Lecture: Mariette DiChristina
DiChristina and Hotz explain how it all comes together.
Photo by Sabina Borza, © 2006.
Reporters often characterize editors as curmudgeonly task masters who delight in eviscerating their work. Mariette DiChristina, executive editor at Scientific American, undermines this stereotype. DiChristina views the editor-reporter relationship as a collaboration. In her gentle approach to editing, she works with her writers to craft stories that emphasize the reporter’s unique perspective on a particular topic. “I’m not trying to steamroll [the reporter] because he does have the expertise … I don’t have the unique vantage point on the entire world. I accept that.” DiChristina told an assembly of students, faculty, and fellow journalists, who gathered on April 5 to hear her lecture at New York University’s Department of Journalism.
In a spirited discussion moderated by the Los Angeles Times science writer Robert Lee Hotz, DiChristina shared examples of her work at Scientific American. DiChristina’s believes that the magazine plays an important role in many reader’s lives. She sees Scientific American stories as guided tours of the world of science. “It’s like a travel book for people who want to take an armchair journey into this lab-coated magical world,” she said of the magazine. DiChristina works closely with her writers to ensure that stories about even the most complex topics are accessible and engaging.
She began by leading the audience through the process of editing “Questions About a Hydrogen Economy,” a 2004 Scientific American article written by New York Times reporter Matthew Wald. The article explored the logistical realities and technological complexities of replacing traditional petroleum-based fuel sources with hydrogen. Wald, who is more accustomed to writing shorter news pieces, filed a story that presented DiChristina with some editorial challenges. She had to determine how to “pull all of very complex threads together into one seamless narrative for the reader.” To illustrate her editorial process, DiChristina shared Wald’s first draft, her revisions, and the published piece with the audience.
In helping Wald craft a coherent story, DiChristina strove to be as minimally invasive as possible. Her revisions to Wald’s first draft focused mainly on the overall structuring of the piece, rather than the finer points of the writing. Leaving the writer’s prose intact allows his or her knowledge of a subject to shine through, she says. “I don’t like to touch it if I don’t have to,” said DiChristina. “I have one little window on the universe that is far from complete. But the person who’s doing the reporting has the real window.”
Editing the work of a science journalist is actually a rarity for DiChristina. Most of the stories in the magazine are written by scientists, many of whom have never written for the general public. This presents a unique set of editorial hurdles to be cleared, she said. “[These scientists are] trying to write for your reader, but really, they’re used to writing for their peers,” said DiChristina. “And it’s really hard to serve both masters.” Moreover, she noted, “they don’t report to the editor-in-chief, so they have other concerns, day-to-day concerns that have nothing to do with your publishing schedule or your needs.”
Even so, the extra effort involved in editing scientists work is worth it, she says, because they bring something to the table that even science journalists don’t: an insider’s perspective. Offering readers direct access to the scientific community distinguishes Scientific American from other popular science magazines. Since its inception in 1845, the magazine has featured articles by scientific luminaries ranging from Albert Einstein to Francis Crick, the co-discover of DNA’s molecular structure, and Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first Polio vaccine.
Often, DiChristina has to decide whether to assign a story to a scientist or a journalist. Her choice is determined by which perspective best serves the story, she said. Sometimes a professional journalist’s reporting skills and breadth of knowledge are essential to making a complex scientific idea accessible to the reader, DiChristina noted. “[Scientists] have no idea about reporting,” she said. “[Their knowledge is generally] very deep and very narrow. But if you ask them to try and pull other facts in together, it’s hard for them.”
Whether she’s working with a Nobel laureate or an accomplished journalist, DiChristina’s goal remains the same. “My job as a both a writer and editor is to take the reader by the hand on a journey,” she said. She likens the process of constructing a compelling, informative narrative to assembling a human body. Her role, as editor, is to ensure that the article has the necessary muscle to advance the story in the right places. “[The framework of a story is] like a big skeleton,” said DiChristina. “You’ve got to hang the muscles off of [it] in the right order.”