Monday, September 22, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - final week

Last week I learnt that it is very difficult to get a science story in the papers, particularly in the FT, when western capitalism as we know it is in meltdown.

It's a shame, cause I had a really nice piece on some solar paving slabs ready to go. Heigh ho.

I did get 800 words on hydrogen in an energy supplement and Clive let me have the weekly science briefing again.

Everybody else, on the other hand, has been incredibly busy. The buzz here last week was amazing - I heard so many snatches of conversation on stairwells and in the canteen that only made it into the news hours or even days later. It felt like being very close to the coal face.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What Reiss said

A separate post on this as the pillorying of self described "evangelist for evolution" Professor Michael Reiss seems to have made it out as far as the USA.

He did not say creationism should be "taught" in any sense. He said that biology teachers should be better able to deal with it when pupils (almost inevitably) raise it as the world view that their parents have instilled in them.

I was in the telephone press conference on the night before Reiss's talk. I didn't see the debate and I didn't join the face to face briefing he had. However, from my recollection of the telephone briefing (which I didn't tape or take notes on, unfortunately) he made it quite clear that he isn't advocating the teaching of creationism in the sense of "Suggesting that non-science/anti-science concepts should be specified as a course objective in science classes."

He stressed in the press conference that he's coming from this from the point of view of an ex biology teacher and, he stressed, definitely not a creationist.

Teachers have very little time to devote to the teaching of evolution, thanks to the nature of the UK science curriculum. Often, when that lesson is reached, biologists find themselves not teaching biology so much as engaging in theological wranglings with students that hold creationist views.

As Reiss said in his briefing notes: "The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one... A student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught."

He made it very clear that he is advocating that teachers should not feel the need to to "correct" the views of children who, for many and complex reasons,are not about to give up this world view as a result of a 50 minute lesson. Rather the teachers should use the time more usefully to make sure that the students get a real understanding of what the theory of evolution is.

He went on to say: "depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body... if questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works."

Prof. Reiss was simply saying that it would be helpful if biology teachers had a better answer than "No - you're wrong" when children raise creationism. Compare the FT article, with the Guardian one. Heck, even with that little word "about" the Daily Mail has managed a more accurate take on Prof. Reiss's position. The Telegraph article also sounds like it came from the same press conference I attended, even if the headline doesn't.

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.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Auntie Em goes to Liverpool

Press room - BA Festival of Science, Liverpool. Tuesday PM

To say that I'm finding it hectic here would be like saying that the Titanic found icebergs a little inconvenient. Each day begins (painfully early) with a series of press briefings. Each afternoon is spent writing these up to file by 3p.m. The rest of the afternoon is spent preparing for the next day's briefings. The evenings are spent at receptions with open bars. Tonight I dine courtesy of the Diamond Light Source.

The deadlines are even shorter than back in the office, and every day so far has seen me have two pieces on the go. I've started to slip back into academese once or twice, because (ironically) I'm just not getting the time to read newspapers. I read Clive's article from yesterday to remind myself what I aspire to.

I schedule a one-to-one with the president of the Royal Statistical Society this afternoon. He is generous with his time, with a presentation a matter of an hour or so away. The meeting isn't until 2 and I have to file at 3 so the article is 80% written with some spaces for quotes. Clive suggests some extra things to find out and away I go to my first interview.


I can hear the click striking for the end of another day. The rain keeps falling - the Atlantic ocean is trying to claim Liverpool from above. The press officers order taxis to take us to tonights drinks. When, in academia, would such frivolity be allowed, for the sake of an adverse climate? I could get used to this.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate (End of week one)

10a.m., Science Media Centre, Albermarle St

I'm attending a briefing on organ donation. A group of experts believes that the plans to change to an "opt out" law are based faulty reasoning as well as being ethically questionable. I go along a sceptic and come away with serious food for thought. I listen and learn as the experienced reporters lob questions at the end.


Afternoon, FT Headquarters

Back at the office I try to pitch the transplant story to the UK news editor as a long-ish policy piece but space is, as ever, short and there is nothing that makes the story particularly timely so I'm given 400 words to get the main ideas across. I run to 800 and have to cut back significantly. With Clive's help I end up filing 590 words - 190 words over my brief. It's the first time I've overfiled. Is this end-of-the-week lack of discipline or a measure of how strongly the arguments have shaken my view. Either way it's not my decision, it's the editors and it's my job to write to the brief, not to what I wish the brief was.

I pick up a copy of the UK edition in order to clip my science briefing. A weekly column of about 500 words, and Clive has let me write it myself (with his good guidance). It pales into insignificance next to his piece on the LHC. I'm a long way from writing as cogently.

Clive helps me file three stories for Monday - one UK science, one world science and the transplant piece. I'm not sure which, if any, will make it but watching Clive make deft changes is an education in itself. I learn how to cut an ugly sentence full of numbers, and how to make the introductory sentence pithier. I wish I could bottle what I'm learning now.


Amano Cafe 4.30p.m.

With everything filed I leave the office to read some briefings for the next week. I've also had an offer for a story that Clive is interested in. I ring my source and clarify the scheduling. I advise him not to launch anything next week as a) most of the science journalists will be in Liverpool for the BA science festival and b) both the LHC and GOCE are launching on Wednesday next week.

I share what I know about the rhythms of science news: like the days on of the week which the major journals' embargoes expire and the days that are easier to fill. It feels strange to be giving advice to someone who in every other respect is more intelligent, more experienced and much more knowledgeable than I am. It's nice to share.

Tomorrow I head for Liverpool for a week of festival goodness.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - part four

Wednesday, 9a.m., Amano Cafe, London Bridge

David and I check the paper over breakfast in a cafe. It's there, my first piece in print. It's a nice feeling, seeing it in black and pink. I let Nigel at the BA know that the last of his media fellows for this year has finally got her wings.


Wednesday, FT Headquarters

I finish the Friday briefing, having chosen, with Clive's guidance, three stories that I think go well together: one serious and worthy, one serious and "wow"-y and one fluffy (or feathery) animal story. I decide to leave it until tomorrow to submit just in case something even more interesting comes up.

Clive submits my long piece for the upcoming special supplement - it was the first piece I started writing, way back on Monday. It seems a lifetime ago now. The piece goes off before I can tinker any more.

I see a piece on the wires that looks very FT. It's international, so would have to be pitched to the world editor. And it's coming out on Monday, which means it will be jostling for space with pieces from the BA Festival. I decide to do 350 words on spec and see how it goes.

In the afternoon, Clive introduces me to Jan Dalley, the arts editor. He leaves me to pitch an arts piece that I really want to write. I have prepared well for this, but I'm surprised at the conviction with which I speak - anyone would think I knew what I was doing. Jan agrees to the piece and finds me some potential space in a Saturday edition coming up. I allow myself a discrete fist pump on the stairs and hope that no-one saw my Tim Henman impression.

The afternoon is spent finishing a piece on some lovely research that has reconstructed the sound of an epigonion, an ancient Greek instrument, lost since antiquity. I listen to the recordings of it playing Dufay and Monteverdi while I write the piece. It's an amazing feeling, hearing something very few people alive have yet to hear.

I file the epigonion piece, tinker some more with Friday's briefing and leave at a very civilised time.


Thursday, 9.30 am, Bakerloo line. En route to the BA Festival Press Launch

I set out in very good time, having seen that my epigonion piece has made it online at least. Things go downhill from there. The homing pigeon takes over and I leave the Bakerloo line two stops early, as if I were going to my real job. I have to wait five minutes for another Bakerloo line. When I get to South Kensington station I find that the same homing pigeon instinct has deserted me. I now can't find the Dana centre. I realise I'm at the wrong end of the wrong street when I reach the V&A. When I arrive Sir David King, the president of the BA, has already begun his briefing. A bad start.

The press conference is very interesting but I find myself wanting to ask research related questions rather than interesting news questions. It's hard to switch off that way of thinking. We pick up A4 sheets describing all the events for the coming week. They fill a carrier bag.


A taxi-ride later

Back at the office, Clive helps me sell my on-spec piece to the world editor who is working Sunday for Monday. I have an extra 100 words to play with. We also discuss the pieces that will be written for the UK pages from the festival press conferences today. I'm given 400 words, and a specific angle that's of interest to the FT readership, for that.

I file Friday's briefing, nothing will come up that I could add in time now. I finish my extra 100 words for the world story and start jotting the outline for my 400 words. It's time for lunch.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - part three

Day 2: The Financial Times headquarters. 10a.m. - editorial meeting, in which we learn about the HST.

The morning editorial meeting: Lionel Barber goes through the previous day's paper with the editorial staff, discussion what worked, what didn't and what there should have been more of. I learnt that stories which pass the HST[1] should definitely be in the paper. I also learnt that there is a very long list of FT offices around the world that can be reached via video-conference equipment built into the conference table that looks like the bridge of a very stylish Starship Enterprise.

I was given a tour of the building by Patrice, one of the editorial assistants. The operation is much larger than I'd expected, with staff to fill the UK, online, USA, Europe, Asia, Middle East, Weekend and special editions.


11.30a.m. Birds do it, Bees do it, Traders on the LSE do it.

Clive has my first assignment for the daily edition. It's about a study on that most fundamental preoccupation: sex. I email my go-to sex researcher for a quote, along with the author of a related study from earlier last year. I get excellent quotes from both of them.

Getting quotes from the author of the study, on the other hand, is more difficult. He's out of the office and has apparently got the impression that neither he nor his co-authors can speak to anyone (including journalists) until the embargo. Unfortunately there's more information I need before I can write the story: a graph appears to be mis-described in the uncorrected proof of the paper I've been given and I want to check that the problem is just with the label and not the data.

I call the media relations person at the journal who is helpfulness personified. I mention the difficulty I'm having getting the information that I need and she tells me she will contact the author directly and get back to me. I get the impression that this is not the first time she's had this conversation.


3.30p.m. Filing time

I've finished the piece, working on the assumption that it is only the label that is wrong. Clive shows me how to submit via the Méthode system. I watch as it disappears from my folder and lands in the UK News feed. A few minutes later I see the UK News editor open it and start making some changes.

Moments later still an email arrives from the author of the study, confirming that the mistake is in the label and thanking me for finding it before the article is released. I'm happy to have helped, and even happier that the article says what I thought it said. My article is safely put to bed.


4p.m. - Ooops

I breathe too soon. One of my sources asks me to change their affiliation. I have to ring the news editor to see if the changes can be made. Another lesson learnt - changes are much easier to make before you file!


6.45p.m - getting the jump on tomorrow

I start looking for stories for Friday's science briefing. I find some stories about the other kind of birds and bees. They might get nudged aside by weightier pieces on cancer or the brain though. I intermittently check Méthode to see if my piece has been spiked but there is no news by the time I leave. I'll have to wait until the morning to see if the piece made it.

[1] HST - the "Holy Shit" Test. Such as Abu Dhabi consortium buys Manchester City? Holy Shit!"

Monday, September 01, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate (Part Two)

Day 1: FT Head Office, One Southwark Bridge. 11am.
I arrive early. It's a mark of my nerves that I arrive a almost 15 minutes early, despite the fact I live only ten minutes away. I go in and sequester myself in the bathroom (thank goodness for sympathetic receptionists) until it's time to meet my editor.

Clive Cookson immediately puts me at my ease. A desk is waiting for me, a password has been set up. I have my own FT email address and access to the Méthode news management system.

I already have an article to write: 800 words for a supplement coming out soon. I'd say more, but I've just met this beast called the embargo and I'm seeing its footprints everywhere. I'm not saying anything about anything that's not in print yet, just in case.

The FT Canteen, around noon
Clive makes introductions and I tout myself around for any more writing that might usefully be done by me. I'm invited for coffee with Clive and Andrew (the other science reporter - there were three, but science coverage is being squeezed everywhere). Andrew is just back from his holidays and an AIDS conference. Hearing Clive fill him in on what he's missed is very useful for me - I get a recap of a month's events at the FT.

I still have the first day at school feeling and, as we leave, I glance around the panoramic windows of the canteen to try to spot my flat. There's no place like home, there's no place like home. I feel very disorientated as we descend to the section marked "specialist writers"


One Southwark Bridge. Early afternoon.
Earlier, Clive handed me a folder of material he has compiled over the last eight years or so on the topic of my first piece. It's extremely useful, though I'm glad I'd already done my prep. by reading up on the subject this weekend. It helps me make short work of the reading and by lunchtime I have a stack of useful notes and an outline. Questions are sliced into two categories by the invisible blade of a deadline - on the one side, the questions I can find an answer for quickly, and on the other, the questions I'll ignore.

At lunchtime Clive shows me how to find the door nearest to Borough Market. It's nice to be on familiar ground, though I'm further disoriented to find that the entrance to one of the world's best known financial newspapers is through what appears to be a cul de sac of late 20th century low rise flats. Finding my way back on my own I was sure I'd made a mistake and was about to claim asylum in someone's living room when I found my temporary home again.

The afternoon's rhythm is broken by a power surge which knocks out everyone's computer but mine (beginners luck) and a fire alarm (caused by the initial surge). On my return I find that I don't like what I've written and begin again.

By late afternoon I have 750 words, but I'm not sure how many are any good. Clive reads it through and points out several places where my writing is stilted, overly pedantic or just reads too much like a journal paper. He likes the overall structure though. The two parts I liked least are the two parts Clive likes least too (to the extent of showing me how to temporarily erase chunks by using the software to strike them out). With about 50 words to play with and a much clearer sense of what I should be doing I spend the next hour and a half finessing what I've written.

Bincho Yakitori, Oxo Tower, 7pm
I meet David for a celebratory dinner. The strangest thing is that, in retrospect, doesn't seem strange at all. It has been a total immersion baptism. Clive's willingness to put a piece entuirely in my hands and let me run with it simultaneously humbling and confidence building. I've met previous fellows that have worked for Clive and they both said they'd had the same great experience.

I feel incredibly lucky: not all of my other fellows have had the same opportunities in their placements. Some are in broadcast outlets and have had to spend much of their time learning how to use the equipment; some are in weekly outlets; some are in print outlets that have too many science correspondents fighting for too little space on the page. I am incredibly lucky, not only to have this fellowship but also to be placed at the FT.