Investigating Science: All Hands on Deck

Health and science reporters received a shock a few weeks ago, when they learned they’d soon lose one of the smartest resources out there for covering health care. “It appears that this unique project’s span of more than 12 years of public service to journalism and to the general public will end in December, when ceases publication,” wrote the site’s founder and editor, Gary Schwitzer. “Our current funding ends then with no replacement funding in sight, and I will slip into retirement.”

The site’s experts and journalists analyze health care research and claims made in studies and press releases — often by calling out those who parrot hyped results — to help reporters avoid common pitfalls. It also provides a database of experts with no affiliation to industry, a particularly valuable tool, given the body of evidence showing that industry-funded research tends to favor the sponsor’s interests.

HealthNewsReview has long provided the type of critical oversight of health research that I wish we had for science reporting as a whole. (The Knight Science Journalism Tracker offered a similar service, peer reviewing science stories, until it shut down in 2014.) There’s no denying that it’s fun to write about the strange beauty of the natural world. And there’s certainly a need for those kinds of stories. But at a time when climate-change deniers occupy the highest offices in the land, it’s imperative that more science-savvy journalists spend time scrutinizing science, to uncover cases where it’s abused to serve private interests.

Many of the science reporters I interviewed for “The Science Writers” Investigative Reporting Handbook” have long covered science as they would any other beat. Deborah Blum, who runs the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, worries that science journalists are too often trained to think the official version of an event is the truth. Yet the truth is multifaceted, she told me, and in the end science is really just about people trying to understand the world around them. “That doesn’t elevate it from being a human enterprise just like everything else, full of hubris and ego and mistakes and cover-ups and all the other things that attend to every human enterprise.”

Journalists play a critical role in democracy by giving readers the information they need to be good citizens. Science journalists can do the same by treating science, and scientists, with skepticism. News stories about the latest science developments are important, said Charles Piller, an investigative reporter for Science magazine, but that’s just part of how the public should understand science. “That’s why investigations into all the elements that might undermine or corrupt or influence the way in which scientific work is understood and interpreted are really vital.”

Every day brings new details about the many ways the Trump administration is trying to delegitimize the science that underpins critical health and environmental regulations. We need all the tools at our disposal to monitor and expose abuses of science to serve powerful interests. I hope someone with deep pockets steps in to save But I also hope more science journalists are moved to dig beneath the surface to reveal when individuals and organizations distort science to subvert the public interest. That involves unearthing information of public importance that someone doesn’t want revealed. And making, rather than reporting, news. Now, more than ever, that’s exactly what democracy needs. As Zen radio reporter Scoop Nisker used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

Taking the Part-Time Plunge

Not ready to give up the full-time job to freelance? Going part-time can give you time to test your mettle.

The writing life often inspires a measure of fanciful thinking in the uninitiated, wryly captured by the great Lee Lorenz in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. The scene is an upscale cocktail party. The focus, two middle-aged men: “A writer? Fantastic! I wish I had time to write.”

Add freelancing to the mix and fancy turns to fantasy. Typical comments: “It must be nice to have all that time to yourself.” “Biding time till you get a real job?” “So, I guess you wear PJs till noon? (OK, that’s happened. Once.)

I had a few misconceptions of my own before I started freelancing, centered mostly on how anyone managed it. As a life-long staffer, always moving from one full-time gig to another (charting an improbable path from Wine Spectator to PLOS Biology with pit stops at two national magazines and a museum), I knew how tough editors could be on pitches. Even really good pitches. As a staffer, you can brainstorm with your colleagues until a notion gels into a story. As a freelancer, you’ve got to know multiple outlets and might invest boatloads of time on research before you even start a pitch, only to wait for a response that may never come. I didn’t think I had the stomach for it.

But when circumstances at my job changed and I could no longer write the in-depth storiesthat kept my creative juices flowing, I started freelancing—thanks largely to the invaluable advice and support from my fellow SciLancers. That satisfied my urge to create but left me spending all my free time—including paid holidays—working.

Full-time freelancing wasn’t an option for me, not with a mortgage in one of the most expensive regions of the country and a husband who’s also a writer. So I opted for a middle way: cut back to part-time to freelance more. I won’t say that giving up the full-time paycheck was easy. But a few strategies helped me find my freelancing legs and keep anxiety (mostly) at bay.

Make a financial plan

Carefully track your financial demands, then estimate how far half your salary will go. Will you lose health benefits as a part-timer? If you’re lucky, your partner has a job that offers a family plan. If not, you could be looking at—brace yourself—a 20-fold increase in insurance costs. You could conceivably pay $600 a month for the same coverage that cost you just $30 a month under your employer’s group plan. A financial planner can help you calculate how much you need to live on for a set period of time. Decide how much of a cushion you want—six months? a year?—then when that time is up, take stock of how much you’ve made freelancing to decide if you can make it work.

Come up with a schedule—and stick to it

Half days can morph into full days before you know it. Ask your boss if you can work two ten-hour days instead of two and a half days.  Better yet, see if your boss will let you work from home, then fold the time saved commuting into that ten-hour day. Whatever schedule you settle on, “strictly enforce your office hours,” says SciLancer Adam Hinterthuer (bio)—who took the reverse course, from full-time freelancer to freelancing on top of the equivalent of full-time work for two employers. Stay focused on the task at hand, he advises. “Do not ‘just check in’ on your other gig’s work! I’ve spent whole days just answering e-mail, which just put me further behind on the things I should’ve been doing.”

Create a routine

Once you’re worked out a part-time schedule that you’re happy with and your boss can live with, do the same for your freelance days. Most days I’m at the computer before 8 a.m. and give myself a half hour or so to plan my day. Some people carve out set times for specific tasks. “Mornings can be interview times and afternoon writing times, or vice versa,” Adam says. “Whatever you decide, try to make it a habit.”

Mine old contacts

You can’t overestimate the value of reconnecting with colleagues from past jobs. They know and trust your work and you know what they’re looking for. You don’t have to hustle to get noticed, but you do have to know what’s changed since you left. (Even old friends will cringe if you pitch what they’ve just run.) Drop your old editorial pals a note to say you’ve started freelancing and have a few ideas you’d like to run by them. If you still live nearby, suggest lunch so you can toss around story ideas. I hadn’t worked at Wine Spectator for more years than I’d like to admit, but I combined my old wine knowledge with newly minted science savvy to land two features with the magazine and another pair with Wines & Vines, now run by an ex-Spectator editor.

Know your limits

Freelancing on top of full-time work is clearly not for everyone, but even freelancing while working part-time can lead to burnout. Complicated stories can easily eat into your nights and weekends. Be honest with yourself about how hard you’re willing to work—two weeks without a day off? two months?—and how much you’re willing to sacrifice. I’m lucky to have a supportive husband and understanding friends who know I might have to break a date to meet a deadline.

I write, as Joan Didion once said, to find out what I think about things. And, yes, now I have time to do it.

Image credit: JoshuaDavisPhotography on Flickr (Creative Commons Share Alike)