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Kira Peikoff: “Popularizing details of scientific progress on social media”

Write or edit what you are passionate about, so you don’t lose your connection to why you chose this industry in the first place. There are so many hardships involved in the media business, but we must remember that we wield a unique and powerful role as communicators. The truer we can stay to the […]

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Write or edit what you are passionate about, so you don’t lose your connection to why you chose this industry in the first place. There are so many hardships involved in the media business, but we must remember that we wield a unique and powerful role as communicators. The truer we can stay to the noble reasons we got into this business — seeking out truth, uplifting the unheard, telling important stories, shedding light on injustices — the more spiritually equipped we will be to remain in this profession.


As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kira Peikoff.

Kira Peikoff is a science journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Leaps.org whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other major outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation. Peikoff holds an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University and also serves as Science Editor for GOOD Worldwide and Upworthy, two nonprofits dedicated to the public good. Kira lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.


Thank you so much for joining us. Before we dive in, our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?

I majored in journalism at NYU because I grew up loving magazines and newspapers, and knew I wanted to be in the center of the publishing world in NYC. I had some wild experiences while interning at places like The Daily News, shadowing a senior reporter on the crime beat. One memorable excursion took us to report on a double homicide in the Bronx and to a large fire in Brooklyn — all in the same day.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

In college, I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about a French journalist who was left paralyzed by a stroke and could only blink his left eye to communicate. He wrote his entire memoir that way. I was profoundly inspired by his remarkable effort to insist on finding and creating meaning however he could, despite his extreme limitations. Stories like his certainly put one own’s challenges in perspective and remind us of the precious gift it is to be alive. In these COVID times, his story of facing sudden catastrophe with eternal reserves of patience and resilience is especially apt.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In graduate school at Columbia, 2012–2013, I learned about how consumer DNA testing was in its nascent stages and was not very reliable in terms of disease risk predictions, yet companies like 23andMe were selling this information to consumers at face value. I decided to test a few of the products to see if they agreed on my DNA. I sent my saliva to three of the companies and compared the results. Perhaps not too surprisingly, they gave me conflicting reports. My highest risk disease, according to one company, was my lowest risk according to another. I ended up writing a story about my experience for the New York Times to raise people’s awareness of the limitations of such tests. The story blew up and became the #1 most viewed and emailed article for a week. It was shortly afterwards that the FDA came down on 23andMe for not having enough scientific evidence to back up some of its reports.

Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away you learned from it?

This story isn’t a mistake, but it is a funny irony. I did a stint in book publishing for a couple of years early on in my career, and at the same time, I was trying to find a literary agent for my first novel, which I wrote at 22. By day, I worked for the Editor-in-Chief of a renowned imprint, and part of my duties included writing rejection letters to the dozens of agents pitching him manuscripts. Sometimes, those very agents were the same ones I was personally querying for my novel — whose assistants were mailing me rejection letters! (Eventually, I did find a wonderful agent and she still represents me now, ten years later.) The lesson here, I suppose, is that it pays to never give up on a creative dream, as long as you are willing to stick out the tough uncertain parts.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Nothing could be more inspiring and stimulating as Leaps.org accelerates its most basic goal of defending science and countering misinformation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rebuilding public trust in our scientists — and our journalists — is at the core of Leaps.org’s mission.

I’m also very excited about the new four-part webinar series we kicked off in early March, “Covid Vaccines and the Return to Life, with the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, featuring top health authorities discussing the most timely and relevant concerns. Part 2 will likely air in June.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout?”

Write or edit what you are passionate about, so you don’t lose your connection to why you chose this industry in the first place. There are so many hardships involved in the media business, but we must remember that we wield a unique and powerful role as communicators. The truer we can stay to the noble reasons we got into this business — seeking out truth, uplifting the unheard, telling important stories, shedding light on injustices — the more spiritually equipped we will be to remain in this profession.

According to this Gallup poll, only 45% of Americans trusted the mass media in 2016. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Please give specific examples where possible.

Of course, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion of “fake news,” mistrust in the media has risen. It’s one of the saddest things I see as a journalist, particularly in the areas of science, health, and medicine, where misinformation can be so dangerous. Countering this is Leaps.org’s primary mission and we are committed to turning this around by:

  1. Popularizing details of scientific progress on social media
  2. Hosting online conversations that highlight innovation, ethics, and the future of humanity.
  3. Ensuring that our articles are accessible and accurate
  4. Encouraging robust discussion among experts. In Part 1 of our COVID vaccine webinar, we used a stimulating “round-robin” format where each expert interviewed another, generating dynamic debates and airing questions even these top authorities have.
  5. Engaging the public and experts alike about what constitutes the right path forward.

As you know, since 2016, the term ‘fake news” has entered common usage. Do you think this new awareness has made a change in the day-to-day process of how journalists craft stories? Can you give some examples?

At Leaps.org, we deal with — and aggressively battle — this issue on a regular basis. One problem we see is that some people cavalierly deem perspectives they disagree with as “fake news.” There is a troubling decline of interest in respectful and open debate around controversial policy and ethics topics. For example, we recently ran an op/ed condemning a recent statement by Catholic bishops who claimed that one of the new COVID vaccines is morally compromised. Our author laid out his perspective, defending the vaccine, which we labeled transparently as an opinion piece, and he backed up his historical references with sources we linked to. Yet I still heard from angry readers who complained that he was “wrong” and that his article undermined our commitment to accurate reporting. I believe that people (including activists who masquerade as journalists) need a much clearer understanding of the difference between fact and opinion/advocacy, and also of the different types of articles that publications run. Journalistic feature stories necessarily have different goals from opinion essays. It sounds obvious, but the line is all too blurred today.

Another issue we run into is how to cover the epidemic of misinformation and disinformation. Do we draw greater attention to problems like vaccine falsehoods, for example, by discussing them? Or should we report only on what’s real and true and not amplify the noise in the process of trying to correct it?

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Leaps.org is it! If we’re successful, I believe we will witness a retreat of fear and skepticism toward innovation, and instead see renewed enthusiasm for scientific progress. In the long run, we hope to see transformative developments both responsibly implemented and widely embraced so that all of us — and our future generations — can flourish on planet Earth (and perhaps beyond).

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Kira — FB: https://www.facebook.com/kirapeikoff/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KiraPeikoff

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kira-peikoff-a139944/

Leaps.org

FB: https://www.facebook.com/leaps.org

Twitter: https://twitter.com/leaps_org

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/18685284/admin/

IG: https://www.instagram.com/makingsenseofscience/

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