Why Ed Yong is the Future of Science News (and You Could Be, Too)

(Update added at end.)

Last week in my “Improving Science Journalism” post, I recapped an argument that I had previously made in an opinion column for the Guardian newspaper and in a speech at ScienceOnline2011: namely, that editors and writers could vastly better their coverage of science—and promote more public understanding of it, and maybe stave off the competitive threat from online public relations voices—by broadening their approach and rethinking what constitutes science news. Blah, blah, lots of talk, so what? Even if we all agree that the press release-driven pack journalism that now passes for science news is unfortunate, who is really doing anything about it?

Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (Credit: Discover)

Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science, that’s who. Rather than nod and dismiss my screeds as undoubtedly drunken ravings, he took my criticisms to heart and started thinking about how he might approach science news differently. The irony is that Ed already routinely brings not just exquisite quality to his writing of science news but also abundant background information and a penchant for drawing the appropriate connections to familiar things and phenomena in readers’ lives. He might be one of the writers who least needs to change.

Nevertheless, the first product of Ed’s creativity is now on display. He keyed off of a new paper on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have widely been seen as a more practical, less controversial alternative to embryonic stem cells for future research and therapeutic uses: researchers Ryan Lister and Mattia Pelizzola and their colleagues have now shown, however, that human iPSCs are prone to many more functional mistakes and abnormalities than embryonic stem cells are (Nature: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09798). For the sake of comparison, here is the press release issued by the Salk Institute about Lister and Pelizzola’s work (“Cell programming leaves a ‘footprint’ behind“) and here is L.A. Times coverage of the same story (“Some cells hold onto their past, researchers say“).

Departing from the usual mold, Ed did two things. First, he updated and reissued an older story about earlier evidence that had suggested this problem might exist with iPSCs (“Reprogrammed stem cells are loaded with errors“), blending the news about Lister and Pelizzola’s with that background. Then, even more creatively, he used the online tools at Dipity.com to create an interactive timeline recapping the history of reprogrammed stem cell research. In fact, the timeline was noteworthy enough that Ed was instantly able to syndicate it to the Guardian.

So, what do you think of the result? I’d be curious to hear your impressions in comments, as would Ed (so please consider adding your thoughts there at Not Exactly Rocket Science, too.)

Personally, I love that Ed created such a rich journalistic package for this story; readers who want a deep understanding of the science here will get it. On the other hand, as Ed acknowledges, it took him a long time (about seven hours) to do all the research involved in making the timeline. It’s also in the nature of timelines on fast-moving fields that they can become obsolete fast (Ed has already updated the timeline at least once). Those two considerations might make it difficult for most journalists to consider doing something precisely like this very often and for lots of stories. It’s also true, though, that as journalists accumulate more of a backlog of material on which to draw, the easier it may be for them to pull together something new on demand.

The point, however, is not to say that what Ed did here is exactly what all science journalists should be doing hereafter. Far from it. The world still needs simple science news, too. Yet the universe of journalistic options beyond simple news, timelines and so on can be extremely large, if more of us start experimenting and finding new ways to bring all our intelligence to the job of telling compelling stories about science.

All of the foregoing is one reason why Ed represents the future of science news. But in light of this tweet from Ed

Hmm. Apparently, I wrote a post tonight at the pace of 1 word per 3 seconds. I wonder what the average is? #geek #ohjustgotosleep

—I’m also inclined to think Ed deserves the same compliment that my idol, Perry White of The Daily Planet, paid to Clark Kent in the 1978 Superman movie:

Perry White: Lois, Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter, but listen, not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy prose style, but he is, in my forty years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.

Update (added at midnight): Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, I’ve left this comment, which I hope doesn’t come across as too lukewarm or critical:
I’m awed to think that my remarks did anything to inspire you along these lines, Ed. Thanks for daring to experiment.
Beyond complimenting you on doing this timeline, though, I think all of us with markers in this game need to mull over what we can learn from your experience with doing it. Yes, it’s a first-rate piece of science journalism and a treat for readers. But as you’ve noted, it took a lot of time to research and produce, and it keeps screaming out to be updated. So maybe—maybe—we should conclude that a timeline like this is not something we should routinely try to emulate, at least for research topics that are “live” enough to demand ongoing, timely attention. Maybe those are better handled by some kind of wiki or, as you’ve suggested elsewhere, I think, by freelancers who aren’t chasing any one particular news peg or deadline.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to discourage people from doing what Ed has done here, or to imply in any way that Ed’s timeline is a failure. (If it were, I only wish my failures were this brilliant!) Rather, this was an experiment, and we should try to draw real lessons from it.
Thanks again, Ed.
Lister, Pelizzola, Kida, Hawkins, Nery, Hon, Antosiewicz-Bourget, O’Malley, Castanon, Klugman, Downes, Yu, Stewart, Ren, Thomson, Evans & Ecker. 2011. Hotspots of aberrant epigenomic reprogramming in human induced pluripotent stem cells. Nature: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09798.
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