Practicing the Journalism of Evidence-Based Imagination
Science journalism has always been powerful and important, but it achieved a higher level of influence after 2020. While many reporters have risen to the challenge of reporting a global pandemic, others have amplified misinformation or fed the confusion and anxiety of our time. Many pundits and commentators have also manipulated confusion about the pandemic to attract fame and support to ideological causes.
On February 10, Atlantic science journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong gave a talk for Seattle Arts & Lectures on the theme of “the journalism of evidence-based imagination.” As of this writing, you can access the presentation via the Seattle Arts & Lectures website though it is paid. Yong has been a science writer for over a decade but has become known for his pandemic reporting. This has given him a fascinating perspective on the state of journalism in the COVID era.
Yong’s presentation discussed journalism of evidence-based imagination. This an approach to writing that aims to help readers understand what is happening in the world through a combination of a broad perspective and well-founded predictions. This may sound simple, but it is fundamentally different from most journalism in several fundamental ways.
I had not encountered “journalism of evidence-based imagination” before. Searching on the internet, there didn’t seem to be any readily accessible resources on the topic. I felt writing up a primer based on Yong’s talk would be helpful. His perspective is insightful for anyone who produces or consumes journalism or science writing.
What is Evidence-Based Imagination Journalism?
What exactly is the journalism of evidence-based imagination? Yong doesn’t provide a formal definition, but he does give a description:
We have all the information we need from the past – distant and recent – to make educated and often accurate guesses about how enormous events will shape our future. This approach of saying something about the future given what we know about the past is crucial to the way we should approach our stories about some of the biggest challenges of our time.
Take evidence from the past and make educated guesses about how events will shape the future. This may seem obvious, but most journalists don’t follow this model. The conventional reporter is narrowly focused on describing today’s events. While this may work at other times, this approach has generated confusion, anxiety, and frustration during the time of COVID.
“Helping people make sense of what is happening is a very different activity than simply telling them what is happening. It requires very different skills.”
From here, Yong outlined five features of the journalism of evidence-based imagination. Let’s look at what they are and analyze their meaning and implications.
1. Going Broad
COVID is an “omnicrisis” according to Yong. It influenced healthcare, politics, economics, science, education, and even culture. Covering a story of this scale with a series of bite-sized articles is not sufficient.
Our field often gravitates towards fragmentation. We chip small pieces off bigger stories and show them to people one at a time. In science writing, the atomic unit is often an individual paper. We write about single papers one at a time. And that sometimes works! A lot of my career on exactly that. But, it is a tough mode of work for a crisis as the pandemic.
A point Yong stressed here, in addition to other parts of his presentation, is the importance of source diversity. Don’t interview the same people for every story. Don’t interview the same people that everyone else is interviewing. There is a safety and simplicity to returning to the same sources, leading to a limited perspective.
You should prioritize sources with expertise that is “deep but narrow.” Sources like this are essential to understanding a topic. This doesn’t just mean academics – someone living with long COVID is an expert on their own experience. Tracking these sources down is a tremendous amount of work, but it leads to a robust understanding by the end.
Despite this broad perspective, you should not be lured into becoming an expert on all things pandemic. No one person can know everything! This comment from Yong seemed to be aimed at the pundits who dish out hot takes on any topic they can imagine.
2. Keep Your Eye on the Rear-View Mirror
To make sense of today, you need to know what happened yesterday. The rear-view mirror helps us make sense of where we are and where we are going. Events today are rarely shocking if you understand the past.
Again, this seems self-evident. How can you be a journalist without being aware of the recent past? Unfortunately, the tempo of the media environment and social media feeds tends to wash away yesterday’s news stories.
Many of our instincts as journalists work against it. We are so laser-focused on the now, on the present. That is, of course, what we do! We write about things that are novel, things that are happening right now.
For COVID, so many people seem to disappear from the conversation. What happened to the people who lost loved ones to COVID? The health care workers who are burnt out after a surge? The Long Haulers? We need to know their stories to understand what today is really like. Unfortunately, these people are often forgotten or ignored.
3. Grappling with Uncertainty
While we should always watch the past, we also need to think about today and the future. How are events today likely to play out? What do we really know?
One of the most common mistakes people make when they start writing about science is to treat it as a procession of facts, as a set of uncontested discoveries. It is not that at all. Science is a human endeavor, and humans are fallible. They’re messy and erratic, so science is messy and erratic. It is not a steady procession of facts. It’s a process in which we stumble towards gradually reduced uncertainty.
Uncertainty is a slippery subject. In the real world, things either happen, or they don’t. Ideas are either right or they are wrong. But when are dealing with forecasts or theories, there is always a chance we have things wrong. Unanticipated events can upend even sound predictions, or new findings can upend scientific consensus.
Even if you are aware of uncertainty, it is still hard to explain. Imagine writing about a new variant, about which little is known. How do you calibrate your description of this threat without either exaggerating or downplaying the risk? And how do you accomplish this while keeping your audience engaged?
One tool Yong uses to address this challenge is interviewing. For example, he looks for places where experts disagree. Exploring these seams gives the reader a sense of the range of possibilities and perspectives.
4. Run Towards Complexity
Yes, people want answers, but if answers aren’t there to give, then we have to be truthful about that. Our instincts push us towards extreme positions and towards dichotomies, when in fact we are dealing with spectrums.
Journalists are excellent at describing linear events. Such-and-such happened. This is good, and that is bad. Team A won, and team B lost. These subjects fit into tight articles that can be reported and written up in a single day. Stories of this type are useful, but they don’t work when tackling a complex topic. Journalists either miss the big picture entirely or oversimplify the subject into a binary.
Journalists need to embrace complexity rather than resist it. Readers don’t need as much help to understand simple stories. Complex stories need more layered, nuanced, and detailed explanations.
In COVID, there have been countless situations where topics received this dichotomized treatment. Are vaccinated people safe against variants or not? Are you in favor of lockdowns or reopening? Are you vaccinated, or are you an anti-vaxxer? These simplifications ignore significant parts of the story.
5. Problem Framing
Framing is one of the most powerful – and subtle – forces in writing.
The term comes from painting portraits or scenes. Everything in a painting is included intentionally. What is in the picture? What is excluded? What perspective is being used? Framing choices control how we understand a paining. This is equally true for writing. Who is in the story? Which perspective is prioritized? These choices influence how we read the article.
Framing effects are also almost invisible. Who didn’t get to speak? What assumptions are being made? What facts don’t make it into the story? Which stories are worth writing about? These choices are nowhere on the page but are influential in how any narrative is understood. Deconstructing framing effects often requires a high-level understanding of the topic, meaning the average reader is unlikely to see what is happening.
Yong used the example of the Biden administration fixating on a biomedical view of the pandemic. Biden’s government focused entirely on vaccines and medicine, meaning the government’s job is to make COVID treatments available. While these interventions are obviously necessary, they ignore problems such as labor law, misinformation, and healthcare burnout. How you evaluate Biden’s performance is heavily influenced by whether how you think about the framing of the problem.
Journalism is not just about providing information. It’s about setting our values. It’s about setting the ways of thinking that we, as a society, prioritize.
Thoughts on Journalism of Evidence-Based Imagination
Most journalists operate in one of two modes: the reporter or the pundit. The reporters relay the day’s events but ignore the broader context. Pundits consider the big picture but offer irresponsibly bold and broad commentary. Yong seems to be taking advantage of the best feature of each. Stay rooted in the facts on the ground and the experience of those most affected, but fit them into a larger narrative.
Science writers – not just journalists – can learn a lot from the concept of evidence-based imagination journalism. Uncertainty is especially relevant. A personal pet peeve is any article that promises a new technology to stop climate change or cure cancer then buries the limitations and caveats in the bottom two paragraphs, if they are mentioned at all. Enthusiastic and optimistic writing is engaging, but can be misleading. When these scientific advancements don’t live up to the hype, it erodes trust.
Readers can also use this as a lens to consume science news and opinion content. Problem framing is a powerful tool for deconstructing any news or opinion pieces. Source selection is another subject that readers often don’t consider – who is being featured in this piece? Who isn’t being featured? These simple questions uncover the foundational assumptions built into any content.
These lessons are not only relevant to COVID. Obviously this is a unique situation, but climate change is clearly an “oministory”. The breakdown of American politics also fits into this category. Racial justice could also qualify. We are likely to see more of these stories over the coming years as the global society becomes more interconnected.
While Yong’s approach to science journalism is appealing, some challenges are worth considering. This is a high standard, and it is asking a lot of writers. Yong describes this as his personal approach to journalism and does not say who else this should apply to. Is this meant for covering an “omnistory,” or should this practice extend to the daily news cycle? I would be curious to know how this style of journalism fits into the broader information ecosystem.
Yong covered a great deal more in his talk. Science journalist Wudan Yan also hosted a question-and-answer period. This covered building trust, achieving source diversity, empathy, and more. The whole presentation was fabulous, and I highly recommend it to anyone who reads or writes science journalism.
I hope Yong’s thinking advances the discussion about science writing and journalism. The pandemic continues to teach us about discourse and information. I fear these lessons will only grow in importance over time.
If you enjoyed this article check out this deconstruction of one of Ed Yong’s most famous pieces from 2020 – How the Pandemic Defeated America. You can also learn more about science writing from my blog and subscribe to my newsletter to get more science writing content.