Monday, September 15, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - week two round up

Last week went by incredibly quickly, with days starting early and the nights going on until late. Here are a few of my things I learnt:

The press briefings varied dramatically along two axes: the novel vs. the not so novel science; and the articulate vs. the not so articulate scientists. The nadir probably came at the briefing in which one of the speakers took a journalist to task for using the word “level” in the way that 99% of the population would understand it, rather than in the more technical way that the speaker would use it. The journalists may not be subject experts but they are experts in communicating with that 99% of the population that you will never reach.

The journalists from all the major news outlets were sharing the press room and the buzz was fantastic. I’m struck by the high levels of knowledge and intelligence on display from each of the news outlets. If you gave me a transcript of the questions asked by the journalists from all the major newspapers (plus the BBC) I wouldn’t be able to tell you which journo asked which question. It’s only when you get back in the press room that the differences between the outlets becomes apparent. I heard one writer, from a paper that will remain nameless, saying “can you get me a picture of a crying child.” There’s an outside chance he was kidding.

The differences are sometimes “non-trivial”. As with the two very different ways that the words of Michael Reiss were reported:

Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.


Teachers should be open to discussing creationism in biology lessons.

I missed the debate but was lucky enough to be in on the telephone press conference (which I'm pretty sure Randerson missed) in which Prof. Reiss gave his views. He was quite deliberately refusing to use the word “teach.” So whilst the second opener lacks some of the punch of the first, it hasn’t caused a (largely undeserved) shit storm.

Most of the journalists are incredibly generous. In such a competitive (and shrinking) sector as science journalism, I didn’t expect to find so many people prepared to share their advice and experience.

You can’t live on free canap├ęs.

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