An insight into the career path of a science journalist
Writer: Elly Chaw
Editor: Maddie Wigmore-Sykes
Artist: Elena Kayayan
What does it take to be a science journalist? According to Nicola Davis, a quick and critical mind is key.
Nicola Davis is a science journalist who has been working with the Guardian for four years, writing about science, health, and environment for the newspaper and its sister paper, the Observer. She was commissioning editor for Observer Tech Monthly, and also currently presents the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, where big discoveries in biology, chemistry, and physics are discussed and debated upon. During her time at the University of Oxford studying for her MChem and DPhil in Organic Chemistry, Nicola, who has always wanted to be a writer, took over the running of and wrote for the university’s science magazine Bang! (now The Oxford Scientist). After obtaining her degrees, she embarked on freelance writing and internships in London. She even became an orbituarist at one point, writing about famous scientists who had died. She then arrived at the Guardian’s news desk where she sits today, and is sometimes sent overseas to conduct research and cover science conferences.
On Tuesday 25th February 2020, Nicola was Kinesis Magazine’s guest for a session in which she was invited to document her career journey and answer questions from the audience. According to Nicola, daily life as a science journalist actually starts the night before. Before retreating to bed, she gathers her scientific “tip-offs” from multiple reliable sources that include journals, research papers, and academic studies so she can pitch relevant ideas to the commissioning editor the following day. She advises that for pitches to be approved for writing, the ideas presented will have to prove to be time-sensitive – why and how they are relevant and should be written about now. Pitches are also meant to be brief.
The next day at work, Nicola strives to start on and complete an article every 2 to 3 hours, which means there is no time to think about fanciful puns for a punchy introduction. To combat an occasional writer’s block (especially for the introduction), Nicola utilises a useful alternative strategy by writing the body of the article – with ample evidence and substantiations to support the findings – and focusing on what is most important first, before working her way back up to the introduction.
Other than quick writing skills, one also has to have a quick and sharp interpretive mind too. Nicola stresses the importance of being extremely clear about the findings established in the research paper before writing, as being a science journalist is a heavy responsibility knowing that people might change their habits and behaviour according to what you say or suggest in the article. Thus, Nicola always keeps in mind to avoid making generalisations or sweeping assumptions about what the research paper does not explicitly say (especially when it can be an easy mistake to make under the time pressure of writing), and should further clarification be required, it is best to directly contact the researchers themselves.
Advice for students who are budding science journalists? Before entering the career, it is first pivotal to be able to distinguish the differences between science journalism and science communication. Though they are similar fields, they employ separate approaches: science journalism questions scientists by analysing their findings critically, while science communication is accurately conveying and sharing the works of researchers. Nicola also shared that you do not have to possess a science degree to be a science journalist (although a background in science would provide some help in understanding the statistics and terminology quickly). There is no hard and fast rule in becoming a science journalist – in fact, any kind of writing or editorial experience is the best thing you can get.
Kinesis Magazine would like to thank Nicola Davis for giving her time in sharing her career experiences and valuable advice with us.