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By Anna Funk
It was embarrassingly recent that I realized that I had been conflating science communication (#SciComm) and science journalism in my mind, and that’s it’s quite helpful to know the difference. If you’re here, you must think it will be helpful, too! Welcome!
It all started when, once upon a time, I was a graduate student in the sciences who had just discovered the #SciComm world. My people! I decided I wanted a career in SciComm, not science. I went to lots of SciComm workshops held by my university, often with help from groups like COMPASS. They all said the same thing: Work with your university press office. Write for The Conversation. Work on your elevator pitch. Tell a story about your work.
I’d leave these workshops so dang frustrated that they didn’t tell me anything about how to, say, write for Discover magazine, or become a T.V. host on a nature show, or even just get started as a measly Instagram influencer! Humph!
It wasn’t until much later that I actually understood what had been happening here: There’s a big difference between #SciComm and science journalism.
If you’re interested in getting into science communication, the first question to ask yourself is: Do you want to be a scientist who talks publicly about your own field of study, or do you want to leave science and report on other people’s work? The former is #SciComm. The latter is journalism.
Of course, the line here is fuzzy. Especially because not all science writers are journalists, some SciCommers are also journalists, and so on. But if you want to do any of it, it helps to know what’s what.
The way I see it, SciCommers are active scientists who also do a lot of public-facing work. I know them from Twitter. They’re on Instagram, they’re on Tik Tok. They’re marine biologists giving talks to school kids about the ocean. They’re the neurologist you always see quoted in articles when new brain studies come out.
But in the end, these are scientists who are also great communicators. They might not even be talking about their exact research project all the time (in fact, many aren’t.) But when it comes down to it, their day job is a scientist. They’re experts in their field, and they’re sharing it with the world. They are not getting a bonus in their professor salary (and certainly not in their postdoc or grad student salary) for having 30K Twitter followers.
(Of course, some could, in theory, be making some money on the side from some of their #SciComm efforts! I have no idea. My point is just that they’re first and foremost, career scientists.)
Most people who work “in the media” have a subject area they cover. There are food writers, and travel writers, and political writers, and science writers. These people are journalists. And although covering a subject repeatedly does teach you a lot about it, in journalism, the writer is not “the expert.” Instead, the writer is talking to experts — scientists, in the case of science writing — and getting their take on the story. Then the writer’s job is to communicate that take, in combination with the takes of other experts, into a story that someone wants to read. The journalist’s job is not to communicate their own opinion or expertise.
In fact, a journalist who used to be a scientist (like yours truly) would not write a story about their former work or former colleagues. That’s not what journalism is all about — you want the “journalist” to serve as an unbiased, outside observer, who tells the story that they’re witnessing from the outside looking in. You can’t tell that story if you’re already on the inside.
Why not both?
Some people just want to have it all, and I suppose that’s fine. I still think it’s helpful to know the difference. Some people have a scientist job, do #SciComm in their own field, and dabble with some freelance science journalism. Sounds exhausting, but hey, you do you!
Anna Funk is a freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City. After earning a Ph.D. in prairie ecology, she started her journalism career as a AAAS Mass Media fellow at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, followed by 2 years as editor at Discover magazine. She now covers health, science, and the environment for local and national outlets, does freelance marketing and communications work, and has too much fun writing her email newsletter about her garden, The Funkyard. Follow her on Twitter @DrAnnaFunk or get in touch at itsdrfunk.com.