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An exercise in translation: The world of science journalism

Science writers are distinct among journalists. They not only inform the public of current events, but act as translators between the jargon-filled world of science and the average joes of the public, balancing scientific depth and accessibility.

Sally James, science writer, media consultant, and past president of the Northwest Science Writers Association, likened science writing to an iceberg. “Writers have to understand so much science to bring our audience just that little bit sticking out on top; learn all the invisible information below just to know what should peek out as our stories above the water line.”

I sat down with Usha Lee McFarling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer who teaches journalism students at the University of Washington, to discuss her journey into science journalism, and some of the unique challenges that science writers face.

Question: How did you get into science writing in particular?

Usha McFarling: “I came from a family where I was supposed to be a doctor, so I did biology and pre-med as an undergraduate. I found I loved biology for the content and the ideas, but [pre-meds] have to be so competitive about grades. At the same time I loved writing and was minoring in English. My senior year, my advisor said, ‘If you love science and you love writing, why don’t you be a science writer?’ This was in the late 80s, it was a great time [for science writers]. So I set that as my career path.”

Q: Did you have any journalism background going in?

UM: “I worked at [the Brown University student newspaper, writing science]. But it was very hard to get a [journalism] job after graduation. Instead I wrote medical newsletters published in Providence. I did [a Summer Program for Minority Journalists] at Berkeley, which was great training, and good newspapers recruited from there.”

Q: What do you think makes science journalism unique in the world of journalism?

UM: “It’s constantly new and changing. We think all news is new but I think a lot of news is cyclical. In science there’s a lot that’s so new you could never have imagined it five years ago, it keeps you young and excited. And that’s on the positive side. On the negative side I just think that it’s very challenging because it’s hard ideas, hard language, jargon. A lot of the scientists, brilliant as they are, cannot really explain their work in any way that [most people] can understand. It’s almost an exercise in translation.”

Q: Are there any other unique challenges science writers face?

UM: “It’s the jargon, but it’s also the fact that science isn’t always pretty. There’s so much fraud, and there are big egos, so you have to be a tough reporter.”

Q: As a professor do you see aspiring science writers facing any particularly new challenges?

UM: “There are obviously less science sections. You have to make your own way and be more aggressive and creative. I also feel that a lot of people feel they have to write really short, which is a challenge for something like particle physics.”

Q: What are some of the worst mistakes you see new science writers making?

UM: “I often see science writers getting things wrong because they just went off the press release, they didn’t talk to a differing opinion. Regardless of the pressures of space and time, you have to thoroughly report these things and deal with the complexity.”

Q: What are some pieces of advice you would offer to aspiring science writers?

UM: “Don’t cut corners: it’s important to make that extra phone call. Get away from press releases, just get out and talk to people. [Also], accuracy is really important. No science writer is an expert at everything, so you need to enlist the aid of the experts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, you’re not out to look smart, but to give something to your reader by understanding it enough to write about it clearly.”

Q: What do you think society as a whole gains from science writing?

UM: “We’re dealing with [things like] climate change and overpopulation. We all have to make decisions about this, and if we have a population that’s not educated enough, then I feel like we’re going into a dark age where a few politicians and science advisors might make all the decisions. [Science writers] play a role in keeping democracy strong and letting us all participate in these conversations.”

Ola Wietecha is a University of Washington student and an intern with SPJ’s Western Washington chapter. Email her at

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