Fear of Becoming Jonah: Impostor Syndrome in Science Journalism

My moment of truth arrived on a blustery night at a bus station in downtown Buffalo. It was the day after Columbus day, and I was wrapping up a reporting trip, waiting for the 11:30 pm bus that would deliver me back to Boston by 9:20 am, just enough time to make it to my 10:00 am MIT class on time.

I was typing up notes from my trip — the key ideas from interviews, details I’d noted during my tour of the chemistry lab I’d come to see, miscellaneous observations about the SUNY Buffalo scenery — when I realized something horrific: I had no scenes.

I needed to bang out a 2500-word draft on a story about a potential pharmaceutical development strategy in about 12 hours, without sleeping, on a bus. If the assignment had been to write an explainer, I would have been all set. Telling the story required explaining not only a chemical engineering strategy but also antibiotics resistance — one of the most lethal and frequently misunderstood problems facing the world today — and an internal matter of biochemistry politics — where one exceedingly-hard-to-describe group of chemicals had been systematically under-studied for decades. Loads and loads of factors to explain, which I had spent dozens and dozens of hours researching and corroborating. Banging out an explainer would have been tough but well within my abilities as a writer.

But my assignment was to write a narrative. Narratives are made out of scenes. And I had no scenes.

Well, I had about 3/4 of a mediocre scene, where the chemical engineers first realized their experiment was working. But the sources couldn’t remember many details about that day, aside from a sense of tentative scientific excitement.

And since my visit to the lab had happened on Columbus Day, the lab had been almost deserted. There wasn’t much opportunity to observe the sources interacting with each other, which would’ve been an ideal source of scenes.

But there I was. Stuck after a long reporting trip, behind on my draft, frazzled in a bus station, typing notes, and realizing that I didn’t have the scenes I needed to complete my assignment.

If you’re a journalist, you know that there are few worse things you could do than fail to complete an assignment. And since this assignment was a lynchpin of my graduate science journalism program, my career and reputation were at stake with this assignment in a way they’d never been before. I tweet a lot. That I was in the MIT Science Writing program was a well-known fact to my regular readers. I’d held off on applying to MIT SciWrite for multiple years because I didn’t want to presume I could do the work without a track record proving that I could. If I failed this assignment, program rules would compel me to drop out of the program. To me, that would feel like public humiliation.

I kept typing, but privately I was panicking. Why were my future, my reputation, and my self-confidence on the chopping block due to the absence of exciting events at a chemistry lab in Buffalo on Columbus Day?

And then a thought crawled into my head: “This, this feeling of having so much to lose, unless a narrative appears on the page, this is what created Jonah Lehrer!”

*****

I’ve gone on record saying a Jonah Lehrer comparison is one of the worst insults you can hurl at a millennial science writer.

For those unfamiliar, Jonah Lehrer was one of science writing’s most promising “wunderkinds” circa the late 2000s/early 2010s. Until he was caught plagiarizing from his own blogposts. And then later, committing the even more egregious journalistic sin of fabricating quotes and plagiarizing from other writers.

Since summer of 2012, Lehrer has been “disgraced.”

Even before the self-plagiarizing scandal broke, Lehrer’s success puzzled 20-year-old me. He was only ten years older than me — born 1981 to my 1991 — held a slew of ridiculously prestigious “contributing editor” titles, and seemed to have earned the adoration of every major science writer on the neuro-beat.

But his writing struck me as boring. Bland.

Sure his narratives worked, but when you’re talking about someone who writes features for Wired and The New Yorker, basic storytelling competence is almost a given.

His scientific analyses certainly didn’t hold a candle to what (the annoyingly flawless) Virginia Hughes was writing, as a freelancer and later over at National Geographic Phenomena.

So when the self-plagiarism scandal broke, I felt vindicated. Of course, he was a cheater! Of course, he was just a privileged Ivy-League bro who felt entitled to keep the entire science wing of the Legacy Media in his thrall! My instincts had been on the money the whole time.

But after I graduated and began making contacts among professional science journalists, a weird thing started happening. Several of the labels I’d heard applied to Lehrer started being tentatively applied to me. Labels like “bright”, “clever”, “a thinker”, and “an ideas writer”. When Roxane Gay wrote about Lehrer and the tendency to go easy on him, she used the phrase “Bright Young Thing”.

Growing up and even during undergrad, I never thought of myself as smart enough or creative enough to emerge as a bright young thing. But somehow, by the time I hit the science journalist conference circuit and started talking about applying to grad schools, I looked like one to a lot of people. Getting hit with the “Bright Young Thing” treatment is flattering on one level, but it’s a pressure cooker.

You feel like you have to demonstrate your brilliance on a regular basis or risk losing everything.

I had been feeling some of that pressure — although my BYT hype was admittedly several orders of magnitude milder than what Lehrer had at my age — but until that night in the bus station I had never understood why the pressure would drive someone to cheat at reporting. After all, if you get caught lying, your BYT status will evaporate overnight. Why risk it?

The only time you would cheat is in cases where you think your BYT status will certainly be taken away if you don’t perform, if you don’t produce that narrative, if you don’t wow both your lay audience and your colleagues.

I had never been in anything remotely resembling that position until MIT SciWrite put me there. And the worst part was I felt like I couldn’t ask any faculty in the program for help, because they were the ones who pushed me to the “Do I cheat or do I keep working?” precipice. Curtis Brainard certainly didn’t appreciate it when Roxane Gay pointed the finger at the journalism establishment for encouraging young writers to chase glory rather than simply grind ’til they own their beats.

My choice in Buffalo was easy: I chose to keep working with the notes that I had authentically scribbled down during phone interviews and lab visits. But I still got stuck, trying to organize those notes into something narrative enough to show to my classmates. I blew my deadline badly, failed the assignment, was forced out of the program, and have continued to work on honing my craft from the isolation of freelancing.

It was my fault. I shouldn’t have put all my eggs in one reporting trip basket, and I shouldn’t have held off on writing prose for the actual draft until I felt like I had observed enough “usable scenes”.

But I was afraid that if I started writing theoretical generalizations, outlining hypothetical scenes that I hadn’t yet confirmed as factual, that if I wrote my narrative arc first and then went looking for evidence to confirm it, that’d mean I was being a Jonah.

And being a Jonah is one of the worst things a millennial science journalist can do…Yet, it’s hard to imagine surviving a grad school schedule without a bit of planning out your narrative arc prior to reporting and writing down some (para)grafs where you make generalizations and explain the science, rather than leaving all your writing until the last minute.

I consider my fear of being a Jonah to be a very specific strain of Impostor/Imposter Syndrome. (Both spellings are valid, but I like the symmetry of two o’s, so I’ll use that one.) Fear of being unable to grasp scientific concepts isn’t part of Fear of Jonah Syndrome; in fact, the ability to understand and succinctly summarize notoriously difficult scientific concepts may put young writers at greater risk for it. The central fear is of being unable to empirically demonstrate your Big Ideas through narrative reporting.

It’s a fear that you’re a fraud as a journalist, not because your central hypotheses are untrue, but because you don’t know how to report well enough to prove your hypotheses in narrative journalism style.

It may seem weird to slap a diagnosis on my own highly specific problem. But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

While browsing through the bios of incoming classes at science writing programs, I noticed that the students are increasingly either fresh-out-of-undergrad or just 1–2 years out of undergrad (compared to the more eclectic trajectories you see in classes 5–10 years ago). And I also noticed, more than ever, these students are coming from colleges with acceptance rates below 20%.These are smart, creative kids who learn fast. But do they know how to report?

In my experience, grad school offered very few opportunities for us to learn hands-on reporting. (And I’m highly skeptical of other grad schools’ claims that they spend more time on reporting than MIT, because I’ve visited some of them extensively; their students seem to mostly report via Skype interview, not boots on the ground.) That’s a problem, because in science writing, we’re already dealing with concepts that are weirder than most reporters’, we’re already super-tight with the science PR writers, we already rely heavily on our expert sources’ interpretations of raw data, and there are relatively few among our ranks who have four years of undergrad training in reporting and journalism. Where are we supposed to learn how to ward off the temptation to make like Jonah and skimp on our reporting so that we can write more pieces, be more prolific online, and get more accolades for being among science writing’s best and brightest?

Growing up in a science company town inoculated me against run-of-the-mill scientific impostor syndrome, but I have zero protection against feeling like a fraud because my reporting skills are not what they should be.

Maybe the problem is my own standards. Maybe I need to go easier on myself. But how do I do that in the hyper-competitive world of professional journalism?

*****

Today, The New York Times ran an absolutely scathing review of Jonah Lehrer’s new book. The author, Jennifer Senior, gets all manner of delicious barbs in, including:

  • ”bespoke platitudes”
  • “duckpin arguments”
  • ”advice column by way of JSTOR”
  • “serving us a nonfiction McMuffin”

All of these were insults that would have been every bit as valid before Lehrer’s “downfall”, and while watching a New York Times writer skewer Lehrer is kathartic, part of me can’t help but think of the Impostor Syndrome subspecies I christened after him.

The vast majority of writers who experience pressure to serve as Bright Young Things don’t do what Lehrer did; there are a myriad of ways to respond, and every writer is different. But I suspect that an awful lot of us self-destruct in less spectacular ways.

I don’t have any proposals of a fool-proof cure for Fear of Becoming Jonah Syndrome. (I don’t even have a more parsimonious name for it!) More readily available training in reporting would help, as would shifts in grad school curricula. Experience in reporting still rules the roost for most hiring positions, but it’s devilishly hard to acquire in your early 20s, unless you went to a college with sizeable connections to mid-sized daily news outlets.

The best advice I’ve encountered so far is actually not intended for journalists at all; it’s for Ph.d. students completing their dissertations. It’s simple:

“Your dissertation should be the worst piece of research you ever write — not that your dissertation should be bad, but all your subsequent research and scholarship should be better.” — Peg Boyle Single

If you’ve never reported — let alone written — a feature before, then whatever narrative feature you write is going to be the worst narrative feature you ever write.

The way to avoid Fear of Becoming Jonah is to stop trying to write brilliantly and just write. But it’s hard. As you level up and acquire more skills and more journalistic responsibilities, it gets harder and harder to shake the feeling that your work has to be excellent.

Especially in a program at a place like M.I.T.

But the only way to avoid becoming a Jonah Lehrer is to do the work, the truth-finding and original observations, he still hasn’t mastered. (According to Jennifer Senior, anyway. I haven’t read his book, but I trust her.)