SciWriteLabs 7.2: The New York Times’s Amy Harmon on what it means to be a science writer

Last Tuesday, I published the first of a three-part Q&A with Pulitzer Prize winning science reporter Amy Harmon of The New York Times’s. That conversation focused on “Navigating Love and Autism,” Harmon’s latest story about in an ongoing series titled “Autism, Grown Up.”

Today’s entry focuses looks at Harmon’s writing about autism as a way to address questions about what it means to be a science writer — and the amount of work that’s required behind the scenes to make sure that what ends up in print is responsible and reliable.

Background: My December 28 post on why Harmon’s story is so remarkable is here. These interviews are part of an ongoing project called #SciWriteLabs, which examines topics related to science writing and journalism. An introduction to the series can be found here; the rest of the entries are here. Amy’s mention of The Panic Virus is a reference to my book about the controversies over autism and vaccines (out now in paperback), not this blog.

SM: Looking back at your career, it looks like your shift to focusing on science and technology occurred around the same time you began writing about autism (in 2004). Is that correct??

AH: I started writing about technology in the early-1990’s, in my first job out of college at the Los Angeles Times. I pretty much got the beat because I was using email to stay in touch with my college friends, and my editors, who were not familiar with this new “Internet” thing, thought that was super-cool. I was technically a business reporter, but I always felt like a bit of a fraud passing around my cards with that title because I wrote almost exclusively about the sociology of technology rather than the financial stuff.

My interest in autism/Asperger syndrome paralleled my entry to tech-writing in the sense that I had a personal interest in it, and you are right that my other science reporting spun off of that. (I got interested in all the implications of new consumer DNA tests after returning from maternity leave because I had been offered them when pregnant). But just like I felt I was masquerading as a business reporter I often feel like I don’t really have the right to call myself a science reporter, because I’m just writing about people through the prism of science.

SM: I find that fascinating: that you feel like you shouldn’t call yourself a science reporter because you’re writing about people through the prism of science (as opposed, I guess, to writing about neural pathways or synaptic misfires). I actually think that one of the things that makes your work so valuable is that it is so infused with science. Your work highlights how much background knowledge is needed to write about these issues responsibly.

Recently I was talking with some of my colleagues about the difference between a science writer and someone writing about a topic that happens to be related to science. I made the comparison to music writing: I started out my career as a rock critic. At the outset, I’d write features or do interviews with musicians, but I wasn’t really doing music writing because I didn’t have the experience or expertise to be able to talk intelligently and knowledgeably about the actual music. That took much more time and effort and work. (Another example: I recently wrote a piece for Vanity Fair about the Gardner Museum in Boston; that doesn’t make me an art critic.) But you had to bring an enormous amount of scientific knowledge to these stories.

AH: Well, thanks – and you’re right, I shouldn’t underplay the amount of science reporting that goes into my stories, since it takes up an inordinate amount of my employer’s time. (Ed: Your time, too!) I also spend a fair amount of time feeling guilty for not giving credit in print to the scientists and other experts who help me ensure that the stories you so kindly termed “intimate” are also scientifically accurate. When you’re constructing a story using only scenes and dialogue, you can’t really quote experts: It breaks the flow.  I used to send apologetic emails before the story ran that made it sound like it had just not worked out for me to use their quote. Now I’ve taken to telling expert-y people up front, “Look, I’m not going to quote you. But I hope this will help average readers understand this topic you care about and would really appreciate your help.”

With this latest series of stories on autism, I was hugely fortunate that people like Dr. Catherine Lord, the director of the Institute for Brain Development at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and one of the true authorities in the field, continued taking my calls through the whole process. Cathy and I spoke on the phone on at least five separate occasions and exchanged a dozen emails. She also read drafts of paragraphs that I was concerned about. (I checked with her, for example, about whether Jack and Kirsten’s sensory issues reflected what is typical among people on the autism spectrum; about what is known of the biological basis for autism among people who have normal intelligence and language development like they do; and about whether she thinks it is true, as suggested in the story, that girls are under-diagnosed.)

What I meant about not being a “real” science reporter is that, unlike others I admire, I do not have a particular talent for translating the news scientists report in journals or at conferences into terms that make sense to the general public. So instead I try to discern the impact of science on people’s lives, and write about THAT. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to understand the science – I do – but at least I don’t have to explain it in so many words.

SM: Just yesterday, I was teaching a seminar to scientists here at M.I.T. about how to write for a popular audience. I was trying to lay out the differences between writing for a newspaper/magazine and writing for an academic journal. In an average paragraph in an academic journal, there might be five or six footnoted references indicating why the author(s) feels confident making those statements. I explained that in a more journalistic account, those footnotes aren’t there — but that the writer still needs to have that information at his or her fingertips.

AH: Yes, exactly. I often wish for footnotes. And not only for the science. I think the question “how does she know that?’’ can arise in the reader’s mind when I report on a scene where I obviously wasn’t present. I wish there was another layer of the story, somehow, where I could say, “Conducted separate interviews with everyone in the room to corroborate what was said and done in this graf,’’ or “I have the text of an email so-and-so sent spelling out the thoughts I am ascribing to him here,’’ etc.

SM: Moving on to a subject near and dear to my heart: You mentioned that at various points while you were working on this series, editors/colleagues asked about including a section on the vaccine controversy. Your reply (and I’m obviously paraphrasing here) was, ‘No, that’s been covered and it’s time to move on.’

AH: I cannot tell you how many times I silently thanked you for The Panic Virus and its definitive rebuttal of the idea that vaccines cause autism. And I mean that in a purely journalistic sense, aside from being a mother of a seven-year-old who and a member of society who wants kids to get vaccinated to avoid preventable illness and death.

By the time I began work on this, I felt like the science of the vaccine controversy had been so thoroughly put to rest by you and other great reporters (including Amy Wallace in Wired and Michael Specter in The New Yorker), that I could focus on what I was most interested in — the challenges autism poses for this generation of young adults (and for the rest of us) — rather than on its causes.

That said, I was making the case that this group is newsworthy in part because of its size, so I could not sidestep the question of why the diagnosis of autism has climbed so sharply since the 1980’s. This is where the reporting you’re talking about comes in – for what ended up as three sentences in the first story, I read at least a dozen journal articles, talked to the Centers for Disease control, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and several other epidemiologists, sociologists, psychiatrists and educators, including Dr. Eric Fombonne, a professor at McGill University who is one of the pre-eminent autism epidemiologists in the world, and Dr. Fred Volkmar, the chair of the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center. I didn’t exactly mean for that research to be limited to three sentences. I wrote many long paragraphs, and edited them five different ways. But they all ended up bogging down the narrative, and at some point, after many hours of tinkering, I realized that I just didn’t need to spell it all out. I was confident enough – because of all that reporting – to condense it. And I added what might seem like an excessive number of  hyperlinks to the online version of the story so that readers who wanted to could see that evidence for themselves:

And Justin’s parents were not alone. As the condition’s hallmark behaviors became better recognized, many children who were previously designated as mentally retarded or just dismissed as strange were being given an autism diagnosis, a trend that has continued. Some experts also believe that the actual number of people with autism has been climbing.

I knew most readers would not actually be clicking through to these and some other links to sources I put in, to show the effectiveness of therapies like applied behavior analysis, for instance. And when the story went up on-line, an editor who way outranks me wanted to remove them, because he worried they would distract from the new  “quick” links we were introducing in the article, which popped up with video clips of Justin and photos of his artwork. But I kind of put my foot down, because I thought they were important. And when I came across this blog entry by science writer Marianne English after the story ran, I felt vindicated that least ONE reader had noticed (watch for your shoutout):

When talking about therapies and options for the condition, [Harmon] hyperlinks to peer-reviewed research to back her claims. I imagine she went to these lengths to battle misinformation that vaccines cause autism or that special diets can help people living with it. Writer Seth Mnookin also puts many of these claims to rest in a recent book with similar evidence…

SM: I don’t think it’s accidental that it’s another reporter who noticed that; the amount of background reporting and research effort that’s needed to do a good job is something casual news consumers often don’t realize.

AH: True. And not only news consumers! I am hugely grateful to the Times for letting me spend months on a story, but I know my editors sometimes wonder what, exactly, is taking so long. Because ironically, if you do the background reporting well in stories like this – whether it’s science reporting or other types of material that enables you to get inside the heads of your characters – you can’t SEE it in the story. The background reporting is what gives you the authority to write it – you have to do it, but then you have to hide it, too. As I was thinking about how to answer your original question, I started re-reading the stories, remembering the interviews I did to back up each line. There are so many people whose profoundly influenced the story but don’t show up in the actual text, people like Dr. Gerald Fishbach of the Simons Foundation; Kevin Pelphrey at Yale’s Neuroscience Laboratory; Eric Courchesne, the director of the University of California, San Diego Autism Center of Excellence; and literally dozens more. I’m grateful to be able to give them some small acknowledgement here.

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