By Teri West
Putting out an article on the 24/7 tidal wave of information that we call the internet – and expecting people to read it – sometimes feels hopeless, even for writers at the Washington Post. Still, it’s critical to do so, especially using techniques that accommodate today’s internet-driven culture.
Washington Post deputy weather editor and atmospheric scientist Angela Fritz discussed the importance and challenges of communicating science news to the public at the University of Maryland (UMD) Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOSC) weekly seminar on Sept. 28.
Only 13% of the readers who click on articles make it halfway through the piece, she said. Because of this, it’s critical to draw in readers through headlines, which should be catchy and accessible like tweets so that they are attractive to social media users.
An example Fritz provided was improving the headline “Historic virus uncovered in Siberian ice” to “A giant, ancient virus was just uncovered in melting ice, and it won’t be the last.”
She also emphasized the importance of embracing social media as a means of sharing news.
“Whether we like it or not, social media is the way that people are communicating with each other and it’s the way that people like us have to communicate with the general public,” Fritz said.
In addition to catchy headlines, she likes to include stunning photographs in her tweets, such as the Grand Canyon blanketed in snow. It can get frustrating, however, to see that people, on average, only read the first three paragraphs of the stories she writes. Similarly, people usually only read the abstract of research papers, she said.
“We could fill the entire Washington Post front page with Hurricane Maria coverage and no one would read it,” she said. “They would go somewhere else because that’s not what they care about. And so people give news outlets a really hard time for not covering the hard news or whatever, and, it’s just like, we cover the hard news, you choose not to read it.”
Fritz was fascinated with meteorology from a young age. She graduated from Georgia Tech in 2009 with a master’s degree in Earth and atmospheric science then landed a position at CNN on the domestic weather team. Journalists often went to her and her meteorologist colleagues as the “resident scientists,” so after the BP oil spill she learned all about the science involved in the mess despite not having a background in oceanography or chemistry.
She also wrote what ended up being CNN’s most-read blog article. Trapped at work during a snowstorm in January of 2009, Fritz decided, on a whim, to write an article called “Snow present in 49 of the 50 US states.”
“I was like this is a nothing-burger, right?” Fritz said, to audience laughter. “[B]ut people were fascinated, and it’s because it was so relevant to them at that moment. They had just been through so many storms…and so it was kind of a lightbulb moment for me that what we consider small ideas in the science world are mind-blowing to people, and you can use those connections to open the door for other kinds of communications about science.”
After CNN she spent three years at Weather Underground, in an era prior to Weather.com’s acquisition of the website, and is now one of two fulltime employees at the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.
The lecture’s audience, a mixture of UMD students and faculty, peppered Fritz with questions ranging from what she writes about when there isn’t a major weather event to how she stays sane while reading article comment sections.
“How do you respond in such a way to minimize the levels of snarkiness?” someone asked about the comment threads.
“I tend to not minimize my snarkiness enough,” Fritz responded.