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Got a story pitch? Here are some outlets you might not have thought of

When I started out as a freelance science writer, I assumed that my entire workload would come from the metropolitan daily newspapers or major international science magazines. Those were the places where I read about science, so I figured they were all there was to be experienced in the world of science journalism.

Barely a decade later, the landscape of science journalism and science writing has changed profoundly. Where once the metropolitan newspapers all had a science writer, health writer, tech writer and maybe even environment writer, now the newspaper landscape is almost devoid of any of these.

But the online science writing world has exploded. Now every science magazine has a website featuring separate content, and there is a plethora of online science magazines from the generalist to the specialised.

In recognition of this, there was an entire breakout session at the recent 2017 World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco (which I attended with the support of the Copyright Agency’s Ignite Career Fund  – thanks CAL!) that was dedicated solely to the rise of digital science magazines. There were also two pitching sessions that gave freelances the chance to meet and pitch to editors.

I’m sure most people will know about the main science magazines – Scientific American, Nature, New Scientist, Discover, Undark, Science, Popular Science, Wired, Aeon etc – I wanted to report on some of the less well-known publications, or ones you might not have considered pitching to.

Here is as comprehensive a list as I could put together of the publications at the WCSJ2017 (and others I have come across), and their pitching requests and guidelines. While most of these are based in the US or UK, their content is globally-focused, so for Australian writers, this is an opportunity to make the most of your geographic location and tell the stories other writers can’t reach:

The Atlantic

The Atlantic does some great science coverage  and they’ve also just launched a series showcasing science writing from around the world.

They publish both as a blog and in the magazine (magazine pays better!), and their very brief pitching guidelines are here. Ross Anderson is the Senior Editor who looks after science and technology. There are some great examples of successful pitches to The Atlantic in The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database.

The Verge

The Verge is an offshoot of Vox Media, and describes itself as “an ambitious multimedia effort founded in 2011 to examine how technology will change life in the future for a massive mainstream audience.”

In the pre-WCSJ pitch session email, ccience editor Elizabeth Lopatto  wrote that she’s interested in how science interacts with the way most people live, but that writers should orient their pitches toward a general interest audience. She’s also keen on investigations, voicey writing and topics that aren’t straight science.

Their pitch guidelines are here.

Sapiens

Sapiens is a online magazine about anthropology, “with a mission to bring anthropology—the study of being human—to the public, to make a difference in how people see themselves and the people around them. Our objective is to deepen your understanding of the human experience by exploring exciting, novel, thought-provoking, and unconventional ideas.”

According to managing editor Amanda Mascarelli, about one-quarter of their content is provided by freelances. When I spoke to her during the Pop-up pitching session, she said they welcomed submissions from Australia, and at the moment were particularly keen on pitches around biological anthropology and archaeology, and also linguistics.

Their pitching guidelines for journalists are here.

bioGraphic

bioGraphic is a digital science magazine from the California Academy of Sciences “created to showcase both the wonder of nature and the most promising approaches to sustaining life on Earth. We hope our stories will spark conversations, shift perspectives, and inspire new ideas, helping to not only shed new light on our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges, but also—ultimately—to solve them.”

Their submission guidelines are here.

Hakai

Hakai is a digital science magazine exploring the intersection between coastal science and societies. Given Australia’s abundance of coastline, this would be a great magazine for Australian writers to take a look at.

Their submission guidelines are here.

Ensia

Ensia is a US-based magazine “presenting new perspectives on environmental challenges and solutions to a global audience.” They cover a huge range of topics in the environmental space, and are absolutely lovely to write for. My most recent story for them looked at how South Australia has managed to launch the world’s biggest solar thermal power plant and the world’s biggest lithium ion battery, despite the Federal political environment favouring coal, so they’re interested in relevant stories from all over the world.

Their submission guidelines are here.

Genome

Genome is a print and online publication looking at personalised medicine and the genomic revolution that makes it possible. It’s aimed at consumers, patients, family, caregivers and healthcare professionals.

“At Genome magazine, we tell compelling, in-depth, well-researched stories about the people affected by chronic and life-altering diseases, as well as the efforts to predict, prevent, diagnose, and treat those conditions,” according to their website.

They don’t have submission guidelines on their website, but here’s the advice they provided in a handout at the conference:

– put the word ‘pitch’ in the email subject line

– write a few sentences about what the story or research study is about and why it’s a big deal

– send at least three relevant writing clips with your pitch

– magazine pitches go to editor@genomemag.com

– they like to including the human voice of patients, so writers should have experience interviewing patients as well as experts.

– they’re not chasing news the way other outlets are, but are hopefully writing about things that aren’t getting picked up anywhere else.

– interested in range of topics, from genetic research and tech to ethical, legal and social issues.

JSTOR Daily

JSTOR Daily is an online magazine that essentially looks behind the science news to the bigger picture. As their website states; “We publish weekly long-form feature articles that explore the sometimes-hidden depths of newsy topics. In addition, our daily blog posts explore parallels between existing lines of study and the headlines of the day.”

They’re after both blog post and feature pitches, and their submission guidelines are here.

Science News

Science News is a print and online science magazine covering the latest scientific research across all fields, published by the Society for Science & the Public. They don’t have submission guidelines, but at the pop-up pitch session, said they were after non-journal, non-press release stories. A pitch should be 4-5 sentences, outline what the significance is of the story. Email is editors@sciencenews.org.

Spectrum

Spectrum is a digital magazine covering news, analysis and expert opinion on autism research. In particular, they have a section called Deep Dive, which is feature stories, mostly written by freelance science journalists, that “delve deep into social/research trends within the autism community”. These are 2500-4000 words in length, well paid, and are often syndicated to other outlets such as The Atlantic and The Guardian.

According to information handed out at the pop-up pitch session, the best deep dives “present a clear argument, supported by careful research and interviews with multiple scientists and families … Ideally these stories blend emerging research and human experience on the spectrum.”

Spectrum doesn’t have submission guidelines on their site but the team’s details are here.

Want more? Check out the WCSJ2017 page for the Power Pitch Session (http://wcsj2017.org/session/power-pitch-2017/), or the Facebook group for the unofficial Pitch Slam pop-up at the conference (https://www.facebook.com/events/119437952084200/).

 

 

The privilege and responsibility of being a science journalist

(An edited version of this was delivered as a speech at the 2016 Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival)

So I’m a huge nerd, both in the writing sense and the science sense.

In highschool, I used to write essays … for fun. I used to read books about science, purely for the delight I took in learning about the world and universe we live in. I lived and breathed David Attenborough documentaries. I collected rocks until the seams of my pockets gave way (and I still have them all too). I listened, fascinated, as my medical parents discussed their day over dinner.

So imagine my joy when I discovered there was an actual career that combined both of these things. I discovered this quite by accident when I was editor of the student newspaper at the Australian National University. I wrote a column about some new cinema projection technology that was being used at the university, and the thought sprang into my head ‘what if I could do this all the time?”.

And here I am, two decades later, a full-time freelance science writer.

There aren’t many of us, it’s worth pointing out. An obituary for science journalism in Australia was published two years ago. Some question whether there is any future for it at all, in this era when scientists are doing Ask-Me-Anythings (or AMAs) on Reddit; when research organisations and universities are producing their high-quality, well-written magazines to tell their own science stories direct to the general public; when there are so few in-house science journalists in the mainstream media that you can literally count them on the fingers of one hand.

In that sense, being a science journalist is a privilege. I’m lucky enough to be able to do this because I’m a freelancer, so the science journalism work that I do is spread across a lot of publications and it is subsidised by the science writing work I do for those very organisations and universities I mentioned earlier.

It’s also a privilege because I absolutely love writing about science. Isaac Newtown said, “if I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As a science journalist, I would say if I have seen further, it is by peeking over the shoulders of giants and asking “what does that do?”, or “what happens if you mix those things together?”, or “why did you do that?”

And it is some privilege. What other profession allows you access to just about any laboratory in the country, or even the world; gives you the remit to ask any question you want; and to learn in a couple of hours what someone has worked their entire life to discover?

And the variety! In any given week, I could be writing about the death throes of the oldest known star, born in the fiery aftermath of the Big Bang – or the discovery of the oldest fossilised human poo. I might be privy to the very first results of a trial of a new anti-cancer drug that sees people with just months or even weeks to live, still going strong four years later.

I might also be writing about when science and scientists get it wrong: when pressure or ego or money drives researchers and companies to fake results, use unethical methods, conceal information about side effects.

And this is why I believe being a science writer also comes with considerable – and growing – responsibility.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, when talking about the demise of journalism in the US, pointed it was a fantastic time to be a corrupt politician, because there were so few journalists and newspapers left to hold them to account.

While the situation with science isn’t quite that grim-sounding, the same principles apply. With so many researchers and scientific institutions now communicating direct to the public, to policy makers, to funders, we need science journalists to be doing to that science what a political journalist – or any other journalist, for that matter – does for their subject, which is to ask the hard and the right questions.

And in science, those questions can be a matter of life and death. We’ve seen this recently, with the furore around statins. These are drugs to lower a person’s cholesterol levels. They are very good at what they are supposed to do, they are relatively safe – with all the usual caveats – and they have been embraced by modern healthcare with the sort of enthusiasm that pharmaceutical executives dream about.

The statins story is incredibly nuanced. It’s not as simple as saying anyone with high cholesterol should take them. Nor is it as simple as saying that we’ve got it wrong, and no one should be taking them, or that the side effects outweigh the benefits.

Unfortunately, a lot of these nuances were missed in some of the public discussion and coverage around statins. As a result, a significant number of people on statins decided to stop taking them. Perhaps some of those people didn’t need them. But some of them did.

The same thing happened with hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women. A huge study published its results, suggesting in some women, the risks of HRT outweighed the benefits. The resulting coverage caused panic amongst women and doctors.

But again, the nuances of that study, its limitations and its significance, were lost in the black and white, simplistic coverage. The result was that a large number of women stopped taking a drug that might have reduced their risk of certain health conditions. As with statins, some of them shouldn’t have been taking HRT in the first place (which was a story in itself) but some of them should.

Health is one area where we need journalists with experience on the beat, who can read a scientific paper, who understand research statistics, who know which experts to go to, and what resources are reliable.

Another area is environment reporting. Humanity is at an environmental cross-roads, and the decisions we make now as a society will have profound, potentially catastrophic repercussions for future generations. And yet our political leaders try to censor science, dismiss the research, ignore the looming iceberg. This is why we need good science journalists. Who else would reveal that our own government is trying to cover up the dire state of the Great Barrier Reef’s health, or ignore advice on the environmental impact of mining projects.

If you look at the finalists for the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prize for Science Journalism over recent years, you get a glimpse into why we need science journalism. This year, one of the finalists was a team reporting on the so-called ‘Ebola with wings’ – this epidemic of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis that is ravaging a nation on our doorstep: Papua New Guinea.

Science journalism occupies a weird space at the moment. It’s journalism, that’s for sure. But many also place it under the umbrella of science communication. In Australia, we have an organisation that represents science communicators, which for the time being, includes science journalists alongside media/PR people for research organisations, science museum experts, science educators, scientists who communicate, and a whole host of other sub-specialities that share the commonality that we all are talking, writing, teaching or presenting about science.

But I believe the genre of science journalism rightly occupies its own space.

To be a science journalist is to understand how science works; to know that there is no such thing as proof, and that what is accepted as doctrine– like that cigarettes are good for your health and eggs are bad – can be totally and utterly reversed as studies are done, new results are found, and new understand emerges from those results. It is to understand the role that science and scientific discovery plays in society, and the impact it has on so many aspects of our day-to day-existence.

But science journalists are not, and never should be, an unquestioning cheer squad for science. Sure, we can get carried away with excitement about the discovery of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves like everyone else – and to be honest, that’s the part I like the best. But even amidst that excitement, we are still asking those same hard, good questions, looking for the fudged data, looking for the justification for those billions of dollars invested, challenging the researchers to explain the conclusions they see in their data.

As our lives become more dependent on technology, as we advance our understanding of the genome and how to alter it, as we interact with our environment and planet in ever more intimate and large-scale ways, as we face more and more choices in how we control our health and our appearance, we as a society need to be equipped to make informed decisions about what we want, and what we don’t want. I believe science journalists have an important role to play in helping to build a more science-literate society and that’s a cause I champion constantly.

This is the responsibility of being a science writer, and it is the privilege. And I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

The demise of science journalism and rise of science communication?

Am I a science journalist or a science communicator?

It might seem like a pointless question to ask, but as someone whose day-to-day living kinda of revolves around this issue, it’s actually quite important.

Contemplating this led me to realise that I actually don’t really know what the point of difference is between a science journalist and a science communicator.

Solution? Assemble a crack team of science journalists and science communicators to help me come up with the answer.

And so it was that we (being the Australian Science Communicators NSW branch) hosted a panel event featuring none other than ABC Science editor and journalist Dr Anna Salleh, Regional Executive Editor at Nature Publishing Group Stephen Pincock, media/communications manager for the UNSW Faculty of Science Deborah Smith, and former Sydney Morning Herald science editor Nicky Phillips, now at Nature.

If I thought I was going to get a clear answer, I was mistaken. It turns out that the intersection between science journalism and science communication is complex and messy and –particularly in this new era of online media –more important to debate than ever.

The reason being is that science journalism – being defined as the kind of  ‘objective’, critical reporting and analysis that our panel is most experienced in – is on the decline, at least in the mainstream media. There are fewer dedicated science journalists and editors, and instead the job of writing about science and scientific discoveries is often given to general reporters. This is not to say these people don’t do a good job, but it means there’s a greater risk that a science story will be a rehashed press release, will be sensationalised, will be click-bait, because the reporter doesn’t have the experience to know that a study in ten people is not the final word, that a cancer cure in mice does not translate to a breakthrough in humans, or that a fifty percent increase in relative risk does not mean everyone has a one in two chance of getting the disease.

What we are seeing instead is a lot more good quality, well-written science communication going on. Defining exactly how this differs from science journalism is tricky, but science communication covers everything from the Neil Degrasse Tysons and Derek Mullers of this world to the I Fucking Love Science website to science blogs to glossy magazines produced by research organisations (disclosure: which I write for) to podcasts like Science Vs. More than ever before, there is a wealth and diversity of great science communication happening, mostly online but also in print, audio and on TV, by experienced science communicators who present the science in context and in proportion.

From the perspective of a more science-literate community – something I wholeheartedly support – this is an overall positive development. As a freelance writer, it is also the source of a good chunk of my income, as research organisations look to science journalists to help develop this content to appeal to a general audience.

The downside to this transition away from science journalism to science communication is that we are likely to see less of the critical, independent reporting and analysis that science – as with any other human endeavour – should be subject to. It still happens in science magazines such as Science, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos (long may they survive and thrive). But here again, the internet is delivering new approaches that don’t rely on the traditional publishing model, such as the Retraction Watch website.

I’ve been asked a few times lately if science journalism is dying in Australia. The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is that it’s not dying, but it is undergoing a metamorphosis. What will emerge on the other side of this process is anyone’s guess. My gut feeling is that we will see a far a greater diversity of science communication choices available for the general public, but like all things internet, the challenge will be sifting the gold from the dross.

If you want to see the video of our science journalism vs science comms panels, watch it here.

The pros and cons of traditional publishing

I recently took part in a panel discussion looking at traditional publishing versus e-/independent/self-publishing, as part of the Blue Lab Creative Industries Symposium. It was a useful exercise, in that it made me look at exactly why I have chosen – and intend to keep choosing – the traditional publishing route for my books.

My fellow panelists (all women, which is noteworthy in itself) – including the talented, self-publishing spec fic author Jenny-Lee Heylen – made some pretty convincing arguments for their chosen areas, and I was there speaking from the traditional publishing corner.

The first thing I had to think about was the things I wished I’d know about traditional publishing:

  • It takes a long, long, long, long time for things to happen in publishing. You frantically scribble away to meet your deadline, submit it to your publisher with a proud flourish, sit back and wait for the feedback … and wait … and wait. It’s not that they don’t care, but until you appear on the publishing schedule – which happens about six months before your book is due to appear on shelves – you don’t exist. Once you’re in that six-month-zone, it’s crazy and everything has to happen yesterday.
  • The issue of rights – international, digital etc – is boring enough to send an insomniac into a coma but it is also fundamentally important for authors to understand. I found out a lot of things, particularly around international rights and ebook rights, after having made random ill-informed decisions without understanding the consequences.
  • The money is shit. Don’t write a book for the money. Write it because you have a story to tell.
  • The rewards of seeing your story printed, with a beautiful cover, with your name on it, in bookshops, being read on trains, being reviewed in newspapers and online, and knowing that people who are not related to you by blood or marriage are prepared to fork out $34.95 to read your words, are priceless.
  • You have to be your own marketer and public relations person. Publishing companies do a great job promoting and marketing to mainstream audiences, but if you want to promote your book to a specific audience – whether they be fans of your sub-genre or specialists in your field of expertise – you need to do the legwork yourself. Be prepared to fork out a good amount of money to buy plenty of promotional copies to send to reviewers (other than the ones your publisher will already have sent to), specialist audiences, etc. For example, I wrote a book about death, so I sent a lot of copies to palliative care and cancer organisations, magazines, patients groups and specialists.
  • If you write a non-fiction book, there’s a good chance that half the money you’ll make from the book will be speakers fees. Be prepared to give talks, and have a good talk prepared – give people value for money, and they’ll be more likely to buy your book afterwards.

So what are the pros and cons of traditional publishing? Here’s my list:

Pros

  • you get seasoned professionals managing your editing, cover design, publishing, and marketing.
  • you get the might of a publishing company backing you, which makes it more likely your book will get noticed by people/reviewers
  • advances: you don’t get them if you self-publish, and often not if you digital only publish
  • well-established bookshop distribution networks which makes it more likely you’ll experience the delight of seeing your book in your local bookstore
  • international networks; publishers around the world all talk to each other.
  • good representation at the international book fairs, which makes it more likely that your book will get picked up by an overseas publisher
  • publishing companies are full of awesome people who love books, so you get the joy of working with them

Cons

  • You only get paid about 10% of the cover price, and that’s AFTER you’ve earned out your advance. Did I mention the money is shit?
  • It’s a very very slow process – you are just one of a large stable of authors, so once your book has had its brief moment in the sun, you get pushed aside by the next month’s round of new titles – publishers are all looking for the Next Big Thing that can save them from extinction, so it is getting harder and harder to get published, especially in fiction.

 

Memories of a Korean bath house

(I wrote this piece about ten years ago about my trip to the Korean Bath House in Sydney’s Kings Cross, and never managed to find a home for it. Rather than let it die in the electronic shadows, I thought I’d publish it here).

I’m a big fan of nudity. In my bedroom, with the door closed and the bedside lamp on low, I’ll happily prance around in the buff. But put me in a big, well-lit room, with lots of unforgiving mirrors and a whole heap of other women in their birthday suits, and I get a little less brazen.

Such was the scene in front of me as I entered the Ginseng Bathhouse in Sydney’s Crest Hotel. Feeling a bit like Alice falling down some crazy Hugh Hefner bunny hole, I nervously tiptoed into the women’s bath house, bent into a complicate C-shape designed to conceal my more private bits with my less private bits but which only succeeded in making me look like a blushing pretzel.

The centerpiece, and main purpose of this visit, are the baths – three of them. One is the Ginseng bath – a large square pool filled with warm, murky water and dominated by a bubbling frothing geyser of water. Women line the sides of the pool, some in conversation, others alone with their private thoughts.There is also a very hot pool, a very cold pool, a wet sauna and a dry sauna. Having arrived nearly an hour before my appointment, I had plenty of time to splash and wallow. According to a poster on the wall, it is best to alternate between hot and cold water to improve circulation in the skin. That it might do, but I’m sure that sort of thing was ruled out under the Geneva Convention years ago, and for good reason. Usually when immersed in freezing water, one’s reaction is to whoop and yell and generally do things to distract your brain from the torment at skin level. But in these hallowed rooms, this would no doubt be frowned upon, so I had to resort to making tormented faces and huffing like a walrus.

Throughout this, women were being ushered back and forth from The Treatment Room, where rows of red plastic-covered tables played host to women being pummeled, bathed, scrubbed or covered with mysterious green sludge.

And finally, my number was called. Cowering slightly, I was led to the rack, determined to reveal nothing about my beauty routine (you can pelt me with cucumber and pumice my heels but I’ll never talk… NEVER!). Device number one – exfoliating mitts. On the strong and unflinching hands of my treatment expert, these removed at least one centimeter of skin from the entire surface of my body, rendering countless billions of skin mites homeless and leaving me gasping and glowing like Rudolph’s nose. Never mind the scab on my elbow, the huge bruise on my shin or the pimple on my chin – the whole lot got scrubbed at mercilessly. Even my delicate bosom got a serve, and not even over-enthusiastic young men are this vigorous with the female chest. I had visions of my breasts being torn from their comfy anchors and sailing off down to my knees.

Once I was stripped down to my last layer of epithelium, stage two began. Nurse – pass me the honey and cucumber – it’s time to make a Bianca Salad. Once the goop was firmly packed on my face (including an errant blob stuck partly up my right nostril which resisted all efforts to dislodged with snorting) I was rolled over like a gourmet whale, lathered in tubs of baby oil and massaged to within an inch of my life.

By this stage, my body was so well-lubricated I could have played the greased pig at a country fair. All well and good for the skin, but when you’re lying on a plastic sheet and someone is trying to massage your buttocks up into your shoulder blades, you have to hang on like grim death so as not to shoot off into the next room like bolt of pink, baby-oiled lightning.

When it was over, I wobbled gratefully away and sank back into the Ginseng pool to recover before my half-hour shiatsu massage.

This was more familiar territory – pressure applied to select points on the body to relieve stress and generally improve one’s wellbeing. But it’s always a little disconcerting when your masseur advises you he is giving you the special torture because you are so tense he can grate cheese on your shoulder muscles.

Perhaps I need to take it easy … perhaps I need to come back here again.

Weird, wacky, and wonderful

Most days, I’m writing about fairly serious—albeit very interesting—stuff.

Like this week, for example, there are stories about nanomedicine, bilateral mastectomy, the development of strategic thinking in children, and the environmental hazards of microplastics.

But every once in a while, an absolute gem comes along that makes it into my Tales For Dinner Parties folder. Sometimes it’s because they’re laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes it’s because they’re so far into the weird zone that I can just picture the faces of the ethics committee tasked with approving them.

shocked

I might write an average of five stories a week, most of which I’ve forgotten the following week, but here are a few that have stayed with me:

  • Japanese researchers find that specially-designed underpants lined with activated charcoal are the best way to deal with smelly farts. I’ve also found removing the offending individual from the room helps too.
  • Women, are you tired of being prised open like a recalcitrant car door every time you have a Pap smear? What about a stunning new device that uses warm, sterile air to ‘gently inflate the vagina’?
    This was one of the first articles I was given to write when I began working as a medical reporter at Australian Doctor. I thought it was some kind of initiation ceremony, a baptism of fire for the newby. But no, it was a real story. It certainly tested my laugh-suppression abilities to their very limit when I had to listen to the expert commentator explain how the problem with the device was that the eye-scope was too short, so doctors invariably ended up with their nose pressed against their patient’s anus. Or that the air pumped into the vagina sooner or later had to come out, so patients often hurried out of the clinic sounding like an malfunctioning Vespa.
    I should mention, this device is still available and apparently has been much improved since its inception all those years ago.
  • Penis size and male attractiveness. I take it as a badge of honour that I get handed these sorts of stories from the fabulous editors at ABC Science (including a more recent one on the oldest fossilised human turd). This turned out to be their most-clicked-on story for the year. You can read it here, but when you do, picture my face as I interviewed the very keen and excited expert. I then got double guffaws when he emailed me to share some images, and the subject line in my inbox read: “M****** J***** wants to share ‘penis size’ with you.
  • Apparently the smell of coffee is more than enough to get the brain of a sleep-deprived rat up and ready for action. A study found that rats given a whiff of coffee showed just as much brain activation as rats actually given a drink of the brew. And since I discovered that, I always start the day with a long sniff from the coffee pot before I turn to my mug of Earl Grey.

That’s just a small sample of those that leapt to mind as I composed this post, but hopefully there will be many more to come.

To record or not to record

I record almost all of my interviews.

I’m sure old-timer journos will be all …

disappointed

… at this breach of journalistic hard-assness, but I would recommend it for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it means I get my facts and my quotes correct. There are few things worse than having a story run, then getting a call from one of your interviewees complaining about being misquoted, or even worse, threatening to sue you for misquoting them and causing damage to their reputation.

Secondly, it usually reassures the interviewee that they’re not going to be misquoted, or at least that whatever words I attribute to them, they will actually have said those exact words.

Thirdly, I’ve found it makes me a better interviewer. In the past, before Skype and Call Recorder (more about them in a minute), I’d be typing/scribbling frantically as people were talking, trying to make sure I got enough good quotes down verbatim to be able to use them in the article with a degree of confidence. Half the time I wouldn’t really be focusing on what the speaker said because I’d be replaying their last two sentences in my head as I typed them.

I’m sure if I was a faster typist I’d be better at this, but I’m a pretty fast typist and I still can’t get it all down. Some people are motor mouths. I can do it if I have to, like when I don’t have Skype and Call Recorder to hand, but it makes me nervous.

Not having to type like a possessed stenographer means I can listen carefully to what the person is saying, I understand it all better, and I ask better questions. This often leads to new angles or interesting discoveries that I probably wouldn’t have made if all my responses were, “uh-huh, yep, great.”

The bad side of recording interviews is transcribing. It absolutely sucks.

I’ve used a paid transcribing service in the past for book interviews, which was a godsend. But I can’t quite justify the cost for freelancing, so I have to transcribe them all myself, which usually takes at least twice as long as the original interview. The positive of this is that I get to relive the interview, it refreshes my memory and helps me identify the most interesting angles and points.

Now to the technology. I’ve tried a variety of devices over the years, back in the days before we used mobile phones so much. I used to have a tiny microphone with a suction cup that stuck to the back of the landline receiver. It did alright.

Then, in a Radio Shack in Lima, Peru, of all places, I found this nifty device that allowed you to plug a recording device in between the telephone and the handset/headset. That worked really well for a long time.

Then, I started using Skype for all my telephone interviews because it’s cheaper, usually reliable, and has the added advantage that I can use a great program called Call Recorder that records calls in mp3 format.

I know the law varies around the world about recording telephone interviews but the general gist is, as long as both parties consent, it’s OK.

(here I’m supposed to write that I always seek permission before I record, and really honestly Your Honour, I always try to remember, but sometimes I forget …

sorry

The Truth is in here?

Is it possible to be totally objective as a journalist?

This is a major can of worms to open, but as I’ve recently written an article on homeopathy – a practice that flies in the face of everything I believe – it seems a timely question to ask.

I’ve been involved in a few heated online discussions over the years about this question. Some people have argued passionately that the job of a good journalist is to be objective, not to take sides in any debate, not to let your personal views affect what you write, and to treat all sides of an argument equally and give them equal air time/column inches.

It has taken me a long time to realise that it is in fact impossible to be objective as a journalist. The best I can do is acknowledge my particular views on an issue, set them aside as much as I can, and try to write an article that is not unduly influenced by those views.

So writing about homeopathy, I know that I have a high level of skepticism about this practice. I know the logic behind homeopathy, but my scientific knowledge tells me that people are being treated with nothing more than distilled water with flavourings.

skeptical

That aside, large numbers of people from all walks of life use homeopathy and derive benefit from it, so to understand why, I needed to suspend my disbelief and keep my mind as open as possible.

The results, for me at least, were surprising.

Before I get into this, I need to make something very clear. I don’t believe in homeopathy, I don’t believe it has any scientific basis, I don’t believe it should be subsidised by governments and I believe that substituting it for known, effective treatments (especially vaccines) for serious illness is irresponsible.

But …(and this is the clincher) I have come to appreciate that for some people, homeopathy meets a need, and provides a therapeutic benefit that for one reason or another they have failed to derive from conventional Western medicine.

No amount of randomised controlled trials, reviews or meta-analyses can stop that from happening. If someone believes in homeopathy, and if they walk away from a consultation feeling better, that is set in stone. For that person, homeopathy works.

From the western medical perspective, we can analyse the hell out of that and dismiss it vociferously until we’re apoplectic with frustration…

sherlock-frustrated

… but it won’t change that individual’s subjective experience.

We know that the placebo effect probably has a significant role in homeopathy, but if we’re going to play that card we must also acknowledge that placebo effect plays a significant role in some western medicine as well (antidepressants being a good example, but even knee arthroscopic surgery – a well-established surgical procedure – has also been shown to be no better than sham surgery).

One thing I think that homeopathy – and many other forms of complementary and alternative medicine – gets right is that it treats the patient, not the disease.

How often do you go to a GP for something and you are in and out in under ten minutes? Chance are you get a prescription, or maybe even a referral, but generally speaking GPs only have the time to focus on the immediate problem and do what they can to fix that.

It’s not their fault, and the vast majority of GPs do the very best they can under enormous time pressure and institutional constraints.

In contrast, if you go to a homeopathist, or a naturopath, or a traditional chinese medicine practitioner, or even a massage therapist, you will be in their room for a good amount of time – maybe even an hour and a half – for a good solid discussion about how you are feeling, what’s going on in your life, what your diet is like, how your body is feeling etc. There may be the taking of pulses, the touching of various pressure points, maybe some holding of hands and gazing into eyes … you get the picture.

But at the end of it, you feel cared about. You feel listened and attended to. You feel like you have been treated like a whole human being instead of a collection of symptoms.

And I believe that is one of the main reasons why homeopathy, and so many other alternative therapies that science has failed to find biological validity for, still have a positive effect for people, and why a significant number of people keep going back to homeopathy even when so many studies and analyses fail to find any benefit over placebo.

What we do with this situation, I don’t know. I don’t believe homeopathy should be subsidised by governments because when it comes to the health dollar, governments have to (or at least should be) making evidence-based decisions.

But I also don’t believe that it should be banned, as some people have suggested. If there is no harm being done, in the sense that people aren’t missing out on proven effective treatments and it isn’t being used to treat serious illness or as a substitute for immunisation, then it doesn’t pose a threat and may also be meeting an unmet need.

And of course, the one incontrovertible good thing about homeopathic remedies is there are no side effects. If it’s just water, how could there be?

P.S This post has been a little rambling, but I have one more thing to comment on, and that is the response that the homeopathy article has received. For possibly the first time in my life I have been accused BY MY OWN PEOPLE of being unscientific and alternative. For the first time, I have found myself arguing exactly the opposite side of the table to what I would normally.

I would consider myself to be a fairly strident science advocate, and I know I can be very closed minded and skeptical on many fringe issues, but now I realise I’m actually a moderate!

Sooooo, the moral of the story is … ummmm … I forgot.

dr-evil-right

Blog tour: How I Write

This is a blog tour.

A what?

It’s a kind of blog chain letter, in this case, for authors. But it’s a lot more fun than a chain letter because you get to talk about yourself and then you get to plug your friends, which is a great thing to do.

This particular blog tour is about writing. I was invited to do it by the lovely Sandie Docker, who I met recently at a writing course and we shared a moment around being at the querying coal face. These moments are so important when querying because otherwise you feel like you’re a lonely crazy soul slogging up the mountain, when in fact there are lots of other crazy people slogging up the rejection mountain towards Success. You can read her post here.

So, here are my answers to this blog chain letter:

What am I working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished writing and editing to within an inch of its life an adult science fiction novel titled Biohunter. It tells the story of an arse-kicking, sassy, tough, and not always entirely likeable woman called Niobe, who is my homage to fantastic female characters like River Song (Doctor Who), Buffy, and Zoe Washburne (Firefly). Yep, there’s my nerd credentials people. Read ‘em and laugh.

Orphaned at a young age, Niobe joined the Guild of Biohunters to help other victims of the constant, brutal biological warfare over resources. Biohunters are neutral players but when Niobe is framed as the source of deadly new weapons wreaking havoc across the north-east, she faces the fight of her life to prove her innocence, avoid execution, and protect the people she has come to love as family from a rising and ruthless new power.

I’ve also started work on an adult urban fantasy based on the Greek mythology tale of the kidnap of Persephone, but set in modern times. I’m having a whole lot of fun playing with that one.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I like to think that I’m writing a female character who’s a little unconventional in that she’s flawed, impulsive, quite self-centered, defensive and hates playing by the rules. And of course, she’s strong, she’s sexy and she’s got sass in bucketloads. Basically, she gets to say and do all the things I wish I could say and do!

There have been some great articles written recently about the fact that the ‘strong woman’ character is getting a little tired, so I like that Niobe has some rough edges and isn’t some kind of heroine.

It’s also different in that I’m portraying a post-climate-change, resource-starved world that isn’t apocalyptic. In fact it’s strangely utopian, apart from the fact that people are using hideous bioweapons to fight over what resources are available.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I love science, science fiction and fantasy. They are my favourite genres to read so naturally that’s what I want to write. Also, being a science journalist, I come across heaps of interesting stuff in my day job that I can then incorporate into my fiction writing.

How does my writing process work?

I’m still relatively new to this game so my fiction writing is fairly chaotic. Biohunter was a seat-of-the-pants effort until about 30,000 words in, when i realised I had no idea what happened next. Then I had to go back, plot the whole thing out, and then I had a roadmap to follow to the end (with some adjustments).

With the new book, I have a very rough outline and have been trying to map it out in detail, but I’ve come to realise that there’s only so far into a story I can plot out without actually starting to write and getting to know the characters, setting and story. So I think it will be a case of plot a few chapters, then write those chapter, then plot a few more chapters, then write those chapters. Repeat until book is written.

Up next week:
I’m very excited to have the talented and lovely Eleanor Limprecht up next week on this blog tour. If you haven’t heard her name yet, you will soon. She released her debut novel What Was Left last year to huge acclaim and it has been shortlisted for the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal award.
Visit her blog at www.eleanorlimprecht.com next week to find out how she does what she does.

Conference capers

The stereotypical view of a scientific conference is generally a mind-numbing parade of semi-coherent individuals droning on at the floor about their pet piece of fringe research while a room full of sedated people sit there wondering when they can legitimately sneak out and enjoy the local tourism opportunities but still earn the requisite CPD points.

Boring

Wrong!

Conferences are an exciting ferment of cutting-edge, hot-off-the-lab-bench science, world-class experts, wide-eyed PhD candidates, scientific rivalries, cheeky posters, ‘what happens at the conference stays at the conference’, and damn fine stories.

If you’re a freelance journalist, conferences are a fantastic opportunity that you should take advantage of whenever you can.

For one thing, most conferences will give media a free pass as long as you can prove your media credentials, which usually means showing them some relevant stuff you’ve written recently.

Conferences deliver a unique brain dump of information about a particular field. I have learned more in three days about a disease than I have learned in a decade of health reporting. For an info nerd like me, this is heaven.

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Conferences give you access to the best experts in the field, often from all over the world. You’ll hear from individuals who have spent a lifetime researching and treating, and the insights they share in sessions are invaluable. This is also the perfect opportunity to turbo-charge your expert contacts lists so when you need to find someone to comment on some obscure aspect of a certain condition, you’ve got the right person to contact.

In the past, I used to go to the occasional conference as a freelancer without any particular news outlet paying me to be there, and that was a heady experience indeed because I would just attend whatever sessions sounded interesting.

Most of the time these were conferences in my local area, so it didn’t cost me much, but there are some conferences I have paid to travel to, such as the biennial Australian Health and Medical Research Congress, because I always find enough stories to make it worth my while.

Some of the stories I’m most proud of have come from conferences I have gone to on my own steam, such as this one on using immunosuppression in HIV infection and this one on Australian malaria research.

These days I’m more likely to be covering a conference for a specific media outlet, which is great because I get paid to be there but I still get all the benefits of the brain dump and the contact list boost, plus it gives me ideas to follow up on after the conference is done

So, cutting long post short: if you’re a freelance journalist, find out about interesting conferences happening in your local area (start by checking out the calendar of events at the conference centre), and super-interesting ones happening further afield, and get thee along to them.