Pondering the narrative

How much heat do 450 science nerds, as they like to call themselves, generate? Approximately 13 degrees Celcius, according to the weather predictions for Raleigh, North Carolina, where the yearly ScienceOnline conference is held. Whereas the normal temperature in the state capitol on the East coast is 10 C, the predicted temperature for Wednesday – when the conference kicks off – is a disconcerting 23 C.

As I fly 11 kilometres above the Atlantic Ocean towards Boston, my layover destination, I ponder what has fueled the enthusiasm that tripled the attendance of this conference in only a few years. What makes science communication, science blogging and science journalism for the web so hot?

Judging by the session titles the love for storytelling is an important aspect. Could narration be the key to cracking the code of good journalism?

Caveat

Television documentaries often use storytelling techniques. There’s no better way to make a compelling television programme. But in print, science reporters still manage to write the most boring articles about really exciting science.

Telling a story has a caveat though: the storyteller risks subjectivity. When you read blogs, they differ from regular news articles in a number of ways. One of the most prominent is the opinion and voice of the blogger. Whereas journalists aim to report a story objectively, bloggers don’t shy placing news into a context. Their version of the context, that is. And with success, skewing the news seems to appeal to younger readers. Contextualising news is an obvious benefit for the reader, but the best way to do it is debatable.

Forgetting the facts

Is the narrative the secret of success of online science writing? Should all science writing tell a story in order to engage a broader, and perhaps even new, audience? It might, although there is a time to tell stories and a time to present the facts.

A recent opinion piece points out that reporters told beautiful stories of how hurricane Sandy impacted the lives of so many, but some forgot to do their journalistic duties and report the facts of what streets were accessible and whether the city administration was doing what they claimed in order to get help to those in need.

Chase for understanding

But how does reporting on science differ from other beats? People often think that science is all about finding the solution to a problem. But when you talk to scientists, it’s more about the chase for understanding. They want to describe problems as best they can, more than look for solutions.

It is their drive, their personalities, their mistakes and their serendipitous discoveries that make for engaging narratives. This might also offer a way to report an often – erroneously – omitted facet of science, namely the process.

Facets of science writing

Over the next few days I hope to discover the power of narration, the power of the online medium, the most succesful and innovative ways to report on scientific research.

Perhaps the most ambitious goal is finding out how science blogging fits in the continuum between science communication and science journalism. How do these three facets of science writing use the tools available to make their stories compelling for their readers? And with what aim?

I hope to come back with more questions than answers, better descriptions to the problems science writers face than solutions. I am one of those 450 science nerds after all.