Interview with a unicorn (long-form staff science writer)

florida oranges USDA flickr

Washington navel oranges growing in a Florida citrus grove. Photo courtesy of ARS, USDA.

Amy Harmon has a unusual, and probably unique, job at the New York Times. Though assigned to the national desk, she writes long, narrative stories about the intersection of science and society — the kind that take a year to research and write, and the kind that almost no one gets paid a salary to write anymore in this new age of journalism. All of her stories focus tightly on people. She explores science and the social implications of technology through the stories of individuals.

Longform interviewed her about her July 2013 feature, “A race to save the orange by altering its DNA,” about tussling painfully over genetically modified crops with fellow NY Times writer Michael Pollan, and her approach to storytelling. There is behind-the-curtain information in there useful for any scientist who anticipates being interviewed by a reporter.

Harmon does not have a background in science. She picked up the beat at the Los Angeles Times, a job she took to make ends meet after graduating in 1990 (20 years later, fresh young reporters take dishwashing jobs to cover their reporting habits!).

“My only skill, having been in the first class at Michigan to be assigned an email address, was that I knew how to use email,” she told Longform dude Evan Ratliff, laughing wryly at the memory of her young self explaining the world wide web to the LA Times newsroom. She set up a modem at her desk to communicate with college friends. And the Times was like, wow, she knows of technology.

Harmon interviews many scientists just to gain background understanding of her topics. She explained that she now divulges at the beginning of interviews that she probably won’t quote the person she’s interviewing, so that she won’t have to awkwardly apologize later. Scientists, she said, are very generous with their time anyway.

“I will say that on this subject, GMOs, scientists, not even scientists who are engaged in doing genetic engineering, but just like, every biologist that I talked to, care a lot about it, because they do feel like the public is misled about it. And so it was not hard to get scientists to talk to me for this story.” [35:00 minutes in]