Sara Hammond, originally from rural Ohio, came to the University of Arizona to earn an undergraduate degree in journalism. Since then, she’s spent years reporting daily news and working in corporate communications. Hammond has written for a variety of organizations, from Raytheon, to the UA Cancer Center, to the Arizona Daily Star, to the Phoenix Mars Mission. Before retiring in 2018, she worked as a science reporter for AZ Public Media, the affiliate for NPR and PBS in Southern Arizona.
What was it like writing about science in the Tucson area?
Being at a Research1 university, I didn’t have to work that hard to find stories to cover because I got all the press releases from the U of A. For me, I had to be careful to not just do planetary science and space science because that was my fallback, that was what I was interested in. There was no end of interesting stories and interesting research coming out of the U of A.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into science journalism?
Major in journalism and then minor in a science of interest to you. Then, at least, you understand the scientific method, preparing papers and doing research. The questions to remember are what, so what, and now what? They’re doing this research, so what’s going to happen with it? How does this science apply to me and my audience? You have to make it interesting and relevant. You also have to understand the scientific papers that come out of research. I didn’t read them all, but I would read the abstract and the results and the discussion. You have to become conversant in the literature, that’s important.
Do you think it’s important for scientists to communicate about their research?
Oh, absolutely. Most science is publicly funded. You’re obviously accountable to your funders, which might be the NIH or FDA or whatever, but ultimately, the funders are the American taxpayers. It’s in your best interest, your institution’s best interest and your field’s best interest to communicate what you’re doing, to show that this is money well spent. Now, if there are failures, that’s money well spent too, because then you know that course A didn’t work, and you can try course B or course C.
Do you think that some scientists have difficulty with that communication?
We’re not all born communicators, although what I found while working at AZPM and calling up the folks at the U of A—they’re all teachers at heart. They love to talk, and they do a good job of explaining their sciences because many of them have been up in front of a classroom with 100 or 500 kids in a lecture hall. I’m sure there are scientists working for private organizations that may not have the same type of communication skills.
What are your thoughts about scientists communicating on their own, rather than through intermediaries like science journalists?
I think scientists should communicate in whatever way they can, and that’s multi-channeled. With us as journalists, on social media, going out and speaking to the public. You know, our science community here has a lot of meet and greets in pubs and restaurants. I think the wider the information is disseminated, the better society is going to be, as well as the research and the funding. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the news media, but just however they can get it out.
So, what was your method of interviewing for a story?
For me, it was making sure to ask the right questions to get the soundbite I wanted, because scientists would happily spend a half hour on the phone with you. I never shut anybody down because it was their time that was valuable, more than mine. If you don’t get the answer—and I don’t mean the “right” answer—have to figure out how to ask for that information in another way. It’s ultimately the journalist’s responsibility to get the nugget of information. Again, it’s not the “right” answer, it’s whatever the answer to the question is. There might be a scientist who may not get where you’re coming from, but that doesn’t happen too often.
Where do you think that disconnect might come from?
I think it’s in the reception end, not the transmission end. We have some people that just don’t believe in science. Or, they’re not hearing what they want to hear. I think there’s no reason not to find the answer or find a solution, because it’s out there. It’s tied to politics, but science should be divorced from politics. Science is science. A lot of people don’t know that, and I don’t know how you overcome that. Just, journalists doing the best job they can. Maybe we’ve got to find the best, most credible people, and they become our spokespeople for science.
How about the general science communication situation in the U.S. right now?
It’s a challenge, and a really challenging time. Two months ago, we would be talking about things a lot differently. This pandemic has changed the course of science communication. All of a sudden, there’s this topic that happens to be a medical topic. Everybody is aware that there’s this thing going on and it has to do with science. It’s affecting us. It’s making us all stay home, and we don’t go to the stores, and people are not working. What happens at the end of it, when we get back to normal life? How will that change our perception of science and how we talk about science? That will be something to study.
To use your words, what now? What’s next?
I hope that when this all ends, or calms down, that people have greater respect for scientists and will pay more attention. I hope that people will have a better understanding of what it takes to do science. I think science communication has a really strong, valid place in the whole spectrum of journalism. Hopefully, when the pandemic subsides there will still be an interest in how these things happen and how they affect me as a human, and how they affect my community. I’m hopeful that this won’t cause science fatigue. Then, people will ask questions in their communities that we as journalists can help answer. The pandemic is bad, but the opportunity for science journalism may be good.
This interview was conducted via phone | Photo by Jeffrey Addenbrooke on Unsplash