Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How journalists work and how to help them make your science into news” (#smp2014 #AdelED @Science_Academy @jamesmassola @lyndalcurtis)

This session was an interactive panel on how journalists turn science into news and I suspect this is going to be nearly impossible to capture live so I’ll summarise key points. The panellists were Kylie Walker (Chair of AAS), Lyndal Curtis (Political Editor, ABC News 24) and James Massola (Political Correspondent, Fairfax).

James started off by giving us an overview of the day in a newsroom. Journos start looking for stories from about 6:30-7:00 and the chief of staff gets their picks for stories by about 8:30-9:00, then the stories start getting pursued. The expectation is that you will put stories in press and on-line spaces as well. (Newspapers have finite space but on-line is infinite) There’s some lobbying to the editor involved as to which stories get up, with political editors, night editors and so on. When James started he wrote about 500-1000 words a day, now he writes 2-4000 words a day – comment and analysis pieces, or later pieces from 4:30pm. (How much am I producing a day is an interesting question!) There’s a 9:30am editorial conference which works out what is happening. Deadlines for most stories is 4:30-5 and for front page is a bit later. With any luck, the front page the next day will hit you with something you don’t already know. The stories for the next day will probably be decided around midday.

Lyndal’s experience was that deadlines are much shorter in her news cycle – she still has two news conferences to work out what is going to be a story. Not all stories get up into every medium. The ABC 24 approach allows for continuous rolling breaking news cycles – such as the Malaysian plane, which caused them to dump everything else they had planned for a slow news day. TV news bulletins are actually quite short so, again, there’s a filtering process. Radio can unwind the story a bit more and evolve it. When people think media, they think the high profile avenues (New bulletins, 7:30 reports) but there’s a lot of space on the local radio, 24 hour channels, which may then be passed on if it’s a sufficiently slow news day.

What makes a story something that will be considered newsworthy? Lyndal answered that it was part of the dark arts of journalism and there’s a list of about 20 things that are given to cadets to explain newsworthiness, including impact of people, proximity, interest to people, timeliness. In the end, it’s a dark art (hint: use a media handler) but the impact and effect on people is probably the most important factor – which explains why medical science has such a high profile in the media.

Kylie talked about her role of marketing as another dark art – the impact and the relevance of the story. Kylie then asked James a question about big science stories but he noted that journalism is driven by conflict and crisis, blood and gore, where science was a more noble pursuit but had stories to tell that were harder to communicate. Interest in science is often driven by criss (nuclear science in the wake of Fukushima). Have a story to tell. Have some good images. It will still be hard to get it into the paper.

There are few shades of grey in this area and the timeframe is not long – which of course works against some complex issues. Changing your delivery mode may get you more time and have enough unfiltered time to talk out the issue. Local radio and talkback is one good way to do this.

Kylie ased about any terrible examples of science insertion. James hasn’t experienced it first hand but he’d held a story at SM previously. A friend was interviewing a scientist who had done early work in matter transportation. The interviewer kept referring to Star Trek (despite the scientists refuting this) and this ended up jammed together with the story. Newspaper stories have 3-500 words and have to be simple enough to read – make sure your message is very, very clear. The question came back to James, from Kylie, as to why fact checking doesn’t involve sending it back to the scientist for checking? Two answers: time  lines for production and avoiding subject censorship (which seemed a little shaky to me).

How can you educate the journalist so the journalist can educate the public?

Consider wargaming the interview before you go in, so that you’re ready for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

The first question was on why there aren’t more features on science in the Australian, given the number of articles on art. There are only three science reporters in Australia, compared with lots of Art reporters. Lots of discussion ensured on advocacy, perceived relevance of science. Bit of a shame to see that the stereotypical scientist is seen to be unpolished, when all of us are here to apply a light buffing of carborundum.



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