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Perspective: I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Michigan Anymore

The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, a Local View


 

We asked a number of AAAS Mass Media Fellows (AAASMMF) to reflect on what they have learned, how they have changed, and why it matters. Read journals by fellow AAASMMFs Krishna Sharma (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), Vanessa Vieites, Haley Dunleavy, and an essay from Charlene Rivera Bonet (English and Spanish).

 

What is Kansas?


When I first started the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, I had some hesitation over writing for a local outlet. While some of my peers would have the freedom to write about any science topics they wanted, I would be focusing on issues of interest to Kansans. I have never been to Kansas before. Was anything sciency happening in Kansas outside of agriculture? (Yes, it turned out). How could I be respectful of locals and avoid the pitfalls of parachute journalism?


Because the Fellowship was designed to place STEM students at media organizations, entering June 2021, I’d had little formal training in journalism, especially writing for newspapers. I’d taken a multi-week workshop taught by a local newspaper editor at my university but that was it.


The Fellowship started with a crash course on journalism taught by one of the editors at Science, covering the fundamentals of journalism in a few hours. Yet, as I would learn, writing for a local outlet didn’t always follow the three-sentence lede taught in the crash course.


When I started at my site virtually, I was anxious and felt like I had no clue what I was doing. How do I identify interesting story ideas? How do I reach out to sources and get a response? Am I going to be bothering these busy professors by asking them to talk about research that isn’t theirs? It was a learning process.


At first, it struck me as odd that I could take something someone else had written and make my own story out of it. Later, as I learned more about the business side of reporting, I learned that it wasn’t uncommon for media outlets to adapt stories to their audience to capture search traffic and in the case of my host site, to also cover it for the newspaper.

For my first story, my editor assigned me a topic. It was a localization of a story that had run in the Washington Post about Amazon Sidewalk, a new feature to certain Amazon devices that could allow them to share internet signals from a user’s own bandwidth by default, raising privacy, security, and ethics concerns. At first, it struck me as odd that I could take something someone else had written and make my own story out of it. Later, as I learned more about the business side of reporting, I learned that it wasn’t uncommon for media outlets to adapt stories to their audience to capture search traffic and in the case of my host site, to also cover it for the newspaper.


The June 14, 2021 edition of The Wichita Eagle. Nick's article on Amazon Sidewalk was featured on the front page. (Courtesy of Nick Young)


As I started to work on my first story, I repeated the cycle of identifying people to talk to, not hearing back, and looking through departmental directories of the major universities in the state to find other people to talk to. Eventually, I got a few responses and interviews. After much stress and hoping for the best, I had the first draft for my editor by the end of the first week.


And it was just a first draft, not a story.


My editor wanted the edits within two hours so that they could be published in the next day’s paper. For an academic used to weeks if not months for turning in revisions, it was a shock.

When I received my editor’s feedback, I was surprised by the number of comments. Some of the feedback seemed obvious and made clear that I indeed lacked any formal training in journalism: my editor asked if I had reached out to Amazon because I was writing a story about their new product and potential concerns. I hadn’t. Not only that but the deadline to make the edits was much quicker than I expected. My editor wanted the edits within two hours so that they could be published in the next day’s paper. For an academic used to weeks if not months for turning in revisions, it was a shock. I was already feeling overwhelmed and wondering if I was the right person for the Fellowship before I received the edits, and the edits didn’t help with those feelings.


The June 24, 2021 edition of The Wichita Eagle. Nick's article about the discovery of an exoplanet by a Kansas astronomer was featured on the front page. (Courtesy of Nick Young)

Thankfully, things got better the second week. I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a thread about an exoplanet discovery. When I skimmed the paper, I saw that one of the authors was based at a Kansas university. I debated on whether I should pitch the story or not and, in the end, decided to do so. My editor was enthusiastic about it and asked me to localize the story.


I tried my best by interviewing the author and learning the type of work he did from Kansas, but it wasn’t “Kansas” enough: the connection to Kansas was a stretch. There weren’t any other exoplanet researchers in Kansas so my editor suggested I try contacting amateur groups. The first group I contacted didn’t know enough about the topic to comment (but they did provide a tip that led to a future story). After a few more tries, I got in touch with someone who built their own backyard observatory and had discovered multiple asteroids. After learning about his work as an amateur astronomer, my story morphed into both covering the discovery of an exoplanet and how Kansans could become planet (or at least asteroid) hunters too.


As a result of interviewing him, I had to rethink who counted as an expert. In academia, I came with the impression that expertise is gauged by the number of peer-reviewed publications on the topic. Now, I had to unlearn that and realize that anyone could count as a trustworthy source depending on the topic and context.


 

Now that I had those clips under my belt, I started to be more confident in my reporting abilities. My editor continued to share press releases and story ideas, but I also began to pitch more and more of my own stories. Some weeks I’d have too many pitches and need to narrow them down before sending them to my editor and other weeks I’d spend a few hours going through press releases, old science stories, and social media looking for anything that might spark an idea. Doing adequate background research is important to avoid distorted coverage and common tropes associated with the Midwest, especially as I continue to work from my home on the other side of the region in Michigan. Having talked with other reporters at The Wichita Eagle, this story-finding pattern wasn’t atypical. One of the reporters who occasionally wrote about science told me she needed to spend her first few weeks reaching out to sources to build the connections that now turned into a steady stream of stories.


The July 25, 2021 edition of The Wichita Eagle. Nick's article about neutrinos was featured above the fold. (Courtesy of Nick Young)

One of those press release stories would turn into one of my favorites. At first, it seemed like a relatively straightforward story. A local professor won a grant from NASA for a space-based neutrino detector. After talking with the researcher, it turned into a story about how the project originated from an incorrect statement at a departmental seminar and might one day, become a NASA mission with some neutrino science mixed in. During the interview, I even got to see a few drawings about what the potential spacecraft might look like!


After that story, most of my stories came from my own pitches. Perhaps my favorite story to come out of my pitches was how to tell jokes based on science. With the social media holiday International Joke Day happening on July 1st, I had a hook to write a story about jokes. I talked with humor researchers and a comedian about why we find something funny and how we might use those to tell a joke. As it turned out, the academic view of humor as a violation of expectations didn’t translate too well into the real world as a prescription for telling a funny joke. Nevertheless, I had a fun time writing the story.


By now, I had become confident in writing stories. I no longer had anxiety about reaching out to sources and had cold emailing down to a science. I could recognize when something a source said would make a great quote for the story and knew when to reframe questions if I wasn’t getting the type of answers I needed to fill out my story.


My editor’s feedback had also begun to switch from fixing my oversights to offering ways I could begin to think like an editor when writing my stories. For example, were my claims and facts supported by what my sources said? Was I answering the questions readers would be “yelling” as they read my story?


Then I got my first correction.


While I had heard corrections happen to everyone, it still shocked me to see the email in my inbox from a credible person informing me that my story wasn’t entirely accurate. My original framing suggested the study I had covered applied to renewable energy when in fact, the study was about fossil fuels. After some discussion with my editor, I was able to quickly add an extra paragraph or two to clear up any confusion. Nevertheless, I started to pay more attention to what a reader could incorrectly conclude from my story rather than just what questions they would ask.


 

From there, it was mostly smooth sailing until my last story. I’d pitch a story and have a week or so to turn it in. For the last story, however, my editor asked me to write a feature-length story for a new initiative the newspaper was launching. At first, I thought it was a typo because I’m an intern. Why would I write a feature-length story for the Sunday paper with only two weeks left? Didn’t it take longer to write longform stories than that? I was also concerned about whether I could write a story that long. Most of my stories were in the upper hundreds of words and I had only done one or two at around 1,000 words. What could I write about for that long?


Thankfully, not too long after the assignment, one of the other editors had a suggestion. A researcher at the local university had won a grant to study ocular biometrics as a potentially less biased way of recognizing people and suggested I use that to write a story about facial recognition. I was excited because the topic was semi-related to my areas of expertise and allowed me to do one last research-in-progress story rather than write about peer-reviewed literature.


Unfortunately, it got off to a bad start. The person who I had planned to make the main source for the article wasn’t responding to my emails. Luckily, other sources were more than eager to set up a time to chat in the meantime. From academic researchers to app developers, I slowly compiled information about facial recognition research, applications, laws, and concerns. Yet, the missing piece of the puzzle remained the local angle I needed to make the story fit with the publication. As I contacted more sources and looked into existing and proposed laws, I kept finding more and more information relevant to national audiences, not local audiences. In fact, I could only find one proposed Kansas law related to facial recognition, tucked inside a larger bill about police and body cameras. However, an issue can be newsworthy precisely because of an information vacuum. My academic training could give me a leg up to cover these gaps in coverage —if only I had access to the right source.



Nick's workspace in his home at Michigan. (Nick Young for The Xylom)


Finally, though, I received a response from the person I planned to be the main source. They were interested in talking, but wouldn’t be available until hours before my deadline. I didn’t want to wait that long and have only hours to write up the story. But what choice did I have? In the meantime, I could only craft the parts of the story that I already had enough information about. For short deadlines, this pre-writing had been essential so I could quickly turn in stories after meeting with a source, and throughout the summer it had become second nature. Now, it would come in handy once again.


For short deadlines, this pre-writing had been essential so I could quickly turn in stories after meeting with a source, and throughout the summer it had become second nature.

By the time the final interview happened, just four hours before my deadline, the story was mostly written. I only needed a few quotes to fill out a section or two and background information about the researcher’s most recent project. Once the interview ended, I quickly returned to my notes to find the quotes I needed. For the next hour, I frantically switched between my notes, my outline, my story, and various background and fact-checking Google searches as I added quotes and context to make the piece coherent. My hands started to cramp, but my story was finally coming together.


After much struggle around how to structure the piece with multiple focuses and what to include, I clicked the “send” button and breathed a sigh of relief.


The clock struck 5 pm Central time — my Fellowship has officially ended.

 

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Nick Young

From Ann Arbor, Mich., Nick graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.S. in Physics and Astronomy, and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University in Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering. After a stint at the Wichita Eagle as a 2021 AAAS Mass Media Fellow, He is now a postdoc at the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan. Nick likes big dogs and lives with a Great Dane and a Newfoundland; he got started in his area of research by volunteering to be a subject for one of his undergraduate advisor's studies.