As the pandemic continued to strain the health-care system in 2021, Angus Chen, a cancer reporter at STAT, was fascinated to learn of a Boston hospital deploying the only mobile 3D mammography program in Massachusetts. Bringing testing to people instead of requiring them to come into the hospital and risk COVID infection seemed like a new and brilliant idea. Chen even brought a photographer to take pictures of the mobile testing van. “I thought it was really cool,” Chen recalls.
The team traveled to the hospital to marvel at the vehicle and talk with the doctors. But there, Chen’s initial excitement turned into disillusionment. The doctors told him that this technology had been around for 20 or 30 years. Neither the technology nor the concept were new*. Chen realized that his story’s premise was entirely wrong. What to do now? Chen found himself having to reconcile his pitch with reality, something all journalists must face. “It’s really common to get about halfway into the reporting process and look at your original pitch and just think, Hmm, the material I have doesn’t exactly match what I said I was doing,” says Kelly Servick, a staff writer and editor at Science who covers neuroscience and biomedicine. This reconciliation process can sometimes change the essence of a story in unpredictable ways.
As a writer, you can think of a pitch as a hypothesis that is interesting enough to investigate. If the pitch is the hypothesis, then reporting is the gathering of evidence. The evidence might go either way: It could support the original hypothesis, or it could reveal new facts that contradict it and force a writer to reconceive or even kill their story. Learning when to take one or another path is a skill that requires experiencing this tension firsthand and developing a personal sense of what works and what does not. “There’s a lot of intuition involved,” says Servick. But intuition alone does not suffice. Writers need to hone their skills, including the difficult decision of letting a story drop.
Learn to Let Go
Chen tried to rescue his story about the mobile cancer testing. Maybe, he thought, there was something new—not in the technology itself, but in how this was a better testing strategy during a pandemic, or how the pandemic changed its usual mode of deployment. But neither case was true. There was simply nothing there. In the end, Chen felt that moving on to other stories was a better use of his time than trying to force this one. As he discovered, letting go gives us freedom and space to work on more-promising stories.
However, not all premises are easy to falsify. Sometimes it takes real insight to recognize when a story is worth pursuing or not, especially if the science is very specialized or dubious. Davide Castelvecchi, a staff reporter at Nature, drew on his deep familiarity with the science of gravitational waves to figure out he should drop a story before getting too deep into it. He had been interested in gravitational waves for years—to the point that some scientists he spoke with joked about having him join the research team. “I was very plugged into all the rumors and the news,” Castelvecchi says. This came in handy when, amidst all the excitement about detecting gravitational waves in 2016, one group of scientists found a serious objection to the discovery. If true, this objection would be a massive blow to the physics community.
Realizing early-on that a story has no future is especially important for freelancers, as they cannot afford to waste time chasing a story that doesn’t pan out. — Davide Castelvecchi, Nature
The objection was that signals detected as gravitational waves were indistinguishable from other background signals. But Castelvecchi was cautious in taking the objection at face value, despite other journalists writing stories about it. When he spoke with the dissenter group, Castelvecchi realized that they could not provide clear examples of other signals that could be confused with gravitational waves. Soon he realized that there was nothing substantial to the objection, so he decided to drop the story. “As journalists, we have to exercise our judgment—not only in how we cover something, but also when we don’t,” he says.
Realizing early-on that a story has no future is especially important for freelancers, says Castelvecchi, as they cannot afford to waste time chasing a story that doesn’t pan out. When a story simply isn’t there, he says, journalists should not force it.
Look for Silver Linings
In other cases, though, a reporter may need to find some way to rescue a story that’s not panning out as expected. That might be the case, for example, if the publication has a hole to fill and killing the assignment is just not an option; or if you or the outlet you’re writing for has invested so much energy and work into the project that the prospect of abandoning it is intolerable; or if you’re covering a timely news event.
Recently, Miami-based journalist Angela Posada-Swafford was covering the first crewed submarine immersion in the Atacama Trench on the Chilean coast, an important milestone in ocean exploration. She had spent months preparing for the trip and she pitched her editors on exclusive access to the expedition, as she would be part of the crew and become the first woman to descend so deep—8,000 meters—into the trench.
But things took a different turn. After the second immersion of four that were planned, the vessel suffered a malfunction. The third and fourth immersions were cancelled.
Despite being unable to join an immersion, Posada-Swafford never considered jumping ship. Even before traveling, she had committed to writing a couple of stories about the expedition and had successfully pitched four more stories while in Chile. There was no turning back. In the end, her efforts paid off, and she published a few vivid and personal stories about the expedition, and has more in preparation. “Being part of a team that is exploring the ocean’s frontiers is something huge, whether you are in or outside the submarine,” Posada-Swafford says.
Journalists may need to ponder whether they have gotten all the information they need to confidently write a story.
But even the depths of the ocean may be more accessible than some trade secrets. Once, Servick was reporting on a drug-development company, but the presentation the company gave to her during the visit was lacking in detail. “They weren’t really prepared to share with me quite as much as I thought,” she recalls. Additionally, the company wanted her to sign a confidentiality agreement, which she declined to do.
In cases like these, journalists may need to ponder whether they have gotten all the information they need to confidently write a story. “When you’re in the thick of a project, your standards for what is interesting, and what is enough, get really high,” Servick says. In this case, Servick had gathered enough of the details that mattered most to her story, so she was able to go ahead. But this is not always the case, and journalists might need to talk to additional outside sources to obtain a clearer picture on the progress of a private company.
In other cases, writers might face a very different problem: vocal disputes. Early in his career, Mark Zastrow, now a senior editor at Astronomy magazine, was reporting what he thought was a straightforward story about Antarctic sea ice. But soon, he found out that there was a huge dispute between two scientific camps that debated the accuracy of the Antarctic sea-ice record. He didn’t expect that turn of events, which he attributes to being unexperienced at that point of his career. If you don’t know much about a topic, he says, it’s easy to miss the controversy around it and it is hard to come up with a good angle for a story. “You’re wandering into a minefield; these people know each other. There’s a lot of history,” he adds. In the end, Zastrow used the dispute to his favor, as it became the central aspect of his finalized story.
Sometimes, the challenge for science writers is not about coming up with a good angle but choosing the right one amongst many options.
When Martha Mendoza, an investigative reporter at The Associated Press, decided to research the excess of hormones in drinking water, she found an endless trove of ideas. She and her team quickly realized that the topic had many tentacles. There were potential stories about many aspects of human society, including issues of social inequity in access to clean water, antibiotics being dumped from factories, and the emergence of resistance due to exposure to drugs in drinking water. Mendoza and her colleagues concluded that there was too much material to fit into one story. Instead, they decided to embrace the depth and breadth of their reporting, publishing a series of related stories. Going down all those branching paths proved to be fruitful, as some of the reporting brought about Senate hearings and regulatory changes.
Being part of a team that could divide up the work meant that Mendoza was able to pursue all the different leads her reporting presented—a luxury that not all journalists have. Writers often must prioritize which angles to pursue. When faced with a story with many threads, Chen recommends stepping back a little and asking yourself, “What is the thing that initially drew you to this story? What is the most compelling thing that you can say about it?” Often probing such questions will give you some clarity to take back control of your story and focus on what’s important.
If things remain unclear or inconclusive for a while, that’s okay too.
However, if things remain unclear or inconclusive for a while, that’s okay too. Servick sees a lot of the stories that have not worked for her simply as “delayed” stories, in the sense that they have not found their time yet. “They’re not dead, they’re hibernating,” she says. When the time is right, they can flourish.
A couple of years ago, she wanted to write a story about patients who undergo brain surgery while conscious. For neuroscientists, these are also rare opportunities to conduct studies inside the brain while the patient is also reacting to the world. They can record neurons as the patient does basic tasks, such as watching an emotional video. Patients in this case are doing a favor for scientists, as the studies are unrelated to their health condition. Servick was interested in the firsthand experiences of these volunteers, but the story never quite gelled. “It was difficult to know when to tell that story, or how to structure it,” she recalls.
It was not until almost two years later, when Servick read about a research program on the ethics of these studies, that it all fell into place. “All of a sudden, [the story] just moved back up to the top of my list,” she says. In the end, her story presented the ethical underpinnings of doing invasive neurological experiments unrelated to a patient’s operation. “I was still able to bring patients into the story and share their perspective,” she says, but her final story also went beyond that. Her patience paid off. Renewed inspiration could come from many places, so we need to keep our antennae out for news that can awaken our hibernating stories.
Communicate with Your Editors
When the story has taken an unexpected direction or when you need to know how to move forward, it’s always smart to tell your editor sooner rather than later. “Writers should always bother editors early. Yeah, bother the editor!” says Elizabeth Culotta, a deputy news editor at Science. The earlier problems are communicated, the more easily they can be solved, she says.
“In general, editors don’t like surprises,” agrees Servick, who recently started an editing role in addition to writing. “When the story changes direction, I think it’s important to check in and share what’s changing.”
When writers get stuck on how to fix a story whose central hypothesis has proven false, editors can bring a different and fresh perspective. The relationship between writer and editor is a symbiosis between experts. “Editors should think of you, the reporter, as the expert. You are immersed in the story in ways they aren’t,” says Francie Diep, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. This mutualism allows for writers to solve problems more effectively than in isolation. Editor and writer are, all after, working toward a common goal.
Ultimately, what is formative and useful about talking with an editor is to learn the ways they question a story and approach its problems.
Years ago, Diep recalls pitching a story about the health of beehives. She went to a scientific conference to report on it. Once there, she realized that there were other stories that were more interesting to her than the collapse of beehives, but she thought she should focus on the original pitch. “I was too early in my career and too afraid to deviate from my plan,” she remembers. “I thought that my editor would be mad at me if I didn’t deliver what I said I would.”
In hindsight, Diep would’ve done things differently. “I should have emailed my editor saying, ‘Hey, I heard about this at the conference—seems really cool!’ and no editor would be mad for that,” she says. Nowadays, if assigned to a conference, Diep tries to keep her mind open for stories different than the ideas she originally brings in.
Ultimately, what is formative and useful about talking with an editor is to learn the ways they question a story and approach its problems. And although the resolution of a story lies primarily on the writer, editors can bring light to a part of the craft that you might be overlooking. For Servick, “a really helpful conversation with an editor is one that renews my curiosity about some other dimensions of the story, by asking me a lot of questions that I haven’t necessarily been asking my sources.”
* Correction 6/17/22: An earlier version of this story stated that the mammography van that Chen wanted to profile in a story was the first in use in the state. That particular van was, in fact, not the first one in use in the state, but rather an updated mammography van with 3D technology.
Pedro Márquez-Zacarías is a Purépecha evolutionary biologist and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He is also a science communicator, interested in written and audiovisual media. Pedro graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México with a degree in biomedical sciences and is currently a PhD candidate in quantitative biosciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he is studying the origins of biological complexity. After graduating, he will be an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. You can find him on Twitter @PedroM_Z.