It’s often surprising to me how often science writing and investigative reporting can overlap.
Think about USA Today’s Ghost Factories series, for example. Project reporters Alison Young and Peter Eisler worked for 14 months with a team of their colleagues to assess the danger faced by people living near old shuttered factories. They scoured government reports, practically camped out in the Library of Congress and even did some science of their own.
“Alison and Pete Eisler hit the road with X-ray fluorescence guns rented from Thermo Fisher Scientific and visited 21 former smelter sites to perform soil tests,” USA Today senior database editor Anthony DeBarros, who worked on the series, told members of a computer-assisted reporting listserv. “They also sent samples to a lab for independent testing. In the end, we loaded about 1,000 test results into our database.”
When they were done with the reporting and analysis, they broke the science down for readers, laying out their findings as well as their methodology in a series of news stories complemented by interactive elements on the Web.
Investigative science writing like this isn’t unique — but it’s a lot more rare than it should be. Like other watchdog reporting, it’s expensive and time consuming. And more and more often, it’s becoming an unavailable option to news organizations looking to cut costs.
That’s why I pitched a session to the National Association of Science Writers’ annual ScienceWriters workshop that I hoped might help a bit. That pitch was accepted.
Want to go?
Raleigh Convention Center
500 South Salisbury Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
Tools for Tackling Nightmare Documents and Data
Saturday, Oct. 27, 11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
It’s titled “Tools for Tackling Nightmare Documents and Data” and the goal is to offer up creative and proven technological solutions for dealing with the sort of documents and data that pose real barriers to quality watchdog science reporting.
To do that, I’m still depending on help from science journalists, specifically those who have ever encountered the sort of documents and data that keep them up at night.
Impossible-to-analyze databases. Government records hidden behind clunky Web interfaces. Unsearchable public reports digitized on ancient scanners. I want anything you’ve ever encountered that stands between you and the research you need to complete before delivering valuable information to your audience.
If you think your source material fits the bill, there are a few different ways to send it my way:
- Email it as an attachment to email@example.com
- Share it with me on Dropbox using the email address above
- Tweet a link to your file using the hashtag #nightmaredocs.
I also want to hear your personal horror stories and what you had to do to wrangle your source material for the sake of your story.
Leading up to the workshop, we can all discuss some of the worst offenders via the #nightmaredocs hashtag, single out the most common problems and unleash the best performing tools we’ve tested at the lab. And when we’re done, we’ll share both the stories and the solutions with you when you show up to Research Triangle Park in October.
While I can’t exactly promise you’ll end up with anything on par with Ghost Factories, my hope is that you’ll walk away from the session with a radically upgraded toolkit — one that allows you to report deeper watchdog science stories in less time with a smaller budget.