Friday, 17 September 2010

More musings on the Science Festival

I had a blast at the British Science Festival (and no, that wasn’t a chemistry joke).

I spent my mornings in and out of press conferences, then deciding which were worth covering for the festival news. The clue’s in the title - yep, it has to be new. And while there’s lots of cool science here, not all of it’s new. Like the knowledge that texting whilst you walk is dangerous or that we have fewer friends at the beginning and end of our lives than in the middle. Which isn’t new, or that cool really.

I covered a couple of psychology stories, and found them hard to write. It might be true what they say about being a better news journalist when you’re lay in that area, like the majority of your readers. Hence the piece I wrote about animal-human hybrids being a dream to write.

All this goes against the view that the best science journalism is written by experts. Of course, non-specialist reporters need to work much harder at accuracy (although it boggles my head to imagine writing about something I didn’t understand), but I think that specialists risk being too precious and out of touch with what the public can really understand from a 400 word article. Which is exactly what I did in a piece on children’s false memories. Who’da thought that the whole world doesn’t know what semantic priming is?

One solution to this lay/expert argument would be to have specialist sub-eds. That way, they can be as hawk-eyed as we need when it comes to accuracy and faithful reporting, but at root, the story comes from a place similar to the one it’s destined for.

Two brains ducks questions

At about 3pm this afternoon a press officer came to my desk and said that David Willetts would be dropping in later and of course I’d want to talk to him, no?


Cue much excitement (from me, not from the rest of the press) about interviewing the science and universities minister. In actuality, interview turned out to be too grand a word, it was more like I sat next to him and asked him a question during a press briefing, but STILL. I was getting up close and personal with our governmental science dude. The one that’s threatening me and all of my colleagues with A Very Hard Time on Very Little Money after the Comprehensive Spending Review in a few weeks.

So I faffed around in a demented flurry for a while thinking of what to ask him about. Since it was the day that the World University Rankings were published by the Times Higher, and the UK had come second to US universities, that seemed like a good place to start.

So I trudged into a tiny room along with about ten other journalists, feeling a bit like a class of schoolkids (me because of my inordinate excitement and them because they act like giddy, gobby kids from time to time). After questions about Vince Cable’s recent gaffe on research assessment and ‘mediocre’ research, homeopathy and the role of NICE, I managed to get my question in.

To resounding blandness.

I asked The Rt Hon (right on?) DW if he was worried that with the impending cuts to university funding, the UK risks slipping further down the world rankings. He acknowledged increased competition from Asia, said that we must collaborate with them, and remains committed and optimistic about the long-term future of British Higher Education.


I didn’t even get a news piece out of it. There was nothing to say.

As a colleague at the Higher said to me, I don’t know why we’re obsessed with speaking to politicians. We’d get better stories out of quizzing loose canon academics.

PS. Check this article and transcript by Alok Jha for more noncommittal noises from the same briefing.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Festival News

In between lots of story-chasing and lots more event-freeloading, I wrote this piece on MEG imaging.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Festival Time

Today is the first day of the British Science Festival at Aston University. All of the media fellows are here, along with science writers from all of the major papers, and lots of others whose wit, charm and gravitas I am yet to discover :)

It’s also the day on which I’ve experienced my first (closely followed by my second and third) press conference. This is half an hour with the speakers who will be giving a talk later in the Festival. They talk for a bit, then it’s Q&A with the journalists. The best division of time I’ve seen was 5 mins presentation, then 25 mins of Q&A when the journalists get to ask exactly what they want to know, whether this is from premeditated plan for a piece, or an on-the-fly prod-it-and-see-what-happens approach (see, THEY’re allowed to do it..). After the psycholinguistic conference I went to last week where presentations lasted for 15 mins and questions for 5, I’m wondering if the press format would be a worthwhile shift for us academics. It keeps everyone on the ball, you get instant feedback on what is and isn’t interesting/comprehensible/persuasive and everyone’s free to move on after 30 mins. Short, sweet and straight to the point. In the evening, we discuss the day's highlights in various semi-structured options, always near a bar. Another good model for academia.

The wall-to-wall science leaves the Times Higher and me (as Times Higher apprentice) a little peripheral, so I asked the British Science Association if I could write the news for them. Chance to work with another mentor and gives me a little more purpose than just drifting around filling my head with science with nowhere for it to go. So that’s what I did.

I filed a piece on a next-generation MEG scanner in development here at Aston. Impressive stuff. A child-friendly machine with a nice child-sized helmet and a system of electromagnetic coils which will let the child move around during the scan, which is pretty revolutionary for MEG. I remember how hard it was when I was MEG scanned. Ended up getting told off for twitching and then force-fed chocolate to keep me awake. They even want to make this one rocket-shaped for maximum imaging funtimes, though the over-literal autistic kids that they plan to use it with might have something to say about being sent to space..

Off to the final of So You Want to be a Scientist shortly, then a round-up of today’s events and then to the pub for more schmoozing and boozing. It’s true what they say.

I shared a desk with Pallab Ghosh off of Radio 4, and a press conference with lots of familiar names and voices from the media. Also met the Naked Scientists, the founder of BlueSci, and an ex-Times Higher reporter and spouse-of-fellow-psycholinguist (small world). Still haven’t seen Johnny Ball though.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

More stories

Two pieces in this week's the Times Higher! What's more than exciting is that I've got a whole page. Page 20 that is, but still a whole page. Not so sure about the image (again), and it might have been nicer without the implied death-fixation of my first contributor, but hey, I guess that’s what they call The Hook. Research Intelligence regular on archiving practices I worked on in my first week, ta-dah!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Leaving town

Last Friday was my last day at the Times Higher offices (although the media fellowship continues at the British Science Festival next week – where the fun and games really start, apparently).

I seem to have made an okay impression on those at the Higher (at least judging from the emails that are still landing in my inbox asking me to write this or check that). So how about the dents, sorry, impressions left on me?

A few personal reflections on my time as a journalists’ apprentice:

1. I’m now MUCH more comfortable with the phone than I was before. Making my first few calls was a big deal for me – I missed the contextual clues from face to face interaction and its space for pauses that the phone lacks. I also missed the permanence of email and its way of forcing clarity. However, blower is king in the media, and my telephone manner is in much leaner shape now because of it.

2. The immediacy of short projects was great. Look - feedback the same day as I submitted something! (cf. months of waiting for academic reviewers to respond).

3. Surprisingly, I’m also now a fan of open plan offices. I could never love the hullaballoo of a sales office but the gentle buzz of the editorial office was stimulating. Quiet enough so’s you can still write, but also energising from other discussions and ideas going on around you. Need an expert on research councils? Don’t even phone, just ask around the office!

4. I loved the balance of teamwork and individualism. The weekly news meeting was a real highlight, where everyone pitched their ideas for the forthcoming edition – seeing how our work fitted together, and more immediate feedback.

But it’s not all one big love-in, of course...

I’m now way more wary of what is and isn’t on record. And what isn’t specified is definitely on-record.

I learned a pretty spiky lesson on using personal contacts as well. Don't even go there. They were my default choice at first since they’re quick and easy to contact, obliging and supply candid quotes, but the energy spent on checking their quotes and ensuring that you’re not going to jeopardise your relationship with them is disproportionate. On my last day I’d lined up three colleagues to speak to about remote working in academia but having seen how common it is for contributors to backtrack on their quotes, I didn't even want to start down that road. It’s a whole different game with strangers where I certainly cared less about any negative reaction they might have, but the fact is I don’t have the thick hide needed to print things that could have severe repercussions to people who’d contributed in good faith.

So remember kids, always speak to strangers.

I also missed the commitment to larger scale projects - the flip side of immediate feedback in the fact that you write something and - woosh - it's gone, never to be improved, deepened, matured and polished. I guess this is inevitable in two short weeks, and concurrent longer features would probably hit this button, but when you're used to gradually refining (no, I won't say perfecting..) projects in academia over months and years, this way of working just shouts slap, dash, and so long.

Science in the media: My tuppenceworth.

Working at an educational publication, I’m relatively far from the eye of the science vs. journalism storm, but seeing the way that my colleagues at the Higher are asked to turn their skill to a range of research specialisms gives me some idea of the reasons behind the allegations of sloppiness and illogicality thrown at the hacks.

My current conclusion is that it is the nature of the genre; the minute format, the high-speed research, the obsession with personal anecdotes which renders quite a bit of reported science terrible.

A fellow fellow has written on biomarkers for the Guardian, to critical reaction from a biochemist who swears that the writer completely missed the point. This is not due to lack of scientific knowledge as far as I can tell – the writer is a specialist registrar.

This is not to excuse the journos. They have to be clearer about the intentions behind what they write. If a basic graph is printed that isn’t peer reviewed and at best indicative of a trend, then this should be flagged up loud and clear (perhaps these would come in handy). No journalistic piece can ever be conclusive – it’s produced by one person in a few hours tops. And readers should be reminded of that.

I once saw journalism described as the "first rough draft of history". First rough drafts are not always accurate. They give the big picture. But news isn't news if it's not new, so it's impossible to run everything by specialists and to ensure reliability throughout. Tentativeness must be expressed.

The same goes for other fields: see tabloid stories on house prices, immigration, Europe, etc, all equally misleading and ignorant, and arguably equally damaging.