journalists quote experts as sources. Quotes can also provide opinions. News writers have to stick to the facts but they can quote someone else expressing a particular opinion on a subject. Quotes can be colorful and provocative. They also help break the story up and move the story along. In the Neanderthal piece, the first quote was the following, came right after the nut graf. “This is really the first evidence that there was something functional that was contributed from this admixture that was useful for modern humans, “ says Laurent Abi-Rached, a research associate in Parham’s lab and first author on the report in science. The first quote here tells you the big picture significance of their paper. Just a few notes on attribution for quotes. The convention is to put the name before the said or says. The noun goes before the verb. Unless you want to insert a very long description in after the name like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, said Professor Smith, the really boring professor that we all had to take English from. It would be awkward to put the said last there. The verb really needs to go first in that case just because it would be awkward to put it last. Also, news writers generally stick to said or says as their verb. Be careful about using other verbs like noted or remarked. Those have connotations that may add unwanted meanings to the quote. Noted for example implies that what the person said is a fact. So you have to be careful that if you use noted you’re intending to affirm that the statement is true. Remarked implies that someone is saying something casually and obviously verbs like cried or exclaimed or enthused have overt connotations. After we get the first quote then we get into the body of the story. This is where we get all the details about the study. This part may be long or short depending on the overall length of the article. You’re going to review what led up to the study. The research question, key experiments and findings and if the story is long enough you may have some room for caveats and maybe an outside commentator. You’re going to use quotes throughout this to add flavor and break up this part of the story. I’m not going to read through all of this but you can pause and read it if you want to. My article was pretty long for a news article, so I was able to sprawl a bit but I’ll just kind of go through the layout of what I put in the article. So I started with a couple of paragraphs about what was done before. Then I got to this study where I gave the research question, key experiments and key findings, and then I had room to give some caveats and get an outside commentator as well as to give some potential implications. So that was the body of the story. Then at the end of the story we get what’s called the kicker. This is the ending of the story. It should leave the reader feeling satisfied. It should leave the reader with a nice parting thought. One trick is to circle back to the lead. If you started with a specific patient story for example, then end on what happened to that patient. If you started with a description, then end with that description. You can also end with a quote, I often do that. That way the scientist gets to give the parting thought. For my article on Neanderthal’s, this story was quite long so the last paragraph is actually a little bit long for a news story. I went into the potential implication of the fact that we still carry Stone Age genes. In fact they were speculating that it might be a cause of autoimmune disease. And I ended on a nice quote for Parham. He says, “This is all just speculation, but we have been apart for all this time, so it would be very surprising if there weren’t differences,” Parham says. “It would solve a long-standing puzzle.” And notice how I put the Parham says in the middle of that quote so I could end on the quote rather than ending on the Parham says. So that is the structure of a science news story. What I encourage you to do now is to go out and read some science news stories in the New York Times, in Nature News, in Scientific American, these kinds of publications and see if you can now recognize all the key elements of a news story.
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