Everything I Needed to Know about Being a Reporter I Learned in Math Class

November 14, 2009

With a 2009 AAAS Mass Media Fellowship and support from SIAM, Temple University graduate student Meredith Hegg spent ten weeks last summer writing science stories for Voice of America. Hegg, shown here with Harvey Leifert, a former press officer for the American Geophysical Union, found her math background remarkably useful in writing for radio. Photo courtesy of AAAS.

Meredith Hegg

In my last summer before beginning my dissertation research, I took a welcome break from academia and tried out an entirely different field: science journalism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Mass Media Fellowship sent me to the Voice of America, the international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government, to write radio feature stories. I assumed that my previous experience as a high school teacher would provide me with some of the relevant skills---for example, the ability to explain complicated scientific ideas to a lay audience. What I didn't expect was how much my academic experience in mathematics would help to guide me as a reporter.

To some extent, my mathematical skills were useful simply because math is everywhere. I wrote an environmental science story about the challenge of setting global carbon emissions targets and quickly saw that the problem had much more to do with the mathematical models of sinks and sources for carbon dioxide than with any other scientific concept. I also put together a series of stories on the financial crisis, which discussed everything from the exponential growth of the average consumer's credit card debt to the quantitative finance experts' dangerous assumptions about market behavior.

But I soon found that a number of general skills I had developed as a math student helped make me a better journalist. For example, as I conducted my first interviews, I ran into trouble because I was waiting for my subjects to say what I wanted them to say, rather than listening to what they were actually telling me. This hindered my understanding of the true nature of the story, and prevented me from asking other questions to clarify the issue.

In math class, however, I know I can't listen only to the parts of the lecture that sound reasonable to me. If I use Euclidean space as my only image of a metric space, or metric spaces as my only images of topological spaces, I'll be lulled into false assumptions about these larger sets. As a math student, I've learned to embrace unfamiliar ideas and ask follow-up questions until the new becomes old and familiar. Once I began taking a similar approach in conducting my interviews, I found that I had a much stronger sense of the story as well as better material for quotes and sound clips.

Over the course of the summer I also encountered a bit of writer's block with certain stories. Here I used a simple technique that's known to all mathematicians: Step away from the problem. Nothing clears your head or gives you a new perspective on a story like stopping to work on an unrelated topic for a brief period. As a reporter, this meant having more than one story going at a time, an approach that helped keep my mind open and my ideas fresh.

What would probably surprise some people the most, however, is how useful I found the writing skills that I've developed as a mathematician in writing for radio. The principles of writing a good proof and writing an effective radio story are surprisingly alike. Maintaining a linear thread that's easy for the reader or listener to follow is incredibly important for both. In mathematical writing, a small ambiguity can be an indication of a flaw in the proof, or it can lead to a misunderstanding of the result. Clarity is equally important in radio, because the listener can't go back and reread confusing sections. Both settings also value brevity, though perhaps for different reasons. Time is limited and therefore precious in broadcast journalism, while mathematicians often find that shorter proofs get closer to the heart of the matter.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to imply that I learned all of this on my own. Even the most veteran reporters are heavily indebted to their editors for guidance and revisions. My editors at the Voice of America, Rob Sivak and Faith Lapidus, were amazing resources and never hesitated to help me with even the simplest questions. But I can't help thinking that I also learned from my math classes that you should never hesitate to ask a mentor for help.

Meredith Hegg is a third-year graduate student in applied mathematics at Temple University. She expects to complete her PhD in 2012.

Students: Inspired by Meredith Hegg's account of her experience as a AAAS–SIAM media fellow? Applications for summer 2010 fellowships are due in January; as in recent years, SIAM will support one fellow. See below for information about eligibility and application procedures.

Summer 2010 AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowships

Each summer, a select group of science, engineering, and mathematics students set aside their coursework or dissertation research for a taste of science journalism. As the recipients of AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowships, they work as reporters, researchers, or production assistants at radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazines across the U.S. Like Meredith Hegg, who writes of her experience at Voice of America in the accompanying article, they report completely hands-on experiences from the beginning.

AAAS expects to name 15 fellows for the summer of 2010; as in recent years, SIAM will support one fellow in applied/computational math. AAAS passes strong applications from students in the mathematical sciences to SIAM; prospective applicants should simply follow the AAAS application procedure described on the Media Fellows Web site, with no need to contact SIAM directly. A word of advice from SIAM: Prepare your writing samples very carefully!

A downloadable brochure that includes an application form can be found at http://www.aaas.org/programs/education/MassMedia/apply.shtml. Requests for paper applications should be sent to: AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program, 1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005.

The deadline for applications is January 15, 2010.

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