Deborah Blum

Five Questions for Amy Stewart

In this installment of the Undark Five, we asked Amy Stewart, the bestselling science author and this year’s editor of the “Best American Science Writing” book series, about what makes a story stand out, and about gender and diversity in science writing — and in society — a topic that she believes is crucial.

How to Diagram a Great Science Story

The inaugural Storygram at The Open Notebook meticulously dissects — and admires — Cally Carswell’s story, introducing what will be a series of “deeply annotated versions of award-winning science stories” intended for students, young journalists, and even those who know it all — or think they do.

Taking things on faith

In February 2012, I wrote my first piece as a Tracker for the Knight Science Journalism program. If you know my fascination with all things poisonous, it won’t surprise you to know that it was about heavy metals in lipstick.  I had been recruited by former KSJ director Phil Hilts and I continued working for

Standing Up for Science in Canada

Early last year, I wrote a piece here at Tracker called "The Science Reporting Chill" in Canada, focused on dismay by science journalists in that country over government muzzling of scientists.  And this was no lightweight muzzling: information about global climate change was so sharply restricted by the government that one news analysis found stories on the subject had dwindled by some 80 percent.

As Charlie Petit noted here this May, since that time the government has only tightened that grip on information. So much so that country's high-profile magazine, McLean's, described the policies as Orwellian.  And I'll refer you to a post written by Petit, also in May, about a Canadian plan to only invest in applied research titled "Canadian Government says the only research really worth its time has to make money. Fast."

David Dobbs on Genes, Environment, and the Power of Social Connection

The New England based science writer David Dobbs has long been a pioneer in exploring  the ways that scientists' ideas about genetics have changed, grown, become more complex – and more interesting. In particular, he's illuminated the evolving way that researchers view genes and their ability to both shape us and be shaped by the way our own lives unfold. 

It's an exploration that ranges from his 2009 story in The Atlantic, The Science of Our Success, (which led to a book contract) to his National Geographic piece, Restless Genes,  published earlier this year, which looks at the ways that time, culture, and genes may have helped create some of the world's great explorers. You can find these and other examples archived here at his website.

GMO, Oranges, and the Narrative Writer

In late July –  the New York Times science writer Amy Harmon wrote a story about a Florida citrus grower's race to save his crops – and many others – from a devastating blight by using the genetic modification to create a more resistant orange. The story drew so much interest, attention, and controversy that Harmon is still responding to queries and arguments even today:


How to pick the “best” fourteen science communicators. Or not.

On Monday, two science communicators published a twitpoll titled "Who is the best living science communicator?"

The two communicators, science writer Eric Berger of The Houston Chronicle, and Jeffrey Toney, also spread the word elsewhere. Berger posted it on his Sci Guy blog at the Chronicle site.  And Toney, provost of Kean University and a popular science writer himself, gave it a heads up at Dean's Corner at Scienceblogs. 

As they write:

It’s been nearly two decades since Carl Sagan, the great science communicator, died.

Science, Journalism, and a Lethal Cholera Outbreak

In 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed upwards of 150,000 people, the United Nations began assembling a peacekeeper force to help maintain order in the shattered country. The UN staffers were housed in a basic camp along one of the country's main rivers, the Arbonite. Very basic, apparently, because the primitive sanitation there allowed human waste to spill directly into the water.

That year, adding to the earthquake's miseries, a lethal cholera epidemic began to spread through the country. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the disease was first reported in October 2010 and by May of this year had sickened more than 650,000 people and killed more than 8,000.  A United Nations investigation, published last year, raised a possibility that the agency's camp was a source but also carefully avoided assigning any blame or particular responsibility.

On the Trail of the Mutant Tomato

Earlier this week, the Korean website Imgur posted photos of mutant vegetables which were supposedly popping up in farms around Japan's earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor due to radiation leaks. I've posted one of the photos here and you can find the whole gallery at the Xinhua news site from China.

I first saw the photos posted at Grist and I spent some time trying to decide if I was really looking at a mutation or a tomato sculpture made with toothpicks. Grist reporter Holly Richmond, though, seemed to have no such doubts and the website's initial story began with this lead:

Maaaybe it’s not a good idea to set up your vegetable garden outside a nuclear power plant. Certainly it’s not a good idea to set it up outside the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which melted down in 2011 in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami. At least that’s the implication of these creepy photos, which look as if they were ripped from a dystopian sci-fi novel.

Here’s to the World Conference of Science Journalists-Helsinki!

"Journalism is experiencing a big change everywhere," writes Satu Lipponen, president of the World Conference of Science Journalists 2013. "The transformation will be at the very heart of the discussions at the 8th World Conference. Is the changing media landscape a threat or an opportunity?"

Lipponen, who is also president of the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists (FASEJ) posed that question in the program for this year's World Conference of Science Journalists, held from June 24-28 in Helsinki. More than 800 science journalists from more than 40 countries attended the meeting and – as her question would predict – the resulting discussion was wide-ranging and engaged.

A Reprieve for Investigative Journalism in Wisconsin

Last week, I wrote here about a move by the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature to shut down an investigative reporting center which works with the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin. As I noted I often teach in collaboration with this center because I believe that investigative reporting is fundamental to good journalism (including science writing). So I wrote in protest of the provision, which was inserted into our state budget, which made it illegal for the center be housed on campus and made it illegal for journalism teacher like myself to work with the center.

Announcing the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists (in Helsinki next week)

The 8th World Conference of Science Journalists, a gathering that draws hundreds of science communicators from around the world, will begin this Monday in Helsinki, Finland. Hosted by the Finnish Society of Science Editors and Journalists (FASEJ), this year's conference is projected to draw some 850 participants. You can follow the proceedings on Twitter at #WCSJ2013.

The biennial conferences are affililiated with the World Society of Science Journalists (WFSJ), a Canada-based non-profit best known for operating science journalism education programs in developing countries. Members of the federation bid to host a conference – the 2011 WCSJ, for instance, was held in Doha, Qatar and organized by the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA) and the United States-based National Association of Science Writers (NASW); the latter is also an official sponsor of the Helsinki meeting. Previous conferences have been held in countries including Britain, Japan, Australia and Canada.