Journalist reports how to get the most from a science research field trip

Liu Jian

Liu Jian

By Liu Jian

Field visits are an exciting and invaluable part of doing science journalism, as they allow you to gather stories, get a feel of how scientists work and increase your scientific knowledge. As a young reporter, I was lucky to be sent to Kenya to join a research team’s field trip and report on joint China-Kenya research on biodiversity for two weeks in April 2013.
My field trip was part of the Biodiversity Conservation Studies in East African Flora project, which was launched in 2010 by the Wuhan Botanical Garden (WBG) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. From April 1 to 14, I traveled with 10 Chinese and Kenyan researchers to sites including Mount Kenya National Park, Aberdare National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
How can journalists get the most out of such trips? I’d love to share some tips for scientific field visits.

Do your homework and know your subject ahead of time. As a science journalist, one has to find out the background to the story, the history, and the scientific questions being investigated. A good understanding of the complex subject matter yourself is the first step to be able to communicate it clearly to the general public. As journalists often have to write with authority on unfamiliar subjects, it’s always good to have some basic knowledge of the research area, and familiarize oneself with related terms and vocabulary before the field trip.

Before you do interviews, it’s a good idea to observe what researchers do in the research team, the roles they play, and their areas of expertise, so that you can start the interview with areas they feel strongly about, and take your interview in new directions. Don’t just focus on the lead researcher because talking to different people may give you new perspectives on the same issue.

In my case, I started preparing for the trip as soon as I was given the reporting assignment. I asked for the full schedule and itinerary, the names of the main researchers and their expertise, and I searched online for background reading about biodiversity and the research project. I also read news reports on the project so that I could follow up its latest developments from previous stories and find what could be of interest to our readers.

With some story ideas and background information in mind, I wrote my proposal for the reporting package which included a couple of stories, and discussed it with my editor and revised it. I also prepared an initial list of questions and ideas for photographs, which made my reporting more organized and efficient during field visits.

Chinese and Kenyan researchers working in the field.

Chinese and Kenyan researchers working in the field. Image: Liu Jian

Prepare your gear. A Chinese saying goes, “A workman must first sharpen his tools if he is to do his work well.” So it’s crucial to prepare your equipment before the trip. As a print journalist, one also needs to have good photography skills, as sometimes no photojournalist goes with you and you’re on your own on field trips. The equipment I brought with me included notebooks, pens, a computer, a camera and a recorder. It’s equally important to get to know the local weather. I learned that the rainy season just started in April in Kenya, so I also brought an umbrella and a raincoat.

On field trips, things happen. If possible, it’s always good to take back-up equipment and extra batteries and memory cards, particularly for longer trips. Don’t forget your chargers and a universal adaptor for overseas trips. Remember backup recordings and photos. Every evening when I went back to the lodge, the first thing I did was copy the interview recordings and photos to my computer.

Be a good time manager, and be flexible and adaptive. Journalists always have deadlines to meet, so it’s better to do the interviews as early as possible. I realized I had to have everything (at least 5-page stories) done before the deadline on April 15, 2013, the second day after I flew back to China. Under that tight schedule, one has to be smart to figure out the proper interviewing time.

Scientists are usually very busy on field trips. While taking pictures and collecting samples, they discuss the genus, the family and the value of each plant they collected. I realized it was hard to find time to interview them during the field trips or after they came back and had supper, usually around 8 p.m. A journalist needs to adapt himself or herself quickly to changing conditions. So I observed and took pictures during the field visits, and I made the best use of the waiting, traveling and lunch time to interview scientists and write stories.

Be observant. Always keep your eyes open, be inquisitive and participate during the trip. Instead of focusing on statistics or scientific facts, good observation gives your story more details and color. Apart from learning when, where, who, what and how, always remember to ask why and their motivations, which may help you look below the surface and dig deeper. As having face-to-face interviews allows reporters to see people’s personality and passions, it’s also good to have casual conversations with researchers and see what they think about their work and how it was working with other researchers in the team.

Chinese and Kenyan researchers consult on identification of plants. Image: Liu Jian

Chinese and Kenyan researchers consult on identification of plants. Image: Liu Jian

Get the message across. Writing about science subjects requires more skill and harder work than writing about more familiar topics. When communicating about science to a general audience, you need to use language your readers understand, not the jargon or special terms used by scientists. So it’s best to be clear, concise and informative. If you do your homework and know the subject well, it’s much easier to explain complicated subject and translate it into simple English.

When I wrote my story, I first replaced jargon with short, concrete, familiar words. I also tried to use simple, clear language that evokes images, so as to create pictures in readers’ minds, thus making reading more enjoyable. Sentences also need to be short and simple.

Think big, think far. Once you come back to the office and work on the story, to ensure accuracy, you may contact researchers to reconfirm some statistics they mentioned in the interview. It’s always good to write a thank-you email or give a call to researchers who were helpful during your visit and to send their photos you took during field trips, as well as the links of the stories after they are published, as those researchers may be useful future contacts.

Stories written during this field trip include:

Editor’s note: Liu Jian is a reporter with ChinAfrica magazine under Beijing Review, China International Publishing Group. She came to Michigan State University through the Visiting International Professional Program and sat in on environmental journalism classes in the School of Journalism.