This week I’d like to write about journalism. You receive and (I hope!) enjoy C&EN on a weekly basis as a print product and may also access our content through many of the digital channels where it is present. But have you ever wondered how C&EN comes together, from content brainstorming to creation to distribution? What internal processes make C&EN happen?
The broad answer to all those questions is that bringing you the world’s most comprehensive chemistry news source is complex and involves a large number of highly skilled people with expertise in production, design, and marketing technologies; deep scientific knowledge spanning all areas of our discipline; and a knack for storytelling. Because we release our content through many platforms and formats, there are many processes going on at any given time.
Reporters and their editors are in constant communication to discuss ideas and progress on assignments. Writers spend a significant portion of their time researching, reaching into their networks, and talking to the right people just in preparation to pitch a story. And that is only the beginning. Once an idea is selected, it’s back to the research and conversations that will help shape the final piece. Besides the individual work, the departments covering the three broad buckets in which we classify our content—science, technology, and education; business; and policy—also meet as groups to talk about what they have on the docket for publication, pitch ideas, and track progress for longer-term features.
This gives you some insight into the making of C&EN, but it is, of course, a massive oversimplification. What we do is complex, but the team understands the process and has got it down to a tee. On top of this, we need to layer the standards and ethics that govern our decision-making and embody the values that we abide by. And this is when things get really complicated because the answer is often not straightforward despite having a code of ethics that we can refer to. Unfortunately, this is also the part of what we do that most people know least about. As Laura Helmuth, health, science, and environment editor at the Washington Post, shared on social media in October last year, “Journalism has an elaborate code of ethics, but most people outside of journalism don’t know that, and that’s a problem.”
The Twitter thread she started followed a meeting with a group of physicians that was in Washington, DC, for a workshop. She was dismayed by how little they knew about the journalistic values that govern much of what the editorial teams do at the Washington Post or C&EN—two very different ends of the spectrum in terms of size and focus, but publications that strive for the same level of integrity. The doctors asked “How much do advertisers influence your coverage?” and assumed this is an everyday occurrence. Shockingly, the views that Helmuth encountered have been somewhat corroborated by a recent poll carried out by Columbia Journalism Reviewabout the public’s understanding of how journalism happens in the US: 60% of respondents believe that reporters get paid by their sources sometimes or very often.
The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. For the folks in the editorial department at C&EN, integrity and independence are their currency; they do not accept payment or gifts from anyone. When it comes to the relationship between sales and editorial, the two teams operate completely independently. Writers create stories with readers in mind and are unaware of what ads their sales colleagues are selling.
We as journalists go to extreme lengths to verify our sources and ensure we consult multiple ones on all sides of an issue, along with data and documents. If all else fails, we have mechanisms to acknowledge errors and issue corrections.
With trust in the press being at an all-time low, it is important we improve the understanding of the values and principles that drive the way journalism operates.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.