Staff Writer

May 20, 2023 (Updated )

Thanks to the internet, we have constant access to any information we want. However, a crowded information economy can also mean it is harder to win — and retain — your readers’ attention.

According to research by Dr Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, our attention spans are in decline. Mark’s team measured the average attention on a screen to be two and a half minutes in 2004. By 2012, it was around 75 seconds, and now? Mark’s research suggests people can only pay attention to one screen for an average of 47 seconds.

So, you have managed to grab a reader’s attention with your super interesting science story. How can you keep hold of it?

Simplify Complex Language — Not Ideas

Retaining attention will be a lot easier if you can break down the complex scientific language related to the topic. “Simplifying language when it comes to science is hugely important,” says Miriam Frankel, science editor of The Conversation UK. She adds: “People are prepared to put in the mental effort needed to understand something difficult. They just want to be able to understand the language.”

Frankel says while you might think it’s the more simple stories that perform best (like “A body language expert on Rishi Sunak’s latest speech”, for example), it’s often the more complex stories that get engagement. “If you can find a way to talk about concepts that are so abstract and complicated by just using simple English, it goes a long way,” she says.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Sabrina Weiss (L) and Miriam Frankel (R)

Essentially, it is about simplifying language, not ideas. While some technical terms will be required, Frankel says it is always better to offer a brief explanation that flows in the sentence. If it is hard to explain in half a sentence, Frankel advises adding an example to help the reader better understand it.

When she wrote a feature about the complex and abstract topic of what clocks can teach us about the nature of time, Frankel was required to explain terms like ‘thermodynamics’ (the science of heat and work), ‘general relativity’ (the theory of nature at large scales of planets and galaxies), and ‘superposition’ (when a particle is in several states, such as locations, at the same time). Explaining these ideas in simple terms was key to achieving clarity, she says.

Frankel also reassures us that you can’t communicate all the nuances of a science story, because this would make it more like a scientific paper rather than a journalistic piece. She suggests adding caveats like, “Research suggests X may cause Y,” but not so many that your story adds nothing new. If your piece is online, use hyperlinks to provide readers with nuance they can explore independently — but again, it is important not to overdo it and clutter the piece.

What does heat have to do with clocks?

Freelance science journalist Sabrina Weiss, who specialises in deeply reported features and has written for publications like WIRED and National Geographic, echoes Frankel’s sentiment. While you cannot include all the nuances of a science story, you should incorporate them where possible. Weiss says: “Even if a study shows cause and effect, you can never be 100 percent certain, and you may want to put that nuance into a headline and say: ‘It may cause’.”

She expands: “If you are talking about red wine causing heart attacks, for example, you cannot just say that is exactly the case — you must be careful when exploring cause and effect.”

Appealing To General Audiences

But are some kinds of stories better to attempt than others when trying to appeal to wide audiences? Are some a no-go? For Weiss, it’s the same editorial questions you’d usually consider. She explains:: “In short, I would say the same as any other story. You’ll be looking for a news hook, novelty, a local, regional or even global relevance, human interest, conflict or a major challenge that has been overcome.”

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“People are prepared to put in the mental effort needed to understand something difficult. They just want to be able to understand the language.”
Miriam Frankel, science editor of The Conversation UK

She adds that we should also cover the impact or the implications of a science story — which might not always be visible at first glance. Ask questions like: “Why should your readers care? Does [the scientific discovery] have implications beyond the immediate news? Does it change how doctors do their jobs? How people behave? Are there economic, political, cultural, historical ramifications?” Consider these through the research, pitching, interviewing, and writing stages.

Like any other form of journalism, Frankel says science journalism makes good use of popular topics, such as zeitgeists, celebrities, and human interest, to make stories more exciting. She also suggests writing yourself into stories by doing (safe!) experiments — like this story she wrote for New Scientist about using a personality test to “hack” her personality. This format allowed her to write with more colour and context.

When appealing to more general audiences, Weiss reminds us to be creative with how we tell a story. For example, your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be human, or maybe your protagonist “is someone you and your readers will empathise with because they have suffered multiple failures. [They] might not even be a scientist. Maybe that person discovered something by accident that is useful for science.”

She also asks us to consider time horizons. “Generally, journalism is a retrospective activity. We put the past and the present into context, but why not look decades ahead and imagine what our world could look like?”

Read More Of Our Reporting Science Series

absw logoAs part of our Refine Newsroom Fellowship, kindly supported by the ABSW, we’re publishing a range of guides to help you understand science better.

How To Interview Researchers & Scientists For Your Stories

How To Read Scientific And Research Papers As A Journalist

Reporting On The Nuances Of Climate Science

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for journalists today is reporting on climate science in an accessible way. Even for those of us reporting on beats such as fashion or gaming, its effects are wide-reaching and increasing, meaning it’s important we get it right.

Applying this specifically to sports, Jocelyn Timperley of BBC Future and Future Planet says: “For football, or most sports, one of the main things that cause climate change is that people travel a lot to get there, and flights are very very polluting — from a climate change perspective, one of the most emission-intensive activities someone can do.”

When writing stories about climate initiatives — and impacts — Timperley says it’s important to ask what specific actions are being taken to reduce greenhouse gases. “Who is leading the way? Any particular sports clubs? Is it enough? What’s missing?” These are some of the questions Timperley suggests considering.

She says we should explore the big and small impacts and always look for the numbers. The following two angles, Timperley says, can be applied to pretty much any cultural sector: “How is it causing or contributing to climate change? And how is it being affected or shaped by climate change?”

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“Data visualisation tools and practices can be powerful for communicating complex information in more engaging and accessible ways. [But remember] you are not in a research team. You are telling a specific story.”
Mariam Elsayeh, Freelance Journalist

How To Approach The Numbers

For many climate stories — and science more broadly — numbers are a double-edged sword. Much like any other story, you’ll need human narratives and interviewees. But, more often than not, you’ll find rafts of numbers and data you need to untangle. The most important thing is to understand yourself first.

Frankel reminds us that while it can be easy to see numbers and make a story out of them, you should be aware of statistical coincidences or other explanations for two data points that appear to somehow agree with each other. In other words, make sure you check first.

Adding context to the data is vital, and Frankel suggests using your time with experts to go over the data and to push for numbers that are easily understandable.

Mariam Elsayeh is a freelance journalist with extensive experience in data analysis. She has produced health bulletins, COVID podcasts, and science interviews for platforms like the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Popular Science. Elsayeh knows first-hand just how complex numbers can be and highlights how important it is to present numbers in simple ways that are easy for the audience to understand. Like Frankel, Elsayeh underlines that correlation does not mean causation. “It is not a causation until you have another equation that proves something is the case,” she emphasises.

a purple ripple

Elsayeh adds: “Data visualisation tools and practices can be powerful for communicating complex information in more engaging and accessible ways.” However, she adds that it is important to use them carefully and thoughtfully to ensure the message has been conveyed accurately and clearly. Best practices for data visualisation include choosing the right graph — because different graphs and charts are good for presenting different types of data. While a bar chart might be good for comparing values between different categories, a line chart might be better for depicting trends over time.

Design is also important in clarity and accessibility. Elsayeh advises using clear labels, titles, appropriate colours and schemes, ensuring the visualisation is easy to read and interpret. She cautions: “You are not in a research team. You are telling a specific story.” Too many data elements are going to be distracting to the audience. For a general audience, only include the elements relevant to them and ensure you provide enough context for understanding.

While you might know a lot about the story by this point, Elsayeh says charts often still need to be explained, and it’s your job to connect the story to the chart. She advises asking someone outside the field to read it so you know there is sufficient context to convey the data’s significance to audiences. That might involve using annotations, labels, comparisons with other datasets, or explanatory text. Essentially, keep it as simple as possible.

Lastly, Elsayeh advises becoming familiar with basic statistical concepts like mean, median, and standard deviation to help you with data interpretation and analysis. And as with any good journalist conducting research, remaining clear-headed and sceptical of the data is vital.

Ultimately, when communicating science stories clearly and engagingly, it is crucial to know your audience — why they care, what they want from the piece, and how much context they require. Once you understand these factors, it will also make it easier to know your story angle and pitch it to editors. As Frankel says: “If you try to sum up what you are trying to write in one sentence, then you know you have a good story.”

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by the SPA in 2018.

She was a BBC Sport Kick-Off Reporter in 2019 and had co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying for the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.

Header image courtesy of Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash