By Shira D. Gordon, PhD; @SheRockScience
Edited by: Christina M. Marvin
When a crisis happens, we all react differently. My way of bringing hope was to help spread useful and accurate information. I created an educational video for lay audiences, from the perspective of understanding the science behind the virus.
As misinformation continues to spread, more professional scientists are eager to flood news and media outlets with reputable information that will keep people safe. Check out my video below and keep reading for some tips on how I did it successfully!
Reacting to the Growing Pandemic
We probably all have different moments of realization when the pandemic situation really started to sink in. The news started to mention it when it was overseas, in China and Europe, but not the United States. It hit the United States, but what did that mean? In early March, many people realized it was soon approaching the status pandemic, but few were prepared for what would follow.
As a scientist with a PhD in biology, people asked my advice. Initially, I struggled with what I should tell them. I think about things from a scientific perspective and understanding the virus helped me understand the social situation. Furthermore, understanding how scientists are researching ways to fight this pandemic kept me at more ease.
Ultimately I wanted to help people stay calm about the situation. I decided to create a video that was unique in content, not the quick fix of social distancing & hand washing videos that were already circulating, but a video that helped explain why this was necessary.
An Insider’s Perspective
I had a secret weapon: a good friend doing the frontline research, Dr Andrea Pruijssers, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I learned about her lab getting virus samples in early February, one of five or so BSL3 labs in the United States allowed to work with any CoV virus at the time. Just before coronavirus became officially a pandemic on March 11, 2020, she and I discussed creating a video to help explain what was occurring.
During our weekly catch up calls, I would ask her a few coronavirus questions that I had been thinking about. She would clarify the virus, the research, and the pandemic for me—helping with my curiosity and putting my concerns in perspective.
I asked her for references so that I could learn more about the topic. She referred me to a site with good information (which is likely outdated by now with how fast things change), one page for live coronavirus updates, and a technical talk by her boss, Dr Mark Denison, an expert about the virus conducting research. I learned a lot from these few resources.
Formulating the Video
While I had some understanding of viruses, I re-learned a large amount of basic information during my video research process. I realized that my audience may be others with little to no experience thinking about viruses, who likely did not have the same basic knowledge. I wanted to translate this basic virus information so that the general public could be a part of the conversation about what was happening around us.
I planned a script and rough images of what I wanted to use. I knew I wanted to illustrate the virus, giving key ideas for people to digest and not feel overwhelmed. Cartoons do a great job at highlighting certain elements of information. I used Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom Intuos drawing pad to create my images. The layers feature enables an easy way to change one small element of an image, or to create seeming movement—in a basic animation style.
On Sunday, March 15, 2020, I sent Dr Pruijssers my script to proof and got to work on the illustrations. Monday morning, the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC), where I edit videos, announced they were closing to the public by the end of the day Tuesday.
CMAC is a nonprofit organization and cable channel that helps communities with Public, Educational, and Government (PEG) issues, funded in part by cable companies as part of the Federal Cable Act. You can find similar stations throughout the country. Through CMAC, I could check out equipment, editing studios, and take workshops to learn how to produce videos and podcasts.
Working around the clock, I finished all of the drawings by Tuesday morning. I recorded my script in the sound booth with a high-quality microphone and sound proofing walls and set the voiceover to the images using Adobe Premiere.
Then, I sent the preview version to my friend as well as another scientist who works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on policy and program, planning, and analysis.
Feedback, Vital Feedback
Feedback came in the form of several edits to the script. Frustrated as I now could not go back in to re-record, I tried to make only a few changes where I could cut and paste previously recorded words. It was a small band-aid, I needed sutures.
For instance, my initial understanding was that CoVid19 was the overall name, synonymous with the virus and the disease. I was wrong: CoVid19 is the disease, Sars-CoV-2 is the virus. In another example, I said “duplication” when the correct term was “replication”. While they seemingly mean the same thing, Dr Pruijssers explained that common terminology in virology uses replication—not duplication. For science communicators, these details are important.
My next set of corrections came from the NIH reviewer. From his perspective, my tone was off and my message was not complete. I tried to justify that I had a previous version, with different text that justified my smiling coronavirus. He helped me realize that the people who are learning about coronavirus may be experiencing tragedy, such as sick friends and relatives, and who would not take smiling well.
For a good science communicator, both types of changes are vital. The science needs to be meticulously correct. Also, the message needs to reach the audience and their current mental state.
I re-recorded some text with my not-as-nice microphone and in my bedroom, to reduce noise reverberations. I created more images to fit the text better. I used a free video editing program, Lightworks, to piece it together.
Released on Sunday, March 22, 2020, I received positive public feedback. In the first 24 hours I had almost 300 views and in less than two weeks I had over 1K views (which is a lot for me). Scientists complimented it. Non-scientists told me how much they learned. Friends told me they indeed feel better about the situation knowing what scientists are doing to try to fight the pandemic. I consider the video an overall success.
Take Home Message for Video Creators
If you want to create a video on a topic, think about your unique perspective. What can you contribute to the topic? Creating the video can be done with a variety of programs, I find Adobe Premiere to be the easiest for me to use, alongside the sister Adobe programs of Photoshop and Audition. Be sure to get feedback. Making changes may seem like a chore--but do not bandaid something when it requires a more severe fix. Ultimately your video will be out there and you want to be proud of it, so have fun creating!
Shira D. Gordon, PhD, aka SheRockScience, is a science communicator after years of conducting her own research. She works with scientists, organizations, and individuals to create written, illustration, and video content to explain nuances of science to wider audiences. To learn more, please visit her website https://SheRockScience.com/ and follow her on YouTube and other social media @SheRockScience. Feel free contact her if you would like to discuss working together on any projects.
Edited by Christina M. Marvin
Part 2! Earlier this month, we covered the ins and outs of science writing. This week, we continue our conversation with Siri Carpenter as she discusses the transition from science writing to science editing.
Siri is a scientist and science writer who is now the editor-in-chief for The Open Notebook, an amazing and comprehensive resource for science writers. She recently published a new resource for science writers, The Craft of Science Writing.
I'm curious about the skill transfer from science writing to editing... What writing skills make you a successful editor?
I was a freelance writer from 2002 until 2012, when Discover magazine moved from New York to Milwaukee.
When Discover announced it was moving and rebuilding an all-new editorial staff, various friends messaged me and suggested I should apply to be an editor. My initial reaction was like, “What? No! I’m a freelancer, silly, not an editor! I work from home! People with jobs have to wear shoes!” But I did decide to apply, and then I got really excited about the idea, and I was fortunate to be offered a job as a senior editor.
Learning to be an editor was quite a ride — I mean, in many ways I think I’ll *always* be learning. The biggest things I had going for me, though, were that I had excellent co-workers, and I had a M E N T O R — Pam Weintraub, who is a kind of legendary editor.
Pam gave [the new editors] this enormous gift: She said “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but I will teach you.” I will always be grateful to Pam for saying that, because in doing so, she was giving us permission to not have to hide how much we had to learn.
The reason I say that having been a writer first was so important to my development as an editor is that I feel the #1 skill that's important to cultivate as an editor is to have empathy with writers as well as reader, and to be able to act as a coach and partner. And it’s our job to work with writers not just to improve their stories in all the technical ways, but to support them when they’re at their lowest, most self-doubting point, and to be their cheerleaders all along the way.
Do you know of any resources (books, websites, communities) about science editing?
We've done a few articles about editing at TON. Here are a few links:
The Poynter Institute offers excellent training workshops on editing — I've done one and loved it — but they're not specific to science. The Knight Science Journalism program at MIT periodically offers training workshops for science editors. And The Open Notebook is hosting its first editing workshop this year. [NB: This workshop was canceled because of the pandemic, and will be rescheduled when it’s safe to do so.]
How about the other side of it... how can a science writer work gracefully with editors?
There are some basics of writer-editor relationship hygiene that I can mention, which aren't always obvious. In the realm of pitching, here are a few suggestions:
Once you're actually on assignment with an editor, my #1 piece of advice is to communicate. If your story changes, or something's going wrong, or you're going to miss a deadline, or you're just lost and need to talk it through — speak up. Of course editors love to see stories come in clean and on time and then to need minimal editing, but honestly that scenario is extremely rare. Much worse than missing a deadline is just ... ghosting. So: Communicate. Editors want to help!
When you've actually gotten edits:
b. respond to editors' questions by typing answers in tracked comments; the questions need to be addressed in the actual draft.
I think it is a challenge to figure out how hard to push back against edits as a freelancer. If you push too hard will you get hired again? But, I imagine it all comes down to COMMUNICATION.
Yeah, and just ... courtesy. Pushing back in a way that makes your case but in which you're also listening to the editor's point of view and working to understand why whatever the thing is isn't working for them is entirely different than just being mulish, or doing passive-aggressive things like ignoring/undoing edits.
If I were speaking to a group of editors about how they could work better with freelancers, I'd say 1. Understand that the writer’s job is harder. 2. Give them the courtesy of a prompt response when you get pitches. 3. Keep them apprised of any delays in the editing schedule. 4. Pay them as quickly as you possibly can.
Last month we launched #SciCommMake, a collaborative project between Science Talk and Sigma Xi. The purpose of this new project is to help scientists, artists, and communicators to come together and develop creative projects to explain science in new and unique ways. Our inaugural class pitched their project ideas last week – and we have two winning teams! Check out the video to learn more.
Winning teams will receive $1000 to advance their project and a trip to the Sigma Xi meeting this November, where they will present their projects at the conference.
Look for the announcement for our second #SciCommMake cohort, with projects focused around creative communication of COVID19-related topics.
Pitch & Contribute
We are currently accepting pitches!
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