NPR’s Rob Stein to Speak at Hill Lecture Series Oct. 19
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and took over the world, it also took over the news. Behind many of those stories keeping a quarantined public informed were science journalists such as Rob Stein, award-winning journalist, correspondent, and senior editor on NPR’s science desk. Stein is the featured speaker for this year’s Hill Lecture Series 7-8 p.m. Oct. 19 in room 272 B/C at the Student Union. Stein’s presentation will address how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted science journalism.
The Hill Lecture series brings distinguished science journalists to campus to share their thoughts on science, society, and the mass media. The lecture series is made possible by an endowment created by Tom Hill and Mary Frances Hill Holton in honor of their parents, Alfred and Julia Hill, founders of The Oak Ridger. The Hill family’s endowment of the lecture series was a gift to the School of Journalism and Media in the College of Communication and Information.
“I’m absolutely delighted that Rob Stein will deliver our Hill Lecture this fall. So many people know and admire him because of his outstanding health and medical reporting on NPR which can be heard locally on WUOT 91.9fm. I’m really looking forward to hearing his thoughts on where science communication is going—or should be going,” said School of Journalism and Media Professor Mark Littman, who was integral in founding the Hill Lecture Series.
Stein brings with him decades of experience in the world of science news writing, including 16 years at The Washington Post as a science editor then as a national health reporter. He tends to focus on stories that illustrate the intersection of science, health, politics, social trends, ethics, and federal science policy. He tracks genetics, stem cells, cancer research, women’s health issues, and other science, medical, and health policy news.
Science journalism is a profession Stein said he “kind of fell into it by accident” but was happy to discover as a rookie journalist. He’d been working in Boston as a general news reporter for the wire service United Press International when the medical beat was offered to him—and since he’d been working nights and the medical reporter position was a day job, Stein thought it was worth giving it a shot.
“It turned out to be great and I ended up loving it. You get to learn something new almost every day in this job,” he said. “I feel like in a lot of other kinds of journalism—news, sports, politics— the details change but the cycles sort of repeat themselves, whereas the whole thing about science is covering new things about how the world works. It is very intellectually stimulating and interesting.”
Though Stein earned his undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he said there were no areas of news writing or reporting offered as concentrations at that time. He was thrilled to hear that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has a science communication concentration offered at the School of Journalism and Media to foster a new generation of journalists who can provide the same valuable coverage of science he has.
His own entry into science writing was a bit sink or swim; he was tasked with reading the New England Journal of Medicine every week to determine what was newsworthy and pursue it.
“I’d read those scientific papers every day and it would mean nothing to me. I’d get on the phone with researchers and they were, luckily, generous with their time and walked me through it. In some ways it was helpful because I have always covered science for a lay audience and had to translate it into terms anyone could understand, so I’d make the scientists do that for me, and I’d do that for the readers,” he said.
While science writing is niche and news outlets typically don’t have dedicated science journalists in this era, the COVID-19 pandemic elevated the need for journalists who can take science and make it consumable for the average reader, viewer, or listener. Stein said he would strongly encourage any aspiring journalist to at least dip their toes into the genre, as it could help them regardless of what kind of reporting beat they end up working.
And for those who do find an interest in science writing, there’s other opportunities besides news outlets where they could find work, he said. These include advocacy organizations such as environmental or public health groups, both of which can elevate concerns around topics that may otherwise not garner the public’s attention.
“I’m sure science stories will continue to dominate the news for a long time. Even if you don’t end up being, or want to be, a dedicated science reporter, science comes up in almost every topic: crime, politics, business,” Stein said. “Being able to look at a scientific paper and at least start to understand what it says and the scientific process and how it works can be valuable.”
For more information and to RSVP for this event, visit https://cci.utk.edu/hill-lecture.