Media Monday: Eleanor Cummins

Olivia Fuller / April 3, 2017

For this week’s Media Monday, we’d like you to meet Eleanor Cummins, freelance science journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Slate, Popular Science and

Eleanor Cummins

  1. How did you find yourself as a journalist?

I always loved writing, but the topics that interested me were always true, never fiction. It took me until around my twelfth birthday—when I asked and received a subscription to The New Yorker magazine—to discover there was a name for my passion, which I would describe as creative non-fiction. I followed that through to an internship at my local paper when I was 15 and into college where I worked at UW’s student newspaper, The Daily. Now I’m in graduate school at NYU in a program for science, health and environmental reporting. It’s electrifying to wake up every day and pair my twin passions for engaging narrative with effortful, reader-focused reporting and seeing that shared in the pages of a publication as storied as Popular Science or shared by reporters I admire on social media.

2. Which of your stories are you most proud of?

Getting this piece about pediatric palliative and hospice care published in Slate was also an important lesson in perseverance. I first heard about Suzanne Gwynn’s efforts to establish a care home for terminally ill children in Seattle three years ago at Atul Gawande’s Town Hall lecture for his book, Being Mortal. I proceeded to spend years interviewing people (I estimate 30 in total), pitching the piece unsuccessfully to multiple outlets, and then finally landing it at one of my favorite publications with an excellent editor, Susan Matthews. It was a dream fulfilled and the response the piece received was moving and affirming, but it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t keep trudging ahead.

3. What is your favorite thing about being a journalist?

It’s a privilege to be granted access to stranger’s lives, work and passions. I’ve been boating on Jamaica Bay in New York City, talked candidly with parents about what it’s like to raise a child with a life-limiting illness, and turned a 9-1-1 call (everyone is ok!) into a forthcoming story about an underreported obstacle in firefighting. It’s cliche, but true: in journalism, everyday is a new adventure.

4. What is your interview style?

In science journalism, stories are in the details. To do my work right, I have to totally humble myself before each new interview and be willing to pick away at even the most simple, mundane aspects of the conversation. For example, I used to take climate and weather modeling for granted. At a very surface level, for example, I know we can predict how snow will melt in Wenatchee National Forest and how that will influence the flow of nearby rivers and streams. But that relationship is based on decades of observation about historical changes, complicated calculations and, frankly, the well-informed but fundamentally imperfect assumptions of the scientists creating the model, including the assumption that the past provides us with a good estimate of the future. This is a long way of saying: I want to get to know the people I’m interviewing—what motivates them, why they do what they do, the key takeaways from their work—but I also need to be able to explain complicated material clearly without forsaking nuance.

I also end every conversation by asking, “Is there anything else I should have asked?”

5. What do you look for in a story?

Freshness. Has anyone covered this story before? If yes, can I at least provide something really new and important to the dialogue? This could also be an element of surprise. Does this go against conventional wisdom? Is there something exciting in the mundane?

Human component. Some people making amazing careers out of writing about very important abstract things, like discoveries in particle physics or basic research in chemistry, but I’m drawn to questions of psychology and culture, particularly how we shape and are shaped by science.

Feasibility. This is a huge one and something I continue to struggle with myself, but it’s important to only take on projects you’re certain you can do on time and do well. Limitations include time, proximity to the subject, access to sources, the cost of travel or other fees relative to the amount you’ll be paid, and the like.

6. What is your day like at your job?

Like many other journalists, my days are crazy and highly variable. Wednesday’s are busiest for me and go something like this: wake up around 7 a.m. and read through the newsletters and Google alerts on my beats; get to my environmental reporting class by 10 a.m.; participate in my graduate program’s editorial meeting for; arrive at my internship at Popular Science by 2 p.m.; and get home around 7 p.m. to catch up on interview requests, story drafts, pitch plans, and maybe a bit of TV.

7. Who do you most look up to in the journalism industry?

I have dozens of heroes whose work I turn to as my moods, tastes and interests change. Right now I’m very enamored of the works of Jeffrey Toobin, who makes investigative journalism look effortless. I bet you won’t be able to put his books on Patty Hearst or O.J. Simpson down. I know I was thumbing through them on my New York Public Library app at 1 a.m. many nights in a row.

8. What is your favorite news outlet?

The New Yorker. But I deeply value the work of local newspapers who, frankly, against all odds, financial and otherwise, keep their communities informed and hold local leadership accountable. I wouldn’t be where I am without my own local paper, the Tri City Herald.

9. Fill in the blank:

  • If I am not reporting, I am… Listening to podcasts on the subway. (Specifically, Radiolab, Planet Money, This American Life, Flash Forward and Bad With Money.)
  • If I could interview anyone, it would be… Joan Didion.

10. What is your guilty pleasure?

HBO’s Girls.