News that is fit to tweet

The other day I logged into my “home” page on Twitter and immediately knew that there was an earthquake in California, that swine flu has spread to 16 countries, and that the new movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine was out and it was getting pretty average ratings.

Interestingly though, I read about the earthquake before I read it on the BBC. I knew about the 16th country to confirm swine flu before getting it from any other place. I was also reading Wolverine reviews before they were on RottenTomatoes.com.

Ever since the scare of swine flu hit the world, it has been the most talked about word on Twitter, becoming what is called there a Trending Topic.

In my opinion, the use of new media has been quite interesting when it comes to swine flu. Never before had it been such a powerful tool for us science journalists. And the potential in it for us science journalists has been huge as well.

I believe this is a result of the community growing and becoming more experienced in applying all the different new media tools to give a more complete product at the end.

So let’s look at what was done.

First there’s Twitter, which was buzzing with news. The 140 character limit was not very helpful in providing news but users were pointing to articles, news stories, interesting blogs etc. At the same time, people were using it to decimate quick information such as symptoms and precautions. This became the source for fast information and updates for me.

Then there was the excellent tool that tracked the spread of the virus across the globe using Google Maps. The new layer was being updated real-time by people to provide information on which new countries are hit, the number of cases, etc.

Then came discussions on Friendfeed, another tool that can be used to show the best posts on certain topics, as well as thousands of blogs that sprung all over the globe. Then there were groups and communities being formed on Facebook to discuss the virus.

Now this was a very rich source of information, but it was a two-edged sword as well. For us journalists, searching for information online is a tedious task of wading through the world wide web to find a good signal-to-noise ratio. We have to go through so many pages that contain a lot of needless non-sense while we search for the information we want.

With the amazing amount of information that was being dissipated on Twitter, it became very tricky to maintain a proper signal-to-noise ratio. What is real and what is not? What is important and what is blabber? And you also had to deal with people in your network who were posting information such as what they had for breakfast this morning or what color they will wear while going out tonight. More chatter and noise to wade through while searching for the real gems hidden.

The real gems are varied. For example, you could find first-hand reports from people in Mexico. You could learn about information before they made news and when they did make news, you were directed to good information that can make a difference to your understanding or coverage of the virus.

But does that mean that these tools are not good or useful for our work? Absolutely not! It just means that we need to adapt to the tricky parts of these tools in order to make the best of them.

When it comes to Twitter, it really depends on how you want to use it. If you will use it as a journalist, then the secret is choosing to follow people who are not using it for lifecasting (such as the examples given above). Rather, you should be following people who are doing mindcasting, a term coined by journalism professor Jay Rosen (Twitter: @jayrosen_nyu). These are people who are actually posting useful information.

By following these, and unfollowing others who are posting useless blabber, you will have a much better signal-to-noise ratio.

You can then take some interesting information from there and feed it into discussions in Friendfeed. This will refine that ratio even further as you host interesting, useful discussions with the community that you choose to build. The same with Facebook as well.

And this is where the secret to using all these tools lies. It is all about forming the proper networks and communities to serve your purposes. After all, community forming is the heart of all these new tools of blogging and microblogging.

Having the right community will give a collective, comprehensive edge to your coverage – giving you access to a large amount of information that would have been near impossible to gather with the old tools.

And now for the million dollar question. Does new media replace traditional media here? For me, definitely not. I was still checking the BBC, Nature, and a host of other websites daily. But it did give me much more information than I would usually get from these sources. And it did put me in touch with people on the ground in ways that traditional media could never do.

And most importantly, it made my work the result of a collaborative effort of tens, if not hundreds, of people, rather than my own.

Oh, and I also now know that I should not be in a hurry to watch Wolverine. It can wait.

New Media and Science Journalism

Of all the terms coined by journalists, New Media has to be the worst. The problem with the naming is that what was new 10 years ago is not new today. And it won’t be new in a couple of years.

That makes it one of the trickiest terms to identify. We often hear about new media and old media etc. But the question is, what IS new media? Is it internet websites? Or is it blogs? Or maybe it refers to social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

The truth of the matter is, the perception of new media becomes an individual effort. For someone who has worked for the past 30 years in newspapers, internet may be the new type of media. But for someone, like myself, who started work ON the internet, blogs and microblogs may be the new thing.

Regardless of the definition, new media is here to stay. And in these turbulent times for science journalism around the world, it may very well be a savior.

The first use of new media is as a source of information. The internet has quickly become the richest – and fastest – source of news. Science journalists can quickly find stories at their fingertips. Sometimes they can even get them as they are happening.

And as the economic crisis deepens, the importance of the internet as a communication tool rises. It may not be as feasible as it was before to travel around the world to collect stories.

But the internet can be a rich medium to facilitate such discussions. Social networks can be used to reach experts or laypersons in almost every country in the world. I remember one story I was working on concerning Libya and I primarily used Facebook to reach Libyans to hear their stories. This gave the story its edge, because other reporters failed to reach people on the street in Libya.

Virtual worlds – such as Second Life – are also a rich area for human interaction. Their virtual nature makes them second only to real life contact. Such tools can help give a human angle to a story when it becomes tricky to do this face-to-face.

The second application of new media is to spread your own work. Using services such as Twitter, you can tell tens of thousands of people about your newest piece. And the nature of social networks is built on the idea of communities. This means that these people will most probably be interested in the same topics as you, making it even more effective since it’s directed correctly.

Finally, there is the potential of the internet as a networking tool. Networks such as the “Research and Media Network,” have become a powerful resource and reference. This is especially valuable for science communicators from the developing world. Since they usually have much lower financial resources, such networks become invaluable for them. For example, when working on a story of an international nature, they can seek help from other journalists from their respective countries.

They also become important tools for all of us to learn from each other, thus we all collectively become better.

Whether we accept and adopt New Media or not, it is here to stay. And whether we can make sense of the term or not, it is also here to stay. So what it will come down to is: how can we, as science journalists, make the best of this new era of media?

How to freshen up science stories

If you are like me, then every year on the 1st of December you are wondering how you will cover HIV/AIDS this year on World AIDS Day. And if you are like me, then you will know that this task gets harder and harder every year.

And that is the biggest question that faces science journalists who are interested in HIV/AIDS. How do you write a story about a topic that has been extensively covered for over 25 years – and make it interesting?

I remember an editor I used to work with who refused a story I wrote about HIV saying that “people are sick of hearing about AIDS, find something interesting.”

While that dilemma may be biggest for people covering HIV, there are other topics that have the same problem. Think of Avian Flu. It was a huge subject for a while and had major coverage. Now, it is still as dangerous and big as ever, but nobody covers it anymore because people are “sick of hearing” about it.

So how can you make your story interesting?

I believe that the best and most tried and true way is to give your story a human angle. The science has been covered, the statistics have been highlighted, and the new researches promoted. What people really need to understand HIV is to give it a face.

You can talk about the number of deaths, which is equivalent to 15 Jumbo planes crashing everyday. And while this is a shocking statistic, showing the photo of a little child born with HIV can have a stronger impact on people. That is because as humans, we tend to relate to other humans more than to numbers.

I am not saying that we should stop writing about the science. On the contrary, this is of the utmost importance. We have this impression that everyone understands how HIV works. That is because when HIV was first discovered, everyone wrote about the science behind it. But younger generations have not been subjected to this.

And it is also important to explain the science because, once something is understood, it becomes less scary and foreboding. This is the first step in fighting the stigma faced by people living with HIV/AIDS.

Covering research is important because it gives hope. It shows the community that there is a lot going on in the science fields. And it bridges between scientists and the people on the street.

Statistics are important to remind people that the virus is still at large.

So how can you write a captivating story, yet fulfill these goals?

Find a human angle. Follow the day of someone living with HIV/AIDS, or find an energetic inspirational person who is dealing with the virus. Write a story centered around this person. But infuse the story with the other aspects as well.

For example, say you are writing about a woman in Africa who is struggling with HIV while bringing up her two children. Here, you can go into the science of how the virus works and how it is transferred from mother to child. If that woman is quoted talking about how she lost her husband to HIV, mention a statistic about AIDS orphans.

While talking about an inspirational person who is doing a lot for people living with HIV/AIDS, drift briefly into a new research that can do a lot for that same group.

Hopefully this way, you can keep writing interesting stories about HIV/AIDS that people are interested to read. And this way, we, as journalists, can keep doing our part in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The tricky business of reporting breaking science

With thousands of studies taking place every month all over the world, a science reporter can find ample material to cover. The problem with science, however, resides in the very nature of science.

The very nature of science is that it is ever evolving. It has a tendency of discrediting itself nearly every decade or so. Most of the things that are proven today will probably be disproven in 10 or 15 years (with the exception of the really amazing discoveries).

So how can a science journalist report on new research and not lose credibility when it is disproven?

This is indeed a tricky question, especially for medical reporters writing about new drugs. Imagine the people who reported some years ago about the wonderous new drug Vioxx and how it will solve all the problems that traditional anti-inflammatory drugs had. I bet they didn’t feel very good when it was proven to have some very serious side effects on the heart and was completely pulled off the market!

And then the plot thickens. How can you wade through all those studies to find the ones that are worth covering?

And what is the proper way of going through research to determine how serious is it? There are so many issues to keep in mind. Do you read the conclusion only or do you have to go through the whole paper, which can take much longer? After all, many studies are done and funded by interested parties. This is especially true with new drug research. Most research in these fields is performed by large pharmaceutical companies. Can you trust everything said in the conclusion? Are there any important pieces of information that are buried somewhere within the research?

It is a really touchy issue. No one wants to lose his/her credibility with readers. So the big question is this: How can you cover science research and not fall into the many pitfalls of new, exciting studies?