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Communicating Science: A Conversation with Hillary Rosner

Three 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Winners discuss the craft of
science writing, their award-winning articles, and the varied role
scientists play in developing a story.




Hillary Rosner, receiving the 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Winner, Small Newspaper. (Courtesy: AAAS)Hillary Rosner receiving the 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Winner, Small Newspaper. (Courtesy: AAAS)

HILLARY ROSNER’S AWARD WINNING FEATURE ARTICLE, “One Tough Sucker” (High Country News), reveals how the razorback sucker -- one of four endangered fishes of the mainstream Colorado River – is at the heart of a struggle over the management of fish species in the river.

In a conversation with The Kavli Foundation, she discusses how the story came to her attention and the difficulties of writing about the envirobment. She also discusses the clash between conservationists and sport-fishing advocates, the quandary of keeping alive a species whose survival is completely dependent on an “alphabet soup” of conservation and recovery plans. “[I]t's a situation faced not just by razorback suckers but by most endangered species in the United States -- and likely around the world,” writes Rosner. “There is no way they will survive without constant management. One recent study noted that ‘conservation-reliant’ species now make up about 85 percent of those listed under the ESA.” 


THE KAVLI FOUNDATION (TKF): Hillary, your professional background includes covering breaking news for the New York Post and the dot-com boom for the Village Voice. That’s along with your current work about the environment. Looking at your career, are there challenges that are unique to covering science?

HILLARY ROSNER: Actually, now that I write about science, I feel that I do a lot more reporting. That’s because I want to make sure I understand completely what I’m talking about before I try to explain it. And then of course there is the challenge of trying to write in a way that makes sense to the public and isn’t boring. As for writing specifically about the environment, one particular challenge is finding the characters. You have to tell stories through people, and with many environmental issues it can be really hard to find the person in the story. Often these are stories about a place or species or toxin that doesn’t have an obvious human being attached to it.

TKF: So finding the human element is critical to your science stories?

ROSNER: For what I write, definitely. For example, right now I’m working on a story about biogas, which is a form of energy. But I can’t just tell a story about a form of energy, I have to find a way to make it exciting and interesting, and this is done in part through the people who are trying to bring this form of energy to the world. So you have to find the interesting people to tell the story about the thing itself. Otherwise, people fall asleep by the fourth sentence. With the “fish story,” the scientists came to me and I could see there was an inherent human conflict in the story – the conflict between people trying to save this fish, and people supporting sport fishing. So I was immediately drawn to it because I could see the human element.

An adult razorback sucker ready for release back into the wild at Lake Mohave after growing several years in captivity.(Copyrighted by Abraham Karam. Used by permission.)An adult razorback sucker ready for release back into the wild at Lake Mohave after growing several years in captivity. (Copyrighted by Abraham Karam. Used by permission.)

TKF: How much do you share in common with the scientists you cover?

ROSNER: I’ve thought a lot about this, because I’ve given a few workshops to scientists about how to talk to journalists, and I do think there are similarities. Foremost we are both asking questions and doing research to get at the truth. So they are similar pursuits at that base level. By the way, I also think scientists are getting much better at communicating their fields. This may have to do in part with NSF mandates that are making the communication of science something they are required to do as part of their job. But I do think a lot of younger scientists are much better at it. They’re blogging, they’re on Twitter... I almost feel like I have much less to add to that category than even just a few years ago.

TKF: Do you feel there are science stories being overlooked?

ROSNER: You know, I’m on a Knight Science Journalism fellowship right now, so I’ve had an amazing opportunity to take classes at Harvard and M.I.T. All year, I’ve been shocked how many times I’ve learned about research I knew nothing about in a field I know something about. So yes; there are many areas that don’t get attention. And in part, I think it’s because in mainstream publications, there is a limited amount of science that gets covered, and it tends to be health issues and climate change. Whole areas of science don’t get beyond the news sections of Nature and Science. Editors just aren’t willing to fund the stories.

TKF: Climate change is clearly an important issue to an environmental writer. How well is this issue being covered?

Biologists use underwater lights to attract, then capture, razorback sucker larvae along the shore of Lake Mohave.(Copyrighted by Abraham Karam. Used by permission.)Biologists use underwater lights to attract, then capture, razorback sucker larvae along the shore of Lake Mohave.(Copyrighted by Abraham Karam. Used by permission.)

ROSNER: Climate change is an incredibly difficult thing to cover because, for a lot of people, It’s just very abstract. Even though we are starting to see the impact, it’s hard to tie any single event specifically to climate change, which makes it hard for people to understand. So for all the terrific reporting that’s been done, it doesn’t seem to be having a huge impact. And I’m not sure how to change that. I also think there are a lot of stories about the decline in ecosystems, species extinctions and biodiversities that are hard to tell because they tend to take place in other parts of the world, so they require money to do them and U.S. publications are less likely to run them because it isn’t happening in people’s back yards.

TKF: How well have the media and scientists communicated the consequences of climate change?

ROSNER: I’ve certainly heard people blaming scientists and the media for failing to communicate effectively on this issue, but I think everybody’s doing the best they can. And I think, taken as a whole, everybody’s doing a pretty good job. It’s just a very hard to communicate successfully– partly because of the politicization of the issue, but also it’s generally not something people can look out their window and see or experience on a day to day basis in a meaningful way. It’s very hard to grasp and relate too. This is a big dilemma.