We awe at the sight of baby giraffe born at the zoo, but who wants to hear about chemistry or quasars? That’s where science journalists come in. At the Living Lab at WCAI, a local NPR affiliate for southeastern Massachusetts, producer Heather Goldstone combines science and culture by bringing in scientists with fresh perspectives on today’s news.
Goldstone started her career as a scientist at M.I.T. and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution but, after a decade and a PhD, made the switch to journalism, with a focus on climate change and environmental issues. Storybench caught up with Goldstone to talk about how she tells a science story to a general audience.
You have a science education background, how did you switch from that to journalism?
I did a Ph.D. in oceanography and decided while I was in grad school that research and academia was not the place for me. I did a couple of post-docs, here in Woods Hole, trying to switch to different kinds of research, but at the same time I walked up to the radio station and introduced myself and was doing a long-term internship, mostly unpaid, doing various exercises, pitching stories occasionally, and working with the editor on those stories. I hit a point where my postdoc was falling apart, I was a new mom trying to figure out how to split my time between home and work, and at the same time the radio station got a grant to do a couple years worth of science recording, and that’s when I really switched. I have no former journalism training, just sort of learning as I go. I spent a couple of years doing straight up radio feature reporting, personal profiles of local scientists, a series of stories on water issues on Cape Cod, and out of that I got really interested in local impacts of climate change and ended up writing a blog for NPR as part of a national project.
What are some techniques you’ve learned along the way to effectively interview other scientists?
I think, at first, I played on, and other scientists, played into the fact that I had a science background, which I think got me some trust with the local community, but that also had some real drawbacks because people would talk to me like I was a scientist. I had more than one interview, early on, that was completely un-useful. I spent two hours with this one researcher trying to get him to stop telling me about the intricacies of the chemical structures he had just gotten the data for earlier that week, and every time I asked him a question, before he would answer he would say, “But you’re a scientist, you’d understand this really cool part,” and dive right back in to using this crazy jargon. After two hours, I came back to the station and told them we had to kill the story. I had zero useful tape because he wouldn’t answer any of my questions. I don’t necessarily actively downplay my science background, but I certainly don’t advertise it.
In terms of actual skills, for me, it’s been about realizing that, often the most powerful questions I can ask people have little to do with their science and are actually very personal questions. Realizing also, while I was blogging about climate change, I was blogging more about psychology and social science and trying to figure out why certain topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution, genetically modified organisms, why some of these topics become so politicized and why the science or the understanding of the science becomes so distorted within certain groups. I came to this idea, that in a lot of cases, many Americans feel very disengaged from the endeavor of science and that, in fact, creating scientists as more human characters for people can help them latch on to that. One thing I would try to do is really make scientists full characters in stories rather than talking heads with factual information.
How do you approach certain branches of science stories differently from others?
I think there are a lot of different way to get someone interested in a story. “This is going to affect you,” is one really powerful way to say that, “Hey, this science is really going to affect your daily life,” but it’s not the only one.
I was on a panel a number of years ago with a local network TV news guy who was like, the one kind of science story I can always get on the evening news is an animal story because people love animals and can’t get enough of the cute baby giraffe born at the zoo. I just got a press release about a new study figuring out why zebras have stripes, and I’m like, oh my god, people are going to love that, just purely because people love animals. A really common thread in a lot of stories that we do is trying to figure out how does this relate, what is the way in for people who don’t have a science background or don’t think that they’re interested. Sometimes that can purely be the passion and enthusiasm of the person doing the research and making that scientist fully human and just having people identify with that scientist so much that they what to know the answers because the scientist does.
It’s also a question we’re constantly asking scientists: “Why should people care about your work any fraction as much as you care about it?” The best way to get that is to ask the scientist why they care about it because, sometimes, they have intensely personal stories about why they do their work, and that can draw people in.
For the Living Lab, how do you find your stories and sources every week?
The flow of our week is:
Monday is a lot of research.
Tuesday is trying to narrow things down to what we actually want to cover and sending out those emails to people.
Wednesday and Thursday we’re doing a lot of recording.
And Friday is our production day.
There’s a real rhythm to the week. Monday, for me, is just trying to read as much as I possibly can. I have press releases and news wires from various sources and topics. I’m also keeping up on newspaper headlines and specialized magazines, like Undark, Inverse, The Conversation, as well as Atlantic and other more mainstream, but less science-focused publications.
We’re trying each week to have at least one story to connect this unique angle that scientists may be able to bring to mainstream news topics of the week, finding scientists who have an unique perspective on that.
What makes Cape Cod an environmental journalism hotspot? And why should a national audience care?
In terms of being a hotspot, we are basically a little sandbar surrounded by ocean. So much of the culture and economy here is based on our environment. It’s based on beaches, on this idea of clean air and green space that people come here to visit, and that’s what has led many people choose to live here. It’s deeply a part of the culture. The number of avid birders on the Cape is crazy. The outdoors and the environment is deeply woven into all of the culture and economy.
I think other people should care about it because we have so much coastline, meaning that we are experiencing the impacts of sea level rise and increasing storm intensity, and all of that, much more and have that much more of a chance of being hit by a hurricane. In terms of climate change, you can make a strong argument that the Cape is a frontline community. There are plenty of people, especially in Boston, who love to hear news about the Cape because for people who come here from other parts of the country, it’s a special place to them, and they have a deep, emotional connection. Even if they’re back home or have only visited a few times, people want to know or like knowing what’s happening on the Cape and feeling a connection to that.
Regarding the news on climate change, how do you stay positive about the environment?
We ask that question of climate scientists a lot. In the same way we ask them for their knowledge about the problem, we ask them what gives them hope, what reasons they see for optimism, figuring if they know the problem best, then the places they can find optimism are the places we can find optimism. So, we actively seek that out.
For me, optimism and hope are really important, but so is an element of determination. I have three kids, and failure is not an option.
What has been the common response from climate scientists?
There’s a whole range. Some people will cite really specific local actions, things they’ve done in their house, like they started composting, installed solar panels, and have seen how much their trash went down and how much their energy bill went down. Just remembering what they’ve done gives them the empowerment to believe more is possible and other people can do this.
Folks that work at more of a policy level will fight big steps, even internationally, like the work China has done to reduce their emissions, or the fact that the U.S. wants to withdraw from the Paris Accord, but it’s not falling apart, so there’s determination elsewhere in the world even if things don’t seem to be moving as well in this country. Noting falling prices of solar and wind, and the momentum that the renewable energy industry has even without federal policy to back it up. And frequently between the “what I’ve done” and the global perspective, scientists who work in field sites around the world will often talk about the communities they’ve encountered in those places, whether those are indigenous communities in the Arctic or in the Amazon, and seeing the responses these communities have had on the local level while grappling with the challenges of climate change firsthand. It’s amazing, actually, the diversity of responses.
What’s one of the favorite stories you’ve produced?
Going back to the personal stories of scientists, I feel like the stories that tend to stick with often are not the science, the discover, whatever we were covering, it ends up being on these people’s personal stories. We did a show a few years ago, back when we were doing long-form, 45-minute interviews with a single person, and talked with this young scientist who has a profound learning disability which made reading almost impossible. He struggled with academics, but he was a fabulous athlete and went to college on a track and field scholarship. He had gotten hooked on a question in geology class that he was required to take, and he ended up teaching himself to read scientific papers. That’s basically the only thing he reads because everything else is too hard. He became this rockstar scientist who had a Science paper before he even graduated from grad school with some of the first evidence of the fact that water has always been on earth and not come from other things bombarding earth. Those personal stories of how and why scientists do this, because I know from personal experience in graduate school that it’s not always fun and easy, there’s a huge amount of failing repeatedly, stuff that is not the fun part of making the discovery, and the discovery can be years, years apart, and there has to be a real deep passion that drives scientists and figuring out what that is is always fun for me.
Do you have a favorite animal?
I think all of the cute, typical marine mammals are really cute, but I almost want to go for the underdog that nobody thinks is cute and cuddly. I may have to say something silly like an oyster.
Do you have any recommended reading or tactics for an environmental journalist?
One thing that I’ve learned, especially not having formal journalism training and coming from a science background, is that people assumed that any expertise I had came from graduate school, but that’s completely untrue. The research I did in graduate school was about molecular biology which is completely out of date now. Any expertise I have in environmental science comes from my reporting. I started out with this idea, kind of like when I was a scientist, wanting to have the big story and tell the whole story in one beautiful opus, and do all the research to get to that one masterpiece, but I realized along the way that the way most reporters get to be experts in any one thing is just reporting the day-in and day-out over a period of time and that is what breeds expertise in your local area or in a particular field of science. It’s that dogged reporting day-in and day-out, reporting on the little step-by-step, that accumulates into that expertise, and there isn’t really a shortcut.