Knight Center
Knight Center


Avoid “wonkish,” boring and confusing: Resources to help journalists improve science, environmental reporting

James Astill, the energy and environment editor for The Economist, has been named the 2011 winner of the $75,000 Grantham Prize, an award given for excellence in reporting on the environment, for his eight-part series on the state of the world’s forests. At the awards ceremony at Columbia University in September, Astill explained that he had no “background in science reporting,” according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

“There’s an awful lot of excellent scientific and environmental reporting out there,” Astill said, as quoted by the Columbia Journalism Review. “Yet it is also true, I suppose, that not enough of it gets widely read. It may be too wonkish. It may be too forbiddingly academic. It may sometimes just be too boring to be digestible to the general reader. And this seemed to me to be a pretty obvious problem, and if environmental subjects are to grab more public attention, it should be addressed. Too little environmental or science journalism, I would suggest, expresses in a vivid, also serious, way the wonder of the Earth’s systems—the awe-inspiring power of nature. Too often, environmental and scientific dispatches on the wildest oceans and forests say almost nothing about what they look like, what they sound like. “

But scientific and environmental reporting doesn’t have to be too “wonkish,” too “academic,” or too “boring.” As such, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has compiled just some of the resources that can aid journalists wanting to better cover science or the environment.

The Journalist’s Toolbox, a resource provided by the Society of Professional Journalists, contains a comprehensive list of sites that provide science journalists with an array of archives.

The Science Literacy Project, an initiative aimed at educating journalists in science and providing the necessary tools to create sound science reporting, has created several workshops for journalists. Although currently there are no new workshops available, the project has published a list of suggested reading to compliment the workshops. The readings contain germane information that all journalists should know about science. The list even contains links to 10 physics lectures by Berkley professor Richard A. Muller. Also, tip sheets created by experts in the field are available through the Science Literacy Project’s website.

EurekAlert!, a site administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, lets registered users subscribe to daily e-mails of the latest science-related press releases.

Similarly, The National Association of Science Writers has compiled a list of online resources for science journalists. The list includes a wide variety of help, ranging from blogs that provide histories of science to tools for searching biomedical reports. While blogs and search engines may provide valuable information, journalists need to approach them with an air of caution. Not all content or results will be from peer-reviewed sources. There are, however, several search engines that aim to ensure the validity of reports’ results.

For example, Scirus is a science-specific search engine that shows results from reputable journals and sites. Scitopia is a similar search engine that “searches the entire electronic libraries of the leading voices in major science and technology disciplines and provides relevant results.” The science Yahoo!Directorycontains links to information on a variety of fields of science. For a more wide-ranging list of search engines, see 100 extremely useful search engines for science. The list is broken up into subjects such as astronomy, earth science, and mathematics.

These resources provide a general view of available tools for science journalists. For other fields, like environmental journalism, there are an array of sources as well. The Society of Environmental Journalists composited an overview of tools to aid in reporting on environmental issues.

Other resources include: The Knight Center for Environmental Journalism’s toolbox of articles and guides; a media resource service that connects journalists with experts willing to be interviewed by media; and ProfNet offers a link between professors around the globe and journalists.


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