Tips for incorporating scientific research into your reporting

Jun 1, 2022 en Data Journalism
A woman working in a lab.

Research studies, crisis reports and documents from experts are important resources for providing well-researched trends that explain complex global crises.

However, research records can often be lengthy, boring and difficult for reporters to transform into engaging stories, but  this doesn’t have to be the case.

“I remember looking around the press briefing room at last year’s COP26 when a climate crisis report was unveiled. The complex graphs bore many journalists, and that’s not uncommon,” said Paul Adepoju, the community manager of the ICFJ’s Global Crisis Reporting Forum.

“Journalists are often unsure how to handle such reports beyond the executive summaries,” he acknowledged.

As a science journalist and contributor to Nature Africa, Adepoju said he learned how to translate complex and technical scientific studies into simple news stories beyond newsletter executive summaries. 

Adepoju spoke with Akin Jimoh, the editor in chief for Nature Africa, during a recent ICFJ Global Crisis Reporting Forum webinar entitled “Transforming studies and reports into top news stories.” Jimoh provided tips for reporters on how they can utilize research studies to produce stories that can be easily understood by readers.


Why science reporting is important

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that science reporting and the public’s understanding of it is essential, Jimoh noted.

As a former Knight Science Journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jimoh gained experience translating science to the public. As a fellow, he used his journalism background to report on and incorporate scientific reports into his articles.

“Whichever way you look at it, scientific journalists are the ones who bridge the gap between those who do not understand something and making it understandable to others,” he said.

“One tool that has been useful for me is called EurekAlert, which sends alerts on scientific news, research materials or press statements to institutions that are subscribed to it. It is advisable for journalists to be on their mailing list as they also send embargoed newsletters so that one is able to plan their reporting properly,” said Adepoju.

Jimoh said that science journalism is a special kind of reporting that requires extra care. “We need to interpret the science, we are the go-between the science and the information that the public has to know and understand,” he said.

However, science reporters also have to remember that they are journalists first, and scientists second. “Sometimes having a background in science can be self-limiting because you want to obey the ethics of science, or ethics of research. [But] as a journalist you want to obey the ethics of journalism,” he said.

For example, scientific ethics might cause scientists to wait before publishing their findings to say whether something is right or wrong, while journalists have to work on what is best known at the time of writing, and clearly state that to readers.

In a recent article published in the Guardian, Professor Jonathan Wolff, head of philosophy at the University College London argued that journalists' focus on balance in their reporting has been problematically applied to coverage of scientific findings, too, helping create false notions of what is actually up for debate.

What kind of scientific research to trust

When searching for reports, be sure to use official sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO), which is the authority when it comes to health issues, Jimoh explained. 

“If it is a journal, one must look at where it was published. There are journals that we know are credible, then there are those that are more or less copycats, which just exist because of the funding they receive,” he said. 

“Researchers spend a lot of their time in the laboratory, researching for 20-30 years until they find an answer. This will be a major finding and research also builds on existing work done by others,” said Jimoh.

Jimoh advised journalists to look at the funders supporting the research, “Ask if this is a commercial research, what the interests are, who is sponsoring it, which acknowledgement surrounds that particular publication. Look at the literature review, does it cover gaps? Look at the list of the references. Does the research give a new perspective? These are factors we need to constantly look at the end of the day.”

Components of a scientific research

When looking at a research report, most can be broken down into the following core components:

  • Results/findings
  • Discussions of results, conclusions and recommendations
  • References could provide further opportunities for news features
  • Acknowledgements

In these core components, the conclusions or recommendations are often the most useful for journalists. For both scientific reports and journals, your results or findings give you perspective on what the researchers found, according to Jimoh.

“The references and citations can also direct you to other work if for example you want to do a news feature and need more reports and links. Knowing how to read a report is only half of the work: the other half requires staying on top of current trends and discoveries by reading frequently and across multiple disciplines,” said Jimoh.

“We need to monitor and read widely in terms of key scientific or research issues, such as climate change, agriculture, engineering, etc. We need to create time to read because as a science journalist you need to keep reading and noting what is going on,” acknowledged Jimoh. 

Jimoh concluded by saying that science journalists do not report in a vacuum, and at the end of the day their responsibility is to educate audiences on the current issues. “We are able to address policy-related issues from what we are writing. Once we make audiences aware of what is going on, that goes a long way.” 

Additional resources

Specific research journals

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.