In the belly of the beeb

This is a bit long.

If you want to listen to it rather than read it then here you go…

When you enter New Broadcasting House, don’t look left. The twelve-foot-tall Sir David Attenborough peeking down at you from behind his gorillas doesn’t help your nerves. He’s watching you.

It’s fair to say I hadn’t the slightest idea what the belly of the beeb was going to be like, let alone what it would look like. New Broadcasting House had seemed to me to be just that: a house, a big building in which… well, what happened? I didn’t know how stories were found, I didn’t know whether I was going to have to pitch against other writers and, most importantly, I hadn’t any clues as to what the people inside were going to be like. Aside from the three blogs headed by pictures of Jon Amos, (the now ex-BBC) Richard Black and David Shukman, News Online, at least, was written by what seemed to be a teeming crowd of names.

Were these hacks or scientists? Nice guys, or ruthless journos stabbing each other in the back to get the scoop? When I first walked up to NBH, an army of people were dashing around behind the glass towering above me, and I thought about all the frenetic press-rooms I’d worked in at universities and the cut-throat intensity of their Hollywood big brothers. I took my headphones off and readied myself. This was going to be an interesting seven weeks.

But meeting BBC Online’s Science and Environment editor couldn’t have been a more pleasant experience. I’d expected J. Jonah Jameson but instead I got Paul Rincon. How could the man who pretty much ran the Science and Environment news for the BBC be so relaxed, and have time to talk to me about my views on Batman? Paul wasn’t a hack. He was a charming, incredibly supportive mentor, and the rest of the online team matched him perfectly. The only trait I could find to unify them was their age – not that they were old, just older than I’d thought they’d be, with the youngest members of the team in their very early thirties, whereas the Knowledge and Learning team that sat opposite us were years younger (and wore much cooler glasses).

Jason, the lean American physicist who spent the summer ‘busting my balls’ (his words, not mine), Matt, who’s pessimism about the Olympics mirrored mine, even though we both found ourselves delighting in the 24 hour coverage – only occasionally lamenting how little science got onto television (but more on that later)… far from the faceless journalists I’d envisioned, these were remarkably normal people and, to my not so complete surprise, happened to really know their science.

The fact that so many of the team were lapsed scientists might go someway to explaining the working hours. Walking in around ten in the morning and flashing my security card felt just like home, but the similarities to academia apart from this were fairly few and far between.

Firstly, I’m used to academia being a malleable material I can fashion myself. This probably has a lot to do with the sort of science I do. As a zoologist studying anatomy, I’m not constrained by endless hours in the lab, but can choose the directions my inquiries lead. I’m lucky in that I can research something because I find it interesting but during my placement, I had to alter my perception of what was, and what wasn’t, interesting. This hit home when I spent a day getting my head around what I thought was a fascinating piece of research into rodent fossils and what they could tell us about past environments. When accessing the readership data for my stories later on during my fellowship I found that what I might have found groundbreaking, the world might have not.

But the news rolled on and there was always something new to cover – the second major difference to academia: everyday – everyday – was different. One morning I was talking to someone about their work on synthetic biology, the next I was discussing using remote control drones to monitor archeological sites in Peru. I’d spent three years battling the same questions in Cambridge but here everyday I needed to understand something new and fascinating. I’ll admit, it was intoxicating. More on this later too…

Lastly, working for BBC Online resulted in instant gratification which was, of course, the biggest difference to academia. Gone were the months waiting for revisions on manuscripts to be accepted. By the end of my first day, my first article was live and within the hour thousands of people were aware of the research I’d written about (it was, anticlimactically, about sheep). But this meant I had to be on the ball all the time. Facts had to be straight, species names spelt correctly, caveats mentioned… but this was the news, which meant it had to be fast. This is how I did it.

Day to day within the BBC

I began my fellowship writing for News Online and from the first day I was thrown in at the deep end. Editing was thorough, but to my delight it was only my grammar that really needed shaping up. Thank goodness Paul was on hand every minute of the day though (especially when at half-past eleven at night I realised I’d left a spelling mistake in a headline). After a few days I was in a studio talking live to the presenter of Radio Essex’s Drivetime programme as a ‘health expert,’ and during lunch one day an idea I’d had standing outside Broadcasting House staring at the Portland Roach limestone speedily evolved into me filming a piece of On Demand media with Rebecca Morelle that ended up becoming Online’s ‘Most Watched’ (not bad, considering it was about fossils).

On the news desk, each day began with either a story Paul had taken a shine to off, or I’d float some ideas of things I’d come across in the literature (which, being away from my institution, really made me appreciate Open Access a lot more than I had done).

I’d spend some time reading through the primary literature and getting my head around the concepts and then, after deciding what I wanted to know more about, I called the academics that had conducted the research. This in itself was lovely. Here I was, little old scruffy me, phoning up and talking to leaders in their fields about their cutting edge work. After talking to them (always for never less than forty minutes) I spent some time thinking about and writing up what they’d told me. If there was anything I wasn’t sure about I always contacted them again: people were always more happy to make sure their science was reported correctly than to get back to their lunch. And besides, they were scientists, and scientists love to talk about their research.

I’d think back to conversations I’d had, books I’d read, read any replies to their papers, and always tried to hunt down a second opinion on their work, knowing that a scientist talking about their science was, for all the selflessness and rigour we tend to imagine scientists conduct themselves with, were just people and, as Ed Yong recently said, people can be influenced by many things.

I (wisely) avoided the canteen and spent the afternoons working on writing something that made sense and contained at least one phrase I was proud of (for instance, I thought ‘Gnawing Doubt’ was a pretty great subtitle when introducing caveats of that rodent study). Only when I tackled a climate change related story were two or three drafts needed, just to iron out any ambivalent phrases that the environment correspondents knew would be pounced upon by trolls. Perhaps this was because I was a scientist. I understood science, as did the other members of the BBC News team, and could write about it accordingly (albeit with a far-too-verbose-style).

After three weeks I moved over to the BBC Radio Science Unit. Over there (on the other side of the room now, rather than in a completely different part of London), the action was played out by a much more female cast over a week rather than a day. This started on Fridays, where the staff began a relaxed bout of searching, hunting out the stories that would break next week. Mondays would start with a meeting, separating out what Material World would feature, what Science In Action could cover, how The Life Scientific was progressing, and what packages people were working on. The rest of the week was spent editing down pre-recorded packages, finding studios to hire-out all over the world, pre-interviewing guests down the line at very strange times and writing scripts for presenters. All the time the red-light deadline was drawing closer and closer until, with 4 minutes before Quentin Cooper began reading into the microphone, we were still hunting down samples from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to illustrate a story on exoplanets. No wonder The Yorkshire just around the corner was always full at half five on Thursdays.

The Granite City

My time as science correspondent at the British Science Association’s Festival of Science in Aberdeen was an altogether different and eye opening experience, as I saw something of the print media’s inner workings, which my fellow Fellows had been privy to.

This was competitive. There was a wall in the pressroom with cuttings of the festival’s coverage and a calm panic as everyone speedily typed up notes from press conferences to shoot off to their editors. If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed. The festival itself was wonderful, showcasing the very finest science communicators as they effortlessly made the most complicated theories seem straight forward just by using a PowerPoint presentation, a couple of props and a few well timed gags.

But the press conferences always left me cold – most of it just wasn’t news. I’d spent a month and a half chasing embargoed publications, but here were researchers talking about papers that had been released months ago. I felt like a bit of a charlatan when I first tried to sex their work up and soon stopped trying. But all around me journalists were busy writing up everything to see what their editors wanted. I was lucky in that I knew the BBC team would only want up to the minute research and, at the end of the day, my job wasn’t depending on the number of words I could email back to London. I ended up writing only a few pieces (although one of them, “Race to save Alaskan Arctic Archaeology”, I classed as the best short article I wrote), and desperately missed the rush of reading hot of the press research.

What I did find out was the following: a large amount of journalists still use short hand rather than relying on their phone’s ability to record audio, Brain Cox is much taller than you think he’ll be, and within science journalism, there didn’t appear to be any bad blood. Everyone got on famously, no one tried to hustle in on anyone else’s interview time and the whole group of terribly well dressed professionals behaved with remarkable respect towards the scientists giving the press conferences. Of course, this was a very small subset of a large community and I can’t speak more broadly of journalists in general but these were, in all honesty, a lovely bunch.

What did I learn?

How much time do you have? Obviously not any time management skills, as I’m writing this the afternoon it’s due. But here are some things I’ve been mulling over since returning to statistics, references and the constant battle with procrastination.I only played at being reporter for two months, but these were my impressions:

Web 2.0 has allowed everybody to write and (to greater and lesser degrees) have their writings read. Blogs are good. They allow an unfiltered, unedited filtration of ideas to be available to everyone interested in the topic being written about. But they can’t compete with the readership of the big medias. A blog on your research might gain a few thousand hits, but a story on the BBC News website gains hundreds of thousands of hits on the day it goes live. When people pressed me for what I had written about, I was always guaranteed at least one ‘you wrote that’! Even after I returned back to Cambridge, one of my colleagues told me about her mum sending her my piece for Science In Action after hearing it on the BBC World Service in Canada. This might be an obvious point, but by telling a journalist about your work and letting them write about it, your science will reach a lot more people than you could otherwise hope. Unfortunately this means that people with an inclination and the skills enabling them to better advertise their science usually end up having their work known about by more people. It’s on the shoulders of the journalists to make sure that the science is truly news-worthy rather than just being any old research presented by an enthusiastic source.

In terms of being an enthusiastic source, its no good being savvy during over-the-phone interviews but avoiding radio appearances. The medias are integrated. Just last week the new iPlayer app linked radio programmes with other multimedia: film and articles and I came to the BBC at a time when it was undergoing a radical shake up, when Online and Radio were getting used to sitting in the same room with each other. This was leading to greater interplay between the mediums, as I witnessed on my first day at Radio 4 when Material World were keen to schedule an interview with someone I wrote about in one of my last pieces for Online.

That piece was an excellent case study for my next point: that journalists don’t necessarily rely on press releases. My article on mutations in Fukushima butterflies snowballed, being the most read article on the website, spawning tens of blog posts and leading to articles being written in Le Monde, The Guardian, Scientific American, Wired… But none of the authors had contacted any news teams. I just happened to be on Twitter, heard good things about the open source journal Scientific Reports, scanned what was new that day and came across what I thought was incredibly fascinating. I contacted the authors, double checked all the facts, ran it past Paul and, well, boom. There are countless journals out there and it’s difficult to keep on top of them (especially if they’re behind a paywall). Eurekalert only lists the ‘top’ journals, so it’s up to us as tweeters and bloggers to advertise work that otherwise wouldn’t get noticed by the media megaphones. If you have contacts use them! There’s nothing wrong with blowing your own trumpet to alert the public of research that was funded for by them. And you’ll usually find that someone will be interested in writing about it because, unsurprisingly, journalists want to tell the world about you. Although I can only speak for the BBC Online team, they were honestly fascinated by whatever they were covering and they wanted to tell the world about the information they were in the lucky situation of knowing about. Unfortunately this puts them in the firing line. If the audience doesn’t understand why this was newsworthy, usually attacks are aimed at the journalists rather than the scientists that conducted the research. This I experienced first hand when I wrote the Fukushima story. Within minutes I was receiving direct messages from Japanese tweeters bad-mouthing the research. As a biologist who had double-checked the results and talked directly to the authors I knew the research was water-tight, but it was a little unnerving being sent youtube videos labelling me a disseminator of lies.

Yes, journalists can get things wrong and can occasionally write things just to see the reaction (Simon Jenkins, I’m looking at you), but they don’t deserve to be attacked by people who happen to hold personal opinions on facts. Especially when they don’t read the articles correctly, which leads me to my next points: no one ever bothers to read the primary literature, even when it’s open access and clearly hyperlinked to, and no one reads past the second paragraph so there’s no point in placing caveats or specifics in a closing sentence (which is why articles never read like great literature). In fact, I couldn’t get over how many constraints there were when writing: limiting the opening paragraphs so they could fit in a red button synopsis box, having a margin of only 4 characters when writing headlines, separating every sentence with a paragraph, cutting out sentences from an interview because the programme was only 17 minutes long…

Having said this, I managed almost an article a day during my time writing, which seemed downright greedy when I compared it to what the other fellows were getting published in the print media. Online outlets, so long as they are edited correctly, are fantastic sources of information (where did you read the news today?). They can be easily amended should a journalistic error appear, easily bookmarked and there are no limitations on how much can appear on a front page. This is important: there’s no need to pitch lengthy pieces against other journalists’ work because the internet is bottomless. Only a few weeks after I returned to academia The Times shelved its fantastic science supplement magazine which leads me to my next (very personal) conclusion: print newspapers are dead so we better get used to paying to read The Guardian online. As it stands, I’d be happy to do this as I can’t see the coverage of science news on the most popular medium, TV, improving any time soon. Even though the excellent output of Radio 4, The World Service and BBC Online was second-to-none, the screen time dedicated to the Mars probe Curiosity was tiny on television in comparison. Amid the countless documentaries, interviews and discussions I read online and listened to on podcasts, I can only remember once seeing a rather surreal report featuring Pallab Ghosh superimposed on a Martian landscape.

My last notes are for the educators and budding presenters: the grass is always greener on the other side. It’s incredibly important to be able to discuss your science and inspire people but in order to do so on a larger stage than those found in university lecture theatres, you need to know your stuff. The BBC are always after people they can trust to explain things to the world, but in order to do that you also need gravitas.

Brian Cox, Alice Roberts… these were people who stuck with their subjects whilst honing their communication craft in order to educate literally millions of people. Yes, the BBC is an incredible place to work, and I was completely seduced by the experience. But if Brian Cox had joined the BBC after finishing his PhD wanting to make science programmes… where would he be now? Would he have made programmes that have inspired people to study physics? Would he have managed to hold onto a job, clawing after short term contract after short term contract? Possibly, yes he might have done. But in sticking with his subject that he loved so much, he has (probably) done so much more for his science than he could have done by leaving it. This example was given to me by my friend, a producer at Radio 4, and when he was laying this down outside The Yorkshire it took me completely by surprise.

As scientists interested in the media, we can stare into our computers day after day, reading BBC News or watching Horizon thinking how fantastic it would be to make that, to write those words read by millions of people, to speak into a microphone and be heard all around the world. But what my friend taught me that Thursday evening was that, believe it or not, an awful lot of journalists wish that they had our jobs. There’s a reason why they write what they write. It’s because they’re interested in what we do. Perhaps it’s a little strange to consider our jobs as fascinating, but why else do people read BBC News’ Science and Environment pages? Because science matters.

Yes, I utterly loved being a journalist. I loved the instant gratification, the ability to teach the entire world about something I’d learnt and receiving the thanks from the authors I’d contacted. But being a zoologist, working out answers about the world around me no matter how esoteric and inconsequential they might at times seem, being a part of that tower of knowledge that keeps building itself higher and higher, being there so journalists have something to get excited about and want to tell everyone… well, that’s something pretty wonderful too.

My fellowship was organised by the British Science Association and I was able to enjoy this experience thanks to the support of the Deparment of Zoology here in Cambridge and the BBSRC


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