Journalism involves more than shouting questions at politicians in a hallway. Most newsgathering (which for science journalism can involve methodically gleaning information, interviewing researchers, and touring laboratories) happens behind the scenes, out of the public view.
On occasion, photography preserves a glimpse of this social context. In January 1939, for example, during the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics, Fremont Davis photographed some of the participants enjoying a break outside on an unusually balmy day. German-born physicists Hans Albrecht Bethe (1906-2005) (hatless, in center) and Fritz Wolfgang London (1900-1954) (dark-haired man with back to camera) were talking to two prominent science writers, John Joseph O’Neill (1889-1953) of the New York Herald Tribune (man with the hat) and William Leonard Laurence (1888-1977) of the New York Times (sprawled at left). The conference was abuzz with the news that German physicist Otto Hahn (1879-1968) had achieved nuclear fission in his laboratory, an important step toward harnessing atomic power for a weapon. After Hitler’s consolidation of power in 1933, and the rise of anti-Semitism, both Bethe and London had lost their university posts. Bethe had immigrated to the United States in 1934 and joined Cornell University's faculty; London had fled to England and then France, and was in the process of bringing his wife and son to America. That January day, the two journalists were undoubtedly on the hunt for information about Hahn and the state of physics in Germany.
The atomic physicists who became part of the Manhattan Project were soon discouraged from talking to journalists, but other parts of the government wanted help from the press in publicizing new projects. The second photograph was taken in February 1942, in the midst of World War II. Science Service writers Helen Miles Davis (1895-1957) and Jane Stafford (1899-1991) and Washington Evening Star science journalist Thomas Robert Henry (1893-1968) had been invited to a press preview for a movie produced by the Federal Security Agency. Hidden Hunger starred Walter Brennan as the farmer “Link Squires,” who sets out on a crusade to “win the war on the food front” by conserving food and serving “Victory Meals.”
The third example catches participants in a 1943 press tour of a new Goodyear Rubber Company laboratory in Akron, Ohio. Hearst Newspapers science journalist Gobind Behari Lal (1889-1982) faces the camera. Behind him is Science Service biology editor Frank Thone (1891-1949) and at center is Scripps-Howard science journalist David Henry Dietz (1897-1984). Lal and Dietz were founding members of the National Association of Science Writers. The dark-haired man with his back to the camera is probably William Leonard Laurence (1888-1977), because the New York Times reporter wrote three special features (June 22, 23, and 24, 1943) based on scientific announcements at the dedication. Dietz, who was based in Cleveland, had also been hired by Goodyear to write a book about the new laboratory.
Between such “socializing” occasions, each reporter would have spent countless hours reading journals and technical material, as shown in the photograph of Jane Stafford at her desk. Good preparation helped in framing intelligent questions during conferences, tours, and spontaneous encounters. As one friend of mine has observed, good journalism “takes time, thought and effort,” setting the professional standards high and learning from mistakes. All the reporters shown in these examples were on the hunt for information, with the ultimate goal of explaining science to the public and getting the story right.
- David Deitz Papers, Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections Research Center
- 1939: Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics: Low Temperature Physics and Superconductivity, Department of Physics, The George Washington University
- Digitized Photos and Back Stories, by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Not "Just Another Doll": Two Orchids for Miss Stafford, by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Science Service, Up Close: At the Front-War Correspondents and Cartoonists, by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Thomas R. Henry: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist, Journalist, by Tad Bennicoff, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives