From Reflective Academic to Harried Reporter

April 16, 2000

Ian Mitchell chose to go to graduate school---he's a PhD candidate in the Scientific Computing and Computational Mathematics program at Stanford---in part because he enjoys teaching. Last summer he got hands-on experience in communicating science and mathematics to a general audience at one of the nation's top newspapers.

Ian Mitchell

For ten weeks last summer, the author set aside his dissertation research and, with a SIAM/AAAS media fellowship, went to work at The Chicago Tribune.

"What on earth have I gotten myself into?" I thought, sitting at 8 AM in a giant convention hall on the Chicago waterfront, listening to Mayor Richard Daley lament the poor performance of the local public school system at the annual breakfast meeting of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. "And why did I give up a quiet summer of research for it?"

By noon, I was sitting at a borrowed computer in the noisy newsroom of The Chicago Tribune, wondering how to write a story when I knew nothing about Mayor Daley, the Chamber of Commerce, or Chicago's public schools.

Four agonizing hours later, I submitted my attempt. The next morning my editor showed me the Tribune's coverage of the event: a photograph and a caption. My day's worth of work had yielded one fact for the caption.

That was my third day at the Tribune; thankfully, things only improved. Ten weeks and six successful stories later, while I was eager to return to life as a graduate student, my summer in Chicago had taught me more about communicating with others than I had learned from any three months on a university campus. I am a doctoral candidate in the Scientific Computing and Computational Mathematics program at Stanford University, and I can tell you that summer internships at newspapers are not a regular part of the program.

But I have always enjoyed the challenge of communicating scientific and mathematical concepts---I chose to enter graduate school because I enjoy teaching---so when I saw that SIAM was sponsoring a media internship for graduate students, I jumped at the opportunity.

Operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for more than two decades and sponsored by a variety of companies and scientific societies, the Science and Engineering Mass Media Fellows program this year included two dozen graduate students in such diverse fields as nutritional science, physics, psychology, and mathematics. After gathering in Washington, DC, for a few days in June to meet each other and to prepare for the drastic switch from reflective academics to harried reporters, we fanned out across the country to our separate placements at newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and radio and television stations.

Comparing notes with other fellows during the wrapup session in August, I discovered that my first week's misadventure was not a singular experience. But nobody disputed that we had all learned a great deal about communicating science to the public.

As academics, we were accustomed to the tasks of gathering, synthesizing, and interpreting information that would eventually be delivered to colleagues. As we learned in the course of the summer, a science writer's chief objectives are considerably different: the filtering, condensing, and clarifying of information meant for the consumption of the general public. Reporters do an admirable job of meeting these goals. Take a moment to analyze the anatomy of a newspaper article some day---as I forced myself to do after my first failed attempt at writing. I was astonished at how much information is transmitted, especially in the first few paragraphs, in a form that can be digested by virtually any reader.

Once I had studied the articles I wished to emulate, I felt ready to write another story for the Tribune. And after I spent two weeks interviewing sources, my editor finally agreed with me.

That was a second surprise: Far more information is collected for a story than ever sees print.

During the summer I wrote lengthy articles on the growing use of the Linux operating system in business settings, on the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and its success in simplifying the exchange of data between businesses over the Internet, and on the use of mathematical models by financial institutions to offer a broadening range of derivative instruments.

Any one of these stories required ten to fifteen separate interviews, and from the resulting dozen or more pages of notes I had to produce a feature article of approximately a thousand words---a generous amount of space, considering that the business and technology section that I worked on could run only one article of such length each week.

My final surprise was that this need for brevity, more than anything else, was what led me to conduct so many interviews. With my background in technology, I could get a good grasp on my topic in talking with just the first few sources. In the remaining interviews, I was primarily seeking good quotes---ways to convey the key aspects of the story in as few words as possible.

After all, who can better provide such a summary than an expert in the field?

On that topic, I do have one piece of advice for the interviewee: Should a reporter ask you to "Say that again," do not interpret it as a request to elaborate immediately. The reporter is likely trying to get down a quote, so repeat your last statement as faithfully as you can; then you can expand on your thought.

Despite the challenges of interviews and tight word counts, I was pleased with my stories that ran in the Tribune's technology section, many of which would not have been done had I not been there.

I am particularly proud of my last feature, about financial mathematics, which ran under the editor's dubious headline "Trading on an Idea." In that article I looked at how mathematics, and in particular the Black-Scholes formula, has allowed businesses to offset risks through the use of derivatives. (See sidebar for some excerpts.)

My editor, although he thought the article showed significant improvement from the first few that had I written, still had two criticisms: The topic was not newsworthy, since I was not describing anything brand new, and it lacked a story or hook to hold a reader's attention.

Unfortunately, I think his assessment applies to a large portion of the undeniably useful research performed in mathematics and related fields. Mathematical discoveries, because they are frequently of an incremental nature, do not scream out for news coverage. And people are largely unaware of the effects of mathematics, or of most hard sciences, on their daily lives, because those effects are generally of an indirect nature.

Consequently, mathematics must compete for readers' interest on a curiosity-driven level. That is a level where the winners tend to be fields that produce superlatives---biggest, fastest, farthest, oldest, smallest---fields like cosmology, physics, or archaeology.

If mathematics is to attract increased media attention, at least for discoveries lacking the three-century-long human interest of the story of Fermat's last theorem, we will need concrete examples of ways in which mathematical discoveries are having new impact on everyday life. For example, consider the coverage that encryption technology has brought to number theory.

Meanwhile, when it comes to unleashing my next writing urge, I think my thesis adviser has an outlet in mind. It involves level set methods and optimal control, and will likely be a bit longer and more technical than my articles in the Tribune. I do not know whether I can make it, and future technical papers that I write, as broadly accessible as those articles, but I eagerly await the challenge.

So what was the portion of my very first story that actually saw print? A mathematician to the end, I had been able to let my editor know that seated at each of the hundred tables that morning were ten delegates---it was a crowd of a thousand.

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