Knight Science Journalism Fellow, ’14-15
Olga Dobrovidova is a news reporter and producer based in Moscow, Russia. She spent four years working at the Science and Environment desk with the country’s leading newswire service, RIA Novosti, and is also a columnist for Responding to Climate Change (UK), where she writes about Russian climate change policy and practice.
What has been your most enjoyable or enriching experience at MIT so far?
I have to say: I instantly fell in love with MIT libraries — head over heels. The fact that I can request a book via the app, seconds after I hear about it in a conversation or read about it in an article — and then start reading it a couple of days later, all for free — is amazing. University Me, from half a decade ago, is dying of envy right now.
What advice do you have for a young MIT student who is interested in a career in science journalism?
Read, read, and read. Make notes on what you read and then read those notes. For me, learning to write has mostly been about reading other people’s good and bad stuff, thinking about it critically, reflecting on its strengths and weaknesses, and identifying the things I would have done differently as well as the things the author gets exactly right. And there will come a moment when you just can’t keep a thought or an idea to yourself, it just spirals out of your control, and suddenly you have a story (maybe that moment has already come!). Don’t be afraid to pitch those ideas and stories to media outlets. People are going to be much nicer about it, and much more willing to see what you have for them, than you imagine.
Does the practice of science journalism differ in Russia from the U.S. or is it similar? Tell us a little about the similarities and distinctions, if any.
I think the biggest distinction lies in the fact that most Russian scientists now have little-to-no incentive to talk to journalists. Media attention doesn’t help them get grant funding or personal perks — if anything, it can bring trouble — and the American sentiment that government-funded research institutions should be accountable to taxpayers is not one shared by either the Russian government or those taxpayers. Add a lack of infrastructure for science communication (most Russian research institutes have neither press offices nor Public Information Officers), and it can be a very challenging environment for a journalist. Of course, this only makes the great Russian science journalists out there even greater.
Then there is also the question of scale: the Russian market for science writing is still just a tiny fraction of the one here in the US. It has grown, despite challenges in the media environment as a whole, but it’s still very much a developing market. And finally, the science being done in each of the two countries is very different these days.
“Science journalism, when it's accurate, balanced, and not overhyped, can have an incredible public impact.”
Public understanding of scientific issues, such as climate change and digital privacy, plays a key role in shaping state and federal policy. In what area do you think science journalism has the greatest public impact / influence?
To me, the greatest impact is in medicine and public health, hands down. These areas benefit immensely from science-grounded journalism, especially these days, when medicine is truly a high-tech discipline. Even my limited experience writing about issues like drug resistance and antibiotic development, vaccinations, and mental health, shows that these stories, when accurate, balanced, and not overhyped, can have an incredible public impact.
How have perspectives from the humanities and social sciences — in history, literature, economics, philosophy, etc. — shaped your thinking about issues such as advanced medical research, climate change, the environment, and digital privacy?
My academic background is actually in finance, advertising, and languages, so I think it’s fair to say those perspectives have been dominant in my experience as a journalist. This is especially true for covering the environment: I tend to automatically think about global issues like climate change in economic terms and take a more rigorous approach to policy claims, not just by governments and businesses but also by activists and scientists. Because I approach the subject from an unorthodox angle, I’m acutely aware of it being just that — one angle out of many — which makes me more open to other perspectives.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Daniel Pritchard