Corrections or additions?
Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 22, 2000. All rights reserved.
Gina Kolata’s Popular Science
<B>Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York
Times, tests her story ideas out at the kitchen table of her Princeton
home, where her husband and two teenage children are her most important
critics. "I call it my dinner table conversation," she says.
"If I’m sitting at the table and I see their eyes glaze over,
then I know it’s not good."
Sex and cloning were topics that received high marks from her kin,
as well as from critics who read Kolata’s books on those subjects.
U.S. 1 Newspaper first reported on Kolata’s career in 1994, soon after
she co-authored "Sex in America: A Definitive Survey," an
intimate look at what drives the sex lives of Americans, based on
research by scientists at the University of Chicago and SUNY Stony
Kolata’s career got another shot of adrenaline when a Scottish scientist
by the name of Ian Wilmut took a frozen cell from the udder of a dead
sheep and created a baby lamb known familiarly as Dolly. Kolata’s
book was titled "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead"
(William Morrow, 1998). Her latest book tackles another science subject
that most everyone has thought about at one time or another: "Flu:
the story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for
the Virus," (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux).
On Wednesday, March 29, Kolata speaks to the Association of Women
In Science on "Reporting on Science" at 6:30 p.m. at the American
Cyanamid Agricultural Research Center. Call 732-235-5048.
A resident of Princeton and a former member of the Princeton Regional
School Board, Kolata started out as a scientist at MIT and moved to
writing because she couldn’t stand long days in the lab. She was raised
in Silver Spring, Maryland, where her father was a diamond setter,
her mother a mathematician. Kolata majored in microbiology at the
University of Maryland (Class of 1969) and enrolled in a graduate
program at MIT, where she hoped to become a theoretical biologist.
An administrative job at Science magazine launched her freelance career,
and when the New York Times hired her as a science reporter, she and
her mathematician husband and two children moved to Princeton in 1990.
Even on emotionally charged issues like cloning, Kolata enjoys finding
the neutral space between divergent views and playing devil’s advocate
when necessary. In the case of cloning, she likes to cite the case
of a mother who desperately needed a kidney for her 15-year-old daughter
and had another baby so she could donate one of the baby’s kidneys
to her older sister. How different is that, ethically, from cloning
a kidney, Kolata asks. "I’m a story teller," she says. "I’m
educating people — I’m not challenging people. I’m not an ethicist
or a scientist. An honest reporter isn’t."
The Web’s impact on medicine is another hot topic that Kolata recently
probed with a colleague, Kurt Echenwald, an investigative reporter.
"We didn’t know ahead of time what the story was going to be,"
says Kolata. "It’s the first time I’ve done that kind of investigative
reporting, the kind that takes a year and a half to get a story."
In the end, the two co-wrote a series on how "how patients are
using the Internet to second guess their doctors," published in
five parts last year.
With a Palm Pilot that contains some 1,300 sources, Kolata says she
rarely gets her leads from press releases or corporate publicity departments.
"There are way too many people pitching me ideas, and most of
them would not be ideas that I would use," she says.
A word of advice for scientists: only contact reporters if it’s something
you would honestly want to read about. "They really should be
judicious in contacting us and telling us what they think is a fabulous
story," she says. "There are people who think that if they
constantly contact us we’ll pay attention. Eventually it’s like the
boy who cried wolf. If you contact a reporter every time there’s a
management change, you’ve lost them."
Intellectual content alone is not enough to get a story to the pages
of the Times — it has to be newsworthy, says Kolata. Preferably,
the story should keep her family from falling asleep in their pasta.
— Melinda Sherwood
Corrections or additions?
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