Science journalist Lars Fischer has received the GDCh Prize for Journalism and Literature 2022 for his excellent way of bringing chemistry and other natural sciences closer to all target groups, especially via digital formats. His range of topics extends from chemistry and materials research to infectious diseases and natural disasters. In the last two years, he has particularly distinguished himself with his well-founded and easy-to-understand articles on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here he speaks to Christian Remenyi (Nachrichten aus der Chemie) and Vera Koester (ChemistryViews) about his way of working, online journalism, science in social media, and lack of diversity in journalism.
You were doing online journalism back when others thought it was maybe a crazy idea. How did you come to journalism, and did you always want to be involved in media?
Yes and no. I did in fact start to write as a hobby but of course, at first, I wanted to be a chemist. I studied chemistry and ended up in journalism because the search for a Ph.D. position dragged on for so long. I applied for a couple of positions, and they said, “well, it could take a few months because of financing and this and that and whatever.” Then I applied for an internship at Spektrum der Wissenschaft (german-language sister magazine of Scientific American) because I didn’t really know what I should do. Spektrum bought my first article right away – for what was a relatively large amount of money from a student point of view at the time – and I said, “well, if I can do it, I would rather do this.”
For ten or fifteen years, I was a moderator in a chemistry forum that sadly no longer exits, Chemie-online.de. Because of that, I was already online at that point. In 2006/2007 the media were just getting going with online and internet and things like that. Anyone who had been on the internet in any way at all was being pushed onto the websites, simply because that was still so rare in the field. So, in the final analysis, it was a little bit logical and also coincidence.
Did you have journalistic ideals at the time? Or did you just drift into it?
Just drifted in. I didn’t really have much to do with journalism before. That is totally not the case for people who went to journalism school. They already know how it works and what reporting entails and so on.
I want to write about science. I also started the blog because I decided, “ok, if I’m going to write, I will do it every day.” But I only wrote about what seemed right at any given moment. I didn’t orient myself toward journalism, but toward what my readers thought was good.
Do you have a favorite format now?
My favorite format in the sense that, well, there are two aspects to the life of an author: writing and having written. When writing, my favorite format is a short format: there is an issue, maybe a paper or a report, like there is now a mysterious hemorrhagic fever in Tansania, for example, and I sit down and simply write maybe a page about what we know, what we don’t know, a little bit of background and context. In two or three hours I have a text that covers a current subject. And then I am happy with it.
But once I have written, my favorite texts are actually the really big ones, the thoroughly researched ones where I grab a subject and start off by going to Google Scholar and entering the corresponding search terms. Then I have 20 papers that I look at to see what is in them, and then I download another ten papers … I then let this sit for a month before I write version one and version two and version three, and in the end, I have an article that has over 15,000 or 20,000 characters – four, five, or six pages that really contain everything about this subject and what I think about it. In retrospect, these are ultimately the articles that are my favorite to write.
And when you are not writing? You also do a lot on Twitter and YouTube.
I have really started to like Twitter threads. A tweet on Twitter is 280 characters. You can’t fit much into that, but now there is an option that allows you to to link multiple tweets together. This really works for me because in longer texts I also write paragraphs that are one argument or one idea. That is how I build up arguments and that is why I like this format in which I link six to ten tweets on one subject. I give a basic idea of the subject, what I think about it, why I think that, and what my sources are.
So, it’s a small explanatory text about a current subject, at the end of which you can say, “ok, this is how things stand,” but as a series of linked tweets. I hope that this will become its own journalistic format in the foreseeable future, because it has great potential.
A few years ago, you created quite a stir with a, let’s say, Twitter report about your kidney transplant. You received a prize for it. It is apparent that you often tell stories that are very private, about diseases and your disabilities and such. How personal should, may, or must science journalism be?
That very much depends on the medium, on the platform I’m working on. On the one hand, on Spektrum der Wissenschaft and in my blog, I am relatively impersonal and research based. In both Spektrum der Wissenschaft and my blog, I naturally do have my opinion, my perspective, but I keep myself out of the story.
In social media, however, and on YouTube, which is also a social medium, that doesn’t work. Social media are social and function interpersonally. This partly works through self-disclosure, through identification, and partly through making oneself approachable. This means that, in my opinion, it is simply necessary to reveal something about yourself on social networks and social media, and that is what I do. It is the access point for science in my case.
And how do you choose your topics?
Whatever I feel like. That is actually a huge privilege, in the blog anyway. And it also works much better if I sit down and say, “ok, this is what I want. I am going to write something about this now because I want to know about it myself, because I want to explain it to myself.” Those are the best articles.
Of course, at Spectrum we have an editorial meeting. Sometimes I am assigned to a topic and just think, “oh well”.
Do you see that as your primary task, to explain things? Or are you primarily an entertainer?
On the one hand, I explain things, of course, but I ultimately consider my medium to be entertainment. Where I’m coming from, as a blogger, as an online journalist, I am always in the position of being in competition with not only other journalistic media, but also with YouTube, with private things on social media, and things like that. People who hang around on the internet are not there to have things explained by me; they are there to be entertained, to be distracted, to meet people they know, to put themselves out there. All kinds of things. There are many motivations for people on social media.
Still, one learns quite a lot by reading your texts. Where do you get this knowledge?
Google Scholar. I read the papers. In that sense I am not a traditional journalist in that I work journalistically and question my sources. I am someone who reads papers, evaluates papers, forms an opinion, and writes an article based on this.
I read very many scientific publications, professionally for Spectrum, naturally, sometimes also privately because of course I am in contact with a lot of people on Twitter and social media who work in the sciences and who also publish papers about things like virology or geosciences that interest me, and they know that they interest me, so I get the papers and can read them.
I am in a position the average chemist would love to be in: I get to read papers all the time.
Would you like to set topics? To sometimes say, “people, be interested in this.”
Sometimes, sure. I personally write a lot about the topics that interest me, and my view is that these topics should also be of interest to a lot of other people. I am currently trying to explain about infectious diseases on social media. That they exist, that this is normal, but that we also need to deal with them. This is a topic I have dealt with at great length. In that sense, I do try to set topics.
But in the sense that many media decide, ok, this is now a topic, so we are going to do something big so that the whole world discusses it, I’d rather not. That is not my goal.
Who do you see as your target audience, and do you also reach people who are not scientifically trained?
Yes, this is the advantage of the entertainment approach because everyone wants to be entertained. In my experience, it’s precisely those people who aren’t so into science who can’t really identify with traditional science journalism. On social media, it is more accessible for them if I treat it more lightly and more personally.
I would. of course, like to reach everyone. All the people who want to be entertained, everyone who responds to my headlines. The reality is that the majority of my audience is still people interested in science. But I think I still provide science for all. But it’s not like I adjust my style of communicating depending on which target audience I want to reach. I also think that the concept of focus groups does not work in social media as it does in other types of media
What do you mean by this?
On social media, there aren’t really target audiences; it’s more like we are addressing networks, in my view. You go in and find people with the same interests, the same preferences. That means you are kind of embedded in a network of personal relationships, a group with a certain knowledge base and common identity, in which certain loyalties are present. You earn social credit by also doing things for others.
It’s also about earning a certain trust, a certain loyalty within this group that then extends beyond the limits of the group. You use the network in which you’re included, or your network passes your content on. Then you have to look and see how far it goes, how far it diffuses beyond your network.
Many people see a danger in social media in that filter bubbles are formed. Do you also see this as a danger?
Well, what does danger mean? Of course, we see that people are always embedded in certain networks and communities in everything they do. This is no different on the internet than it is in day-to-day life, where we are also very, very strongly socially integrated through social relationships: where we work, where we shop, where we go to the pub. These networks, these closed social bubbles are just a reality of interpersonal relationships, and the internet is no different.
On the other hand, on the internet, on social media like Twitter, Facebook, and the like, we always have the advantage of starting from nothing. We aren’t burdened by the accident of our birth in the sense of being at a certain social level. On the internet we can also become aware of things outside of our social bubble.
I am now in the scientific journalist bubble, especially on Twitter; however I am also in the heavy-metal community. We don’t just belong to a single network, but to many different ones that differ somewhat, overlap somewhat, intersect somewhat. I don’t know, we are always being told that in the normal world we are open on all sides and can meet a whole lot of other people beyond our usual sphere and this and that. But of course, we are always very tightly bound in our social and cultural bubble. In that sense I think that this discussion of filter bubbles on the internet is a little naïve about how the world actually normally works anyway.
Do you see changes in journalism? Also because of what you have just described?
The problem with journalism is that it is not particularly diverse. That is an example of a real-life filter bubble. There is serious discussion in journalism about how to bring diversity into the field. There are definitely changes, there are also approaches for producing somewhat diverse journalism. The problem with all of this is simply structural: You have to be able to afford journalism.
You have to take on unpaid or poorly paid internships and traineeships, you have to gain access to these through an educational and societal bubble. This is a massive problem that also impedes change in journalism. On the one hand, it is material, because not everyone can afford it; on the other hand, it is cultural because journalism is very strongly shaped by its societal origins.
I do see a trend toward more diversity in online journalism that is being accelerated because many people see the problem. But it is very, very difficult to overcome this structural non-diversity.
Earlier, you vividly described how important the network community is for you, especially as a blogger. How do you gain trust? How do you ensure that people say, “if Lars wrote it on the Fischblog, then it is probably right?”
Naturally, the first thing is that I always have to ensure that my subjects are well researched and substantiated and to deliver exactly what people want. To deliver more than what people get and expect from traditional online journalism. So, one thing is quality, of course.
Another point, and this is very important, is to be there for other people: that I, with my knowledge, my expertise in my different areas, am also approachable. That people can ask me, “what is that, actually? What do you say on this subject? What is your view? What should I do about this problem?” What is my perspective on this thing? And I think this is something that is still a little undervalued in journalism, that many people don’t just want the information, they want a personal connection to the person giving them the information.
That’s always the thing in medicine too. If doctors take extra time, it goes over a lot better with people, you get better compliance with medications and it reduces uncertainty.
I experienced this during the pandemic too: That I couldn’t answer nearly all the questions but merely by trying to answer questions, by trying to give an honest assessment and admitting that you don’t know the answer in cases of doubt — this engenders an unbelievable amount of trust.
How do you deal with animosity and the infamous trolls on social media?
There are several possibilities: On many platforms, I have the ability to mute or simply block them. That is what I do. I also often ignore it, I just let it roll off me, because there aren’t just trolls and animosity, there are heaps of people who just want to provoke. They just comment on things because they feel the urge to answer back, not because they have something to say on the subject.
But is it the case that social media makes the communication of science harder because of these things? Or do you just as often also encounter cases of constructive criticism that help you?
Constructive criticism is common. It is so common that I often can’t manage to react, which gives people the impression that I don’t react to criticism. But my day only has 24 hours. So yes, there is a lot of constructive criticism, there is a lot of positive feedback together with the constructive criticism.
I think the bigger challenge for scientific communication on the internet is not trolling or how to reach people, but simply how to erect a mental barrier so that it doesn’t get to you.
Do you have an advice for scientists who want to communicate on social media?
My most important tip would be to have fun and find friends. Social networks are social. It doesn’t work if you go there and say, “I want to tell people about my research,” and then write about nothing but your research all the time.
It only works if you have a couple dozen people with whom you have otherwise had some positive interaction. That is critical. You are not on social media primarily for scientific communication, you are there to have contact with people in research or simply people with common interests to yours. And a common interest can of course be science.
You also have to see it from other people’s point of view. They are not there to have some scientist tell them some stuff. They aren’t waiting for some people that, I don’t know, will tell them about asymmetric organic catalysis. You have to show people, ok, I am this person and belong here, and then people listen.
You can’t just say, “Ok, I have a nice new paper.” It is much more exciting to tell people, “Yeah, today my bottle of solvent fell down and the whole lab went up in flames.” You can’t really tell stories like that anymore, of course, because we don’t work the same way we did 20 or 30 years ago, but this is exciting: the stories, failure, and the day-to-day. That is how you can elicit interest as a scientist, make connections, and then you also get questions. What are things like in the laboratory? Are things constantly exploding? And then you can say, “Yeah, not so much.”
What would you tell someone who hears this and is afraid to be transparent and also become very vulnerable?
The number one rule of social media: first think, then post. Of course, it is very, very, very, very, crucial not to simply put things out about yourself that you would rather not have on the internet. I am able to decide what people know about me and what people don’t know about me.
There are a hundred thousand people out there on the internet who think they know Lars Fischer on Twitter, but of course I have a notion of what I want to tell people and behind that there is an unbelievable amount that I don’t tell people. I am also not stupid and don’t tell people everything I do.
Thank you for that great conclusion.
Yes, thank you, you are welcome.
Lars Fischer was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1978. He began his career as a chemical laboratory assistant in analytics before studying chemistry at the University of Hamburg. After graduating in 2006, he started the science blog Fischblog and worked as a freelance science journalist.
Lars Fischer gained early journalistic experience during an internship in the Editorial staff of the GDCh members’ magazine Nachrichten aus der Chemie in 2007. Today, he is an Editor at spektrum.de and Spektrum – Die Woche, oversees the blog platform SciLogs, and runs the YouTube channel “Wir Werden Alle Sterben” together with Mike Beckers.
The interview was conducted in German and translated into English by Caroll Pohl-Ferry.
There is also a video recording of the German interview:
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