What are we missing?

House Fire

A house on Edgewood Avenue (I think) north of Baltimore in 2009. A found story for a community newspaper reporter. More often than not, however, science writing offers few “found” news stories.

I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:

While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.

When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.

After searching through the hundreds of stories I wrote back then, I think I found the one that goes with that memory. It was late January of 2009. One woman, 97-year-old Mabel Alice Heim, lived in the house. Despite her age, Heim lived independently and still tended her flower garden. She died of smoke inhalation just weeks after the birth of her latest great-great-grandchild.

Now that I primarily write about science, my method of finding stories has changed. I generally don’t happen upon stories while wandering the countryside, at least not the kind I’ll get paid for. Instead, I have to find stories, and I found a few this week.

Did you see the news story about the Z Machine and a possible, albeit small, breakthrough in the development of controlled nuclear fusion? You know, the story about a secondary magnetic field unexpectedly reducing Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities? No? What about the story on Towson University physicists developing a practical test for String Theory? Didn’t see that story either?

It’s possible some writers or editors looked into those stories and decided there wasn’t much there, or maybe the press release inflated the stories’ significance. It’s possible. But for now let’s just say they weren’t widely reported and leave it at that.

News organizations have lots of reasons for covering a given subject. Maybe an editor saw the story on television or in another publication and thought “We should be covering this!” Or maybe a nugget of information came from a source the reporter was interviewing about something unrelated. Or perhaps a journalist was sifting through a stack of emailed and faxed press releases from businesses, governments, and other organizations, and one subject in particular leapt from the pile. The journalist’s news-judgment says something like, “Hey, this looks worth looking into,” and a few hours or days later, a bunch of people are reading about it.

Some news organizations have specialist writers, people immersed in and knowledgeable about their field. Two examples always pop into mind: Physicist Dennis Overbye writes for the New York Times, and Elizabeth Kolbert specializes in global warming and writes for the New Yorker. There are others, of course, but I haven’t memorized their names.

Still, I wonder how many good stories, important ones, fall through the cracks.

As you’ve likely heard, the print news business has been a little confused for years about the internet and how to be profitable. Newsrooms have lost staff members, and those who remain in all but the best-funded newsrooms often find themselves absurdly busy. So sometimes the easy story, the one that falls in a writer’s lap, is an irresistible temptation. Maybe that’s why the three or four biggest U.S. television networks seem to cover the same four or five stories on their evening news broadcasts.

Freelancers pick up the slack, somewhat, but they may have another layer of priorities when searching for stories.

Personally, I enjoy sorting emails and observing what the world’s scientists and research organizations have achieved or are attempting to achieve. One pleasure among many is the pattern recognition. A converted C-130 aircraft starts using the latest sensors to study Greenland’s ice sheet, while a satellite is launched around the same time to do similar work, and maybe ground expeditions are operating on Greenland at the same time. I start wondering why so many climate scientists focus on Greenland in particular. Bam! Story idea: Why Greenland? I could write a feature about that!

And that’s when priorities butt heads. I don’t have time. I need money for next month’s bills, and I should focus on shorter, quicker news stories that require fewer interviews. A feature might pay more, but it probably won’t pay until rent is overdue.

Likewise, some stories are over my head. The Z Machine and String Theory stories above are examples of that. They’re interesting, and my humble news judgment tells me they’re newsworthy, but because I’m not a specialist in the field, I get intimidated out of chasing the story. I could probably write such a story well enough. I’d even enjoy learning the background information. But again, time is a problem. Writing about a relatively difficult, complex, or advanced science topic means more reading, more interviews, longer interviews, and more double-checking of facts and of my understanding of the subject. And I wonder how many of my freelancer colleagues shy away from certain worthy stories for the same reason.

I guess time is the enemy in any field, whether professional football, emergency medicine, or government-funded research. In the case of science writing, however, it means some stories that merit the public’s attention are skipped, or are reported in a more general and/or shorter article.

Maybe I worry too much, and maybe the newsrooms of science magazines and the few science desks at newspapers still make time. But I doubt it. Too often I read a brief article near the front of a science magazine and am left with lots of questions or, at least, a nagging voice in my head “I want to know more! What about answering the obvious questions?!!”

The frustration often leads me to a thought that I imagine most professional writers ponder: Someday, I’m going to have the time and stable enough income to allow me to write about what I want to whatever depth I choose. The book and feature ideas! They’re always bubbling to the surface and must be quickly typed into a “someday features” or “book ideas” file on one’s computer, along with the corresponding questions, structure, illustrations, and so on that toy with the blossoming writer.

Someday I’ll write about this topic in a way that no one has, we tell ourselves. I’ll ask the questions I want answers to ask. I’ll explain the concepts in engaging and clear prose. I’ll get my sources to really open up and spill the beans, and I’ll get the best quotes.

The stories I find time to write are consistently fascinating and enjoyable, and more often than not they end up more difficult than I anticipated which, in a way, is a really good thing anyhow. But the super amazing stories remain, for me at least, a someday thing. I just hope I’m alone on that because we’d be in a sad state of affairs if the best stories were neglected due solely to lack of time.

A house fire may belong on the local news, but world-changing ideas belong in a global spotlight. As it stands, that spotlight seems far too narrow to be capturing the whole stage of scientific and technological advancement.


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