The world of science communication—and of readers—suffered a great loss on January 16. Science journalist Sharon Begley, who “spun words into gold,” as a STAT headline writer put it, died at age 64.
Over the course of her career, Begley worked for Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters before she moved to STAT in its early days in 2015. There she covered a wide range of topics, including translating for the public the “fire hose” of COVID-19-related publications and pre-prints, research reports that are made available to the public before passing through the peer review process.
Begley’s approach to science reporting won her the admiration of devoted readers and of colleagues. But she also won the respect of her scientist sources. Her colleague Eric Boodman wrote in an In Memoriam piece for STAT:
“To James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, she was ‘at the top of the science reporting class.’ Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna wrote, ‘Sharon was a marquee science reporter … I valued her balanced view and dedication to furthering the public’s awareness and understanding of the potential of CRISPR.’”
Begley went into science writing with a strong interest in high energy particle physics, but she went on to cover the exploding worlds of genetics and neuroscience, along with many other topics.
“I’ve had to teach myself new areas of science, but with the best teachers in the world—that’s the best thing about being a science reporter,” she said in a 2020 interview on “Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda.”
Begley discussed with Alda the importance of getting readers’ attention and taking them on a journey.
“In this age of attention spans that don’t go past a single screen, or a few seconds, unfortunately, there really is a premium on grabbing readers early,” she said. “Our editors tell us that if readers aren’t interested they’re not going to swipe up to see the rest of your story—many readers read our stories on mobile technology.”
The humans doing science are central to science reporting, she said.
“You try your best to bring out the characters. . . and just describe these things that you never imagined scientists doing.”
Thinking about her audience—her readers—was key to all her writing.
“Even if [a story] is inherently interesting, attention flags,” she said. “After a certain number of minutes or after a certain number of words, you want something to wake up the audience, something to wake up the readers. . .I try as hard as I can to throw in something surprising or crazy or whatever, so that the reader will say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a cool thing! I wonder what the next cool thing will be,’ and again, you’re just carrying them along.”
For more information, you can read a STAT profile of Begley, her excellent science reporting for STAT, tributes by colleagues, or any of the books she wrote, her most recent about compulsions and titled Can’t. Just. Stop.