Knight Science Journalism Fellow, ’14-15
Scott Huler, the Knight Project Fellow for 2014-2015, is the author of six books of nonfiction, including On the Grid, No-Man’s Lands, and Defining the Wind. He is taking a modern walking expedition through the Carolinas, following in the footsteps of John Lawson, an explorer who made the trek in 1700 in one of the earliest of the Lewis and Clark-type of scientific explorations in America. Scott is documenting his journey at Lawsontrek.com and on the KSJ blog.
What is the one story you would like to be covering if you weren’t a KSJ Fellow this year?
I think, as project fellow, I get the best of both worlds: not only am I a fellow, I also get to cover the story I would be covering if I weren’t a fellow. Did that make sense? For the last five months, I have been retracing the journey of John Lawson, who in 1700-1701 took a journey of exploration through the Carolinas. This project includes all the topics I love to address in my work: the importance of being awake to your surroundings, of noticing what’s going on around you, of learning what you can from a world that’s usually working pretty hard to teach you things if you’ll only listen. So I’m happy doing that and don’t feel like I’m missing anything.
What has been your most enjoyable or enriching experience at MIT so far?
I tend to come up for short visits, so naturally the time I spend with my fellow fellows is the highlight. I love the MIT Museum and historical Cambridge and Boston — especially the urban architecture — and I’ve loved the trainings I’ve been able to come up for. But far and away what I’m getting the most out of is the company and example of the other KSJ Fellows.
What advice do you have for a young MIT student who is interested in a career in science journalism?
Take everything. Learn everything. Read everything. Ask everything. I was an English major but I took geology and psychology and biology and chemistry and calculus and astronomy and economics and politics. If I had spent four years reading novels and poems I would have nothing to offer now. The world is made for people who like to address, understand, and solve problems. The more tools you have, the better you’re going to be at that.
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?
The fundamental questions we learned to ask in philosophy, the basic understandings we glean from history, politics, economics — these all form the foundation on which you base your understanding of any science, research, or policy. I can report on science, with fluency and in context, because I have a broad basic education on which to base my understanding.
“The fundamental questions we learned to ask in philosophy, the basic understandings we glean from history, politics, economics — these all form the foundation on which you base your understanding of any science, research, or policy.”
How important is a compelling human narrative when reporting on a complicated scientific issue or a new piece of research? Do you feel narratives like this help or impede public understanding of complicated scientific issues and new research?
People like people, and using people to tell your stories does a great job in making complex matter readable and satisfying.
Avoid, however, the pitfall of mistaking the anecdotal for the representative, and avoid conclusion-leaping, for good or ill. But if your story doesn’t have people in it, chances are people won’t read it.
How does the proliferation of social platforms — Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook — and digital storytelling tools — embedded video, slideshows, podcasts — change the way you conceive of your work as a journalist?
I like to tell people I want to be like Batman: to have the complete utility belt, with every tool imaginable to do my job. My project this year has enabled me to do that. I designed the Lawson Trek website, and as I do my research and take my treks into the field, I update the site constantly. All these new tools and platforms are exactly why I’m able to retrace a 300-year-old journey yet keep the storytelling in the moment.
In this project, I’m able to do what I always tell journalists/storytellers to do: let the story come to you, let it be what it wants to be. Are you a single image, with or without a caption? I’ll Instagram you (and share you at the same time on Twitter and Facebook feeds and in an Instagram array on the landing page of my website). Are you a longer story? I’ll write you for my blog and have you up by the end of the day if I like, or develop you into your own page on the site, supported by images, video, and sound. Are you a long interview, best expressed through video? I can gather you, produce you into a finished video, and share you on YouTube and my website — all without having to leave the field or use a tool further away than my phone.
I’ve posted blogs from my tent on barrier islands, shared Instagram pictures from a canoe, produced and shared video from picnic tables. I think my 18th-century subject, John Lawson, would have used these tools had they been available. The whole point for him — and for me — was to learn what was out there and share that information. For him, that meant publishing a book eight years after his fact-finding journey. For me, it means a book, eventually — which will be far more organized and digested — but also a steady flow of images, sounds, and impressions as I discover them.
Knight Science Journalism website
MIT Science Writing Program website
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Daniel Pritchard