Tow Tea: Parsing Tech Talk

For any journalist writing about science or technology it is not uncommon to hear scientists and subject experts complain about how news organizations get facts or interpretations wrong in their stories. With technology today becoming more ubiquitous than ever before, there is an increasing interest in stories about science and technology. Consequently, are very often faced with the challenge of decoding complex technology and science jargon in the process of communicating these topics to lay readers.

On November 5, the Tow Center hosted a Tow Tea entitled “Parsing Tech Talk” in which data artist and Intercept staffer Josh Begley joined Marguerite Holloway – science journalist and Director of Columbia Journalism School’s Science and Environmental Journalism program – to help journalists think about how to write science and technology pieces that are accurate and meaningful to a wide audience.

“Don’t try and ask the big questions on the implications of the research study, because if you do, [experts] will freeze up because they don’t want to speculate and make inferences about things,” said Professor Holloway. “Ask specific, narrow questions.”

“For instance, you could pick out the methodology, or a graph or something else in the middle of the paper that you don’t understand, and ask them about it. This shows them that you have engaged with their work and are interested in getting the details. Then they begin to trust you, open up and give you the bigger picture.”

Professor Holloway also indicated that while scientists are still wary about journalists getting things wrong, they are often interested in the publicity they can offer, as funding grows tighter and grant requirements often now include a public outreach component.

As readers may be put off by jargon and technical terms, it is important to find interesting metaphors that can still accurately capture new trends and developments.

Josh Begley, a data artist at The Intercept, suggests that visualizing information using maps or graphs as part of the reporting process can help when one is trying to understand a technical topic. “My process in trying to understand complex things is a visual process. I like to for instance make a map to understand how things work, but treat it as something that can stay behind the curtains,” he says.

This will also help understand things creatively and explain them without using clichés, Begley says.
Equally important is developing relationships with sources and experts off of whom you can bounce story ideas. According to Begley, getting outside one’s “echo chamber,” is an important part of push one’s craft forward when doing science and technology journalism.

But what about professional training in math or statistics – is this a necessity for science and technology journalists? The panelists agreed that while one need not be trained in a particular subject in order to cover it, it is important to know your own limitations. One must be able to think critically about technical material, but also know when to look for help.

Another point that one needs to keep in mind while covering science and technology stories is to include any gaps and uncertainties that may be present in the data or the content. “There is nothing better than reading a story that is honest about whatever is uncertain,” Begley says.

Over time, journalists working in these areas will gain expertise, meaning that the jargon is no longer new or incomprehensible. Professor Holloway pointed out that this can be a pitfall, and that it is important to recall how one first reacted to a particular topic or phrase. “You need to make note of what strikes you when you initially read it. It is important to maintain awareness of the novice’s experience.”