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By using science fiction to illustrate future worlds, speculative journalism can help audiences think about what’s to come—or at least what's possible to come—in more concrete terms

Back in early 2019, nearly a year before the coronavirus outbreak began to dominate headlines, the team at the “Science Vs” podcast was hard at work on an episode aptly named “Pandemic!!!” The episode previewed the question many are asking in 2020: If a potentially fatal disease was rapidly spreading around the globe, how bad could it really get?

To answer that question, the team behind the Gimlet Media (a Spotify company) podcast decided to stray from their usual facts-first fare, dissecting myths, fads, and trends through a scientific lens. Instead, according to “Science Vs” host Wendy Zukerman, they decided the subject of pandemics deserved a more creative approach. “We thought it would be interesting to explore a pandemic in a modern world and, instead of talking about Biology 101 of viruses or how [scientific] modelling works, we could really take people on an adventure,” says Zukerman, a science journalist who originally created “Science Vs” for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We could explore the science, make it really mean something for listeners, and, at the same time, poke holes in Hollywood versions of pandemics.”

By illustrating future worlds, speculative journalism can help audiences think about what might be to come in more concrete terms

To do that, “Science Vs.” transported listeners of the October episode to an imagined but not-so-distant future where a deadly virus — H7N9, a particularly deadly strain of the flu — has mutated and is quickly spreading among humans worldwide. Over the course of five scenes set over seven months, fictional journalist Mindy Tuckerman narrates the progression of the pandemic, from interviewing experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) soon after the initial outbreak — which, as in the case of the coronavirus, began in China — to visiting overwhelmed hospital wards in the U.S., where some patients are being turned away or denied ventilators due to lack of supply.

Sound familiar?

The “Science Vs” scenario is fictional but it isn’t a narrative that’s outside the realm of possibility — as we have all experienced with the coronavirus pandemic. The people behind “Science Vs” did their homework to make sure the global health crisis they depicted was rooted in reality. “The big concern was getting the balance right between accurate science and having a compelling story. There were a lot of conversations asking questions like, ‘Is this over the top? Would this actually happen?’” says Zukerman.

Along with researching pandemics like the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, the “Science Vs” team consulted with more than 20 researchers from the CDC and the Institute for Disease Modeling to make sure the scenarios they were positing were indeed possible. They even ran their narrative by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has advised President Trump on the coronavirus.

“Pandemic!!!” is an example of speculative journalism. The term isn’t strictly defined, but it’s often used to describe works of journalism about imagined futures, pieces where science fiction is entwined with facts and even original reporting to elucidate likely, or at least possible, future realities. Independent journalists and legacy news organizations alike find value in the form. Examples can be found in independent magazines like High Country News or on podcasts, such as “Bellwether” and “Flash Forward,” as well as in The New York Times, with its “Op-Eds from the Future” series.

By illustrating future worlds, speculative journalism can help audiences think about what might be to come in more concrete terms. Take the coronavirus: Before the pandemic, few people could have imagined themselves quarantined in their homes, living in constant fear as the economy tanks, field hospitals are erected in sports arenas, and TV journalists — along with politicians, talk show hosts, and other public figures — are broadcasting from their own living rooms.

But listeners to Science Vs’s “Pandemic!!!” could.

There are risks in speculative journalism, too. Some reporters argue that prediction and projection have no place in news reports, in part because they can be easily labeled “fake news.” While journalists have regained some of the trust lost in recent years — bouncing back from a historic low of 32% of Americans having “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in mass media in 2016 to 41% in 2019, according to Gallup — speculative journalism could complicate perceptions of trust at a time when facts are already under unprecedented assault.

Radio producer and reporter Sam Greenspan, who calls his new project “Bellwether” “a podcast of speculative journalism,” considers speculation just another reporting method. “It takes as a point of departure that a reporter can use the tools of sci-fi, futurism, strategic foresight, and forecasting as any other tool in journalism—just as one might use computer-assisted reporting or database reporting,” says Greenspan. “It’s just a different toolset that a lot of other industries have been using for a long time,” such as economists, fashion designers, and automakers, to name a few.

Of course, financial and political reporters deal in hypotheticals all the time to help audiences understand everything from what the New England Patriots might look like without Tom Brady to how the coronavirus — even after the pandemic has subsided — will shape the future of the workplace and corporate culture. However, speculative journalism typically goes beyond reporting that includes predictions to works that use the techniques of science fiction to paint vivid portraits as a way of making real conditions that seem too distant or implausible.

Speculative nonfiction may be an outgrowth of the popularity science fiction has enjoyed in the past two decades or so. Donald Trump’s election inspired Marie Gilot, head of the J+ training program at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, to start writing science fiction. While she was writing more as a personal means to understand what the election meant for journalism and its relationship to truth, she does see combining science fiction with journalism as an effective way to shed light on issues that are largely based, for the time being, in the theoretical.

“I think that speculative fiction approaches are particularly useful when covering issues that are more abstract, like climate change or policy changes. Those are issues for which journalists need some imagination,” says Gilot, who has given talks about what journalists can learn from science fiction. “What will happen when downtown New York is underwater? What would happen if we passed Medicare for All? Of course, these kinds of exercises should be properly labeled as speculative analysis or opinion, but I think these types of explorations are informative and useful.”

Issues that are abstract but have potentially devastating ramifications — think modern global pandemics, like the one depicted in “Science Vs,” but also massive natural disasters that kill thousands, or the devastating effects of climate change — have been the most popular uses of speculative journalism.

Take “The Really Big One,” Kathryn Schulz’s Pulitzer-winning New Yorker article about what a totally-unprepared Pacific Northwest will look like if — or really, when — a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami wreaks widespread destruction. Schulz’s sobering piece, much of it written in future tense, incited policymakers to review and update local emergency preparedness and management plans. Since that article was published in 2015, many media outlets have tackled future disasters, such as “The Big One: Your Survival Guide” podcast from Southern California’s KPCC that imagines what would happen to Los Angeles if a major earthquake hits. Publications — including McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern — have dedicated entire issues to speculative climate change writing, and Bill McKibben’s piece of speculative journalism imagined for Time magazine what Earth will look like in 2050 if we succeed in avoiding — by a massive change in our lifestyles — the worst of climate change.

Issues that are abstract but have potentially devastating ramifications have been the most popular uses of speculative journalism

At High Country News, an independent magazine that covers issues facing the American West, experimenting with speculative journalism was seen, in part, as a creative way to fight information fatigue about climate change — for readers, but also for journalists.

When the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 1,500-page, two-part congressionally-mandated report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program was released in November 2018, High Country News editor in chief Brian Calvert asked his editors to consider how they should cover it. He asked the same questions he normally would when a big federal report drops: How can we apply it to our content?

The response from Calvert’s staff was a groan. “The reaction from all of us was like, ‘Oh God, okay,” says Calvert. “We thought it was really important to pay attention to that reaction, because there’s a lot of information out there on climate change, and I think we were all feeling some information fatigue.”

That’s what prompted Tristan Ahtone, who was then associate editor for indigenous affairs at High Country News, to propose bringing science fiction into the mix. “None of us were entirely jazzed about doing a whole issue about the climate assessment,” says Ahtone. “At first, we started joking around about stuff we could do, but then we started thinking about it — What if we could project [the report] 50 years into the future and place stories in that future?”

The suggestion wasn’t totally out of nowhere considering that the publication’s first online editor Paolo Bacigalupi is a winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction and fantasy and a National Book Award nominee for “Ship Breaker,” a young adult novel set in a post-apocalyptic future.

Writers were asked to frame their stories as if they were being written by journalists 50 years from now. Some element of each story had to come from or be inspired by the federal climate change report. Science reporter Maya Kapoor tracked down climate scientists, hydrologists, rangeland ecologists and other experts for each writer to talk to in order to write about scenarios that were inspired by climate science and had outcomes that were entirely reasonable. “It wasn’t a last‑minute fact-check, like, ‘Can we fact-check this with you?’ It was, ‘Can they talk to you as they’re crafting their story?’” says Kapoor. “We used our normal fact-checking process, as well as this extra step of checking with the experts about the worlds that we were building, how realistic they were.”

That means they had “an early BS test about, ‘Is this plausible?’” says Calvert. “We used that to green-light each of these stories. Is it within the realm of possibilities in that field of research? The story building and some of the different textures in each story, those are made up, but the premise we used for each story — those were vetted with facts.”

The result, published in August 2019, was “2068: The Speculative Journalism Issue.” Wholly dedicated to science fiction imagining what the West — ravaged by changes from global warming — could look like in 50 years and how journalists will cover it, the issue began with an editor’s note from Calvert that ended, “None of these stories are true, but any of them could be. The fact is, we don’t really know what climate change will bring … but we do know that enormous challenges — and opportunities — lie ahead. Our chance to change the future is now, but we’ll need a better story first.”

Stories in the issue ranged from a piece about the mayhem ensuing at the last remaining ski resort in the continental U.S. to a Q&A with a wildland firefighter — drafted by the U.S. Fire Service now that the West is experiencing forest fires year-round — who has deserted his post. Some imagined the future West amidst catastrophe, while others were hopeful; each piece had story notes and sources. Also included was a section where readers themselves opined about what their hometowns will look like in 2068.

Painting future “worst case” scenarios of abstract issues like pandemics, natural disasters, or the impacts of climate change can help people consider how to prepare — but can also cause unwarranted paranoia

Painting future “worst case” scenarios of abstract issues like pandemics, natural disasters, or the impacts of climate change can help people consider how to prepare — but can also cause unwarranted paranoia

Ahtone says High Country News received mostly positive reactions to the issue, including from the scientist community, and they weren’t particularly worried about people accusing them of peddling misinformation or taking fiction for fact. “I think we were comfortable with it because we had a lot of scientists who were able to talk us through our ideas, and we could have a grounding in climate science,” he says. That said, he and Calvert say they probably wouldn’t try using a speculative approach on a topic other than the climate crisis.

Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist with a background in journalism, thinks they’re right to be wary. “Speculative journalism makes a good opinion column. But I wouldn’t put it in any other beat or section of a publication,” says Webb, who points out there is a difference between what trained futurists do using a methodology and what journalists practicing speculation do, which can often amount to little more than guesswork. Whether speculative journalism is responsible journalism during a time when misinformation is rampant and technology blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s doctored is a valid question, says Webb: “If we weren’t already contending with widespread misinformation in general, confusion about COVID-19, a splintered internet, Russia’s deliberate attempts to seed mistrust, and China’s quest for cyber sovereignty, then speculative journalism might be on better footing.”

Critics also point out that, even if speculative journalism is not mistaken for fact, it could inadvertently feed into paranoia and conspiracy theories.

Christy Wampole, a French professor at Princeton and critic of speculative journalism whose interest stems from research for a book about the contemporary French novel, which often integrates realism and science fiction, argues that prediction doesn’t align with the mission of journalism. “One problem is, once you sort of see these potential speculations, there’s no real way to go back after the fact and be accountable for those predictions, whether they were right or they were wrong,” Wampole says. “To me, that’s not journalism’s goal. Perhaps we do need a class of people whose job is just to guess what will happen next based on evidence, but I’m not sure the journalist is the right person for that role.”

Critics point out that, even if speculative journalism is not mistaken for fact, it could inadvertently feed into paranoia and conspiracy theories

There are plenty of speculative journalism efforts that don’t use science fiction techniques to hype up disastrous futures with a journalistic angle, including “Bellwether,” Greenspan’s podcast where two “data archeologists” — one human, one AI — in the distant future are looking back on radio broadcasts of real 21st-century news stories, searching for clues about what happened to their world.

“In a certain sense, sci-fi is not about the future but about the present,” says Gideon Lichfield, editor in chief of MIT Technology Review who studied the intersections of sci-fi and journalism as a fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute in 2014-2015 and has written sci-fi stories for Quartz, like one about the future of automation at Amazon warehouses. “What sci-fi does is take society as we know it today and applies — you might call them filters — new technologies, new situations, and asks what is it about human society that would stay the same and what would change under these new circumstances.”

In The New York Times’s “Op-Eds from the Future” series, writers — science fiction authors and scientists as well as journalists, futurists, and philosophers — opine from the future, whether that’s 10 or 20 years, or even a century, down the road. “The challenges they predict are imaginary — for now — but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow,” reads the editor’s note atop each piece.

Pieces range from privatization of the U.S. military to “evergarchs” — billionaire oligarchs who can extend their lives indefinitely — and the tone ranges from humorous, such as one by novelist Fran Wilde about bioprinters, which toy manufacturer Fisher Price Waterhouse will soon be selling, to grim and seemingly prophetic, including one by Lucy Ferriss in which new legislation threatens the legal status of abortions in New York, the only state that still allows them. Such wide-ranging topics are also a feature of “Flash Forward,” a podcast about “possible and not so possible futures” that launched in 2015 and is hosted by Rose Eveleth. Over the course of five seasons, “Flash Forward” has taken on futures that are plausible and even very likely (such as one where China has replaced the United States as the global superpower) to ones that are decidedly less so (like one where a coalition of concerned mothers convinces the U.S. government to shut down the internet). Episodes that are just a few years old, including one about a future where facial recognition is so powerful it can grab an image of someone’s face from anywhere and link it to their identifying information, are eerily prescient.

Regardless of the topic, though, Eveleth makes sure to distinguish between the fictional scenario that starts each episode with the second half, where she interviews experts to discuss the likelihood of each imagined future. “In the top of every single episode I say, ‘First we’re going to do fiction, and then we’ll do the real stuff,” says Eveleth. “Sometimes longtime listeners will email me and be like, ‘We get it, you don’t have to say it every time,’ but I have had people — when I was first piloting the show before it came out and I didn’t say that — that thought I hired actors to be the experts in the piece.”

Even with the disclaimer, Eveleth has had her invented material mistaken for fact. Early on, she did an episode about a future where humans are genetically engineered to try to limit each individual’s carbon contributions. It was inspired by a 2012 paper published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & the Environment asking if humans could be engineered to be more energy efficient, i.e., to be smaller, to be meat intolerant, etc. “This is a very provocative and ridiculous paper, mostly to get people talking. They were not really proposing it,” says Eveleth.

In interviews, bioethics philosopher S. Matthew Liao stressed that he and his co-authors weren’t advocating for any particular human modifications or even human engineering in general; rather, they were introducing it as one possible solution to mitigate climate change. The “Flash Forward” episode reflected that. “It was essentially a takedown of all the proposals, being like, ‘This makes no sense. This is dangerous. We should definitely not do this.’ That was the episode,” says Eveleth.

However, the Gizmodo post about the episode (the first season of “Flash Forward” was in partnership with Gizmodo and was called “Meanwhile in the Future”) was headlined “To Stop Climate Change, We Must Genetically Engineer Humans.” Rush Limbaugh got wind of it, and he ranted on his show about liberals wanting to genetically engineer babies to be less climate-intensive.

“If you had listened to the episode, you would know that this is not in fact endorsing such a thing. But it didn’t really matter, because the way that people consume news these days is they read headlines. They don’t listen to the whole 25-minute podcast,” says Eveleth. “I had contributed to the exact thing that I’m talking about now — this thing where people will read a headline and they don’t really understand the difference between speculation and reality.”

Whether speculative journalism is responsible journalism is a valid question

Critics point to this sort of situation as one of speculative journalism’s risks, and something those who practice it must address. “Media literacy is quite weak in the United States. When something is speculation, it should be marked as such,” says Wampole.

The incident made Eveleth change the way she markets the show — she no longer puts clickbait-geared claims in her headlines when posting episodes online — and is perhaps part of the reason Eveleth is hesitant to use “speculative journalism” to describe her work. “It’s not a well-defined term. Lots of people use it to mean lots of different things; that makes it hard to talk about in general.”

That said, Eveleth does find value in integrating fiction and future-forecasting into journalistic work; she considers it to be especially effective for topics where personal and public safety is a factor, as it was in Schulz’s “The Really Big One” about the Pacific Northwest’s impending mega-earthquake and as it is now with the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s in those situations where you really want as a reporter or as a storyteller to be able to get someone to put themselves in the shoes of their future selves via characters,” says Eveleth. “That’s the thing fiction does — it’s transportive. It helps you think through what you would do in that situation if it was you.”

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