Reflections on my fellowship at the BBC

I started doing “external engagement work” as a postdoc, when I set up a blog to cover the 2012 elections in Taiwan (an experience I wrote about for Issues and Studies). As a result of this experience I started to receive periodic requests for media interviews. I continued to develop my online footprint through Twitter, editing the China Policy Institute blog (which subsequently evolved into a more sophisticated product featuring analysis by some of the world’s top experts) and convening another Taiwan blog to cover the 2016 elections.

Over time the more media I did the more opportunities presented themselves, both in terms of being asked for comment and writing op-eds. I came to see engaging the media as an important part of academic life. Academics create knowledge, but then share it with a tiny number of peers at conferences and in pay-walled journals. That strikes me as a terrible result all round. In the hope of stimulating discussion about external engagement in my own field of China studies, I published two articles in the China Quarterly on working with the media and using social media (forthcoming working paper version).

Through these activities in the past 5 years I developed an understanding of how print and digital media work, at least from the perspective of an academic seeking to engage in these activities. However, I had very little exposure to working with broadcast media, which is why I applied to the British Science Association (BSA) for a Media Fellowship. Thanks to support from the BSA and the University of Nottingham, I secured a placement working with the BBC for a month during the summer. My placement was with the BBC radio science unit, headed by Deborah Cohen, a journalist with a commitment to breaking down barriers between scholars and the media to the benefit of science communication at large.

I relocated to London, staying in University of London halls near Russell Square, and psyched myself up to “do journalism”. I had been forewarned that this would not be like GSCE work experience where you tail employees around and make the tea. Instead it would entail working as a “real journalist” from day one. So it was a bit embarrassing on my first morning on the job, when my mentor, Science in Action producer Fiona Roberts, asked me what I knew about the Radio Science team’s programmes. As a non-hard-scientist who listens to Radio 3 and never reads anything more “scientific” than Wired, I had intended to spend the early summer boning up on the BBC’s science offering. But summer school teaching and fieldwork in China intervened and I had no option but to plead ignorance. My initiation into radio journalism thus started on an ignominious note. Fortunately, Fiona and the entire science team were exceptionally patient with me. In fact, I would say it is one of the most supportive, team-first environments I have experienced.

The BBC radio science unit is responsible for a number of shows on the World Service and Radio 4. I worked mainly on Science in Action, a magazine show broadcast on the World Service. The team also produces Health Check, the technology show Click, Inside Science, the documentary series Discovery and the weekly compilation Science Hour. Shows have their own producers, but everyone seemed to take a turn covering for others. Presenters also mucked in across a range of shows, and the Web editor and Science correspondent were also drafted in. The basic production and presenting skills are the same across shows, but you need to be flexible enough to move between health, tech and science. This was something of a revelation to me: “we’d” move from discussing quantum physics to seismology to ecology without thinking anything of it.

Most of the team had a science background, with first or advanced degrees. They were all very informed, with a huge knowledge of the scientific “scene”. They also had a “nose for a story”, which I struggled with. While I was still struggling to make sense of a paper, my colleagues were already mapping out what was needed for a piece to come together. The work flow and routines for each show are set by the broadcast schedule. Science in Action goes out every Thursday evening at 9:30, and everything in the week was dictated by that. Or rather, everything was built toward the deadline for the show to be recorded, sound engineered, deposited in the system, the meta data written up and signed off for broadcast. For a regular pre-recorded show, this should all be done by about 5 pm on Thursday.

On Monday and Tuesday we would identify stories, set up interviews and discuss how to compose the show. By Wednesday night you’d hope to have the interviews recorded and edited, feature packages ready to go and scripts written. On Thursday, a stressful day, we would record the conversational elements of the show, edit all the pieces and stitch them together before working with the sound engineer. We then listened to the entire show to make sure it was ok. Thursday 5pm was a happy time knowing that the show was in the can and Friday would be a day for horizon scanning with no immediate worries (unless an assignment for another show came up).

The content for Science in Action came from a few major sources, including breaking news stories, journal publications and mini-documentary pieces in the field commissioned from correspondents or freelancers. The bread and butter is newly published research, predominantly in Nature and Science, to which journalists have advance access under embargo. If you’re doing a story based on an academic article you need to identify people to come on and talk about the story, usually the authors, but maybe other scientists who have previously published seminal work in the field or whose theories are being challenged. Outside of the team’s formidable knowledge of the ‘scene’, it is an inexact science based on networks, search engine serendipity and who you can get hold of.

Once you identify and connect with potential guests, you have to call them to see how well they speak. If they’re nervous or unintelligible on the phone the chances are they won’t improve when speaking into a microphone or on camera. You need them to tell the story to you in their own words, and they have to be clear and concise. If they pass this test, you have to book an ISDN studio, or another means like skype or telephone. This kind of ‘fixing’ is a major part of the job. While you’re waiting to record the interview you need to draw up your questions, and/or background and questions for the presenter depending on who is doing the interview. As a journalist you can steer the conversation (you want them to depict the salient issues in their own words) but you can’t ask leading questions. You tell people that everything is being recorded and is on the record. Journalists keep notes or recordings, but won’t ask interview subjects to sign off on the used material. There is an element of trust required, but asking BBC colleagues about this I was told that journalists would never put words in people’s mouths or wilfully seek to misinterpret or misquote. I believe them. The academics and scientists I worked with were very happy with the experience.

Once you’ve recorded your interview you need to cut it into clips and then stitch them together using editing software. A segment may be 5 minutes or more, so each show requires multiple segments. These need to be stitched together, with the presenter joining everything together. Everyone on the show is involved in drafting the script for the presenter. In my ignorance I imagined presenters (who sound so natural) were ad-libbing. But with the length of the show timed to the second, scripting is necessary to establish that control. The skill of the presenters, in my case Marnie Chesterton, is that they sound absolutely natural even when working from a script. The different components of the show are recorded at different times. So you might go into the studio to record a conversational element one day and the presenter’s “nuts and bolts” (tops, segues and billboards) another. All the audio files are stored in a shared repository and when the producer has put it together the whole package is sent to a sound engineer to make sure everything hangs together, is audible and clear and exactly the right length, to the second.

I also spent time working on the BBC website, under the tutelage of Jonathan Webb, generating stories from recently published research. Regular news stories are about 600 words, with longer features coming in at anything form 1000-1500 words. The turnaround for news stories can be a few hours, during which time you need to make sense of a paper, get quotes from the author and write it up in the “newsy” style, something I had difficulty with. The BBC website has very specific requirements, e.g. the number of words you can use for the short title, long title and the crucial opening four lines. I tried my hand at writing news stories, e.g. on the fight against rabies in China and the safety of older drivers, and was able to publish two long features on the ecology of Trump’s hypothetical wall and the use of analytics in football. I also had the experience of “reporting from the field”, spending a week attending press conferences and talks at the British Science Festival. It is a writing style that is much harder than it appears. When you take away the academic jargon crutch and don’t have complicated sentence structures and long words to hide behind, it really tests your ability to digest and communicate a scientific study in an area where you are probably not an expert. I marvelled at my web colleagues’ ability to identify the crux of a story and write it up in simple straightforward language (and to do it in a quarter of the time it took me).

I learned a few things about what scholars need to do to work more effectively with the media. First, you have to be easy to locate and available. Because of the tight timeframe journalists work with, if you don’t return calls or emails they will quickly move on. An easily accessible homepage setting out areas of expertise and providing ungated publications really increases the chances of being asked. Second, it is imperative to communicate in clear, concise and jargon-free terms. You have to master your material and be able to explain your paper in a few sentences-you might do a 20-minute interview but only a minute might be used. In recorded interviews you can correct yourself or ask to go back and make a point again; a luxury you don’t have when doing it live. Don’t be upset if you give an interview that doesn’t make it to air, or contribute to a story that is canned, that’s just the way it goes. You can prepare succinct answers to questions you can predict will come up (who/what/why/when and the implications), and try to imagine yourself having a conversation with the presenter, rather than talking to a microphone or the camera. I found that smiling and making hand gestures helped me to speak more naturally. Prepare a quiet environment with no atmospheric noise or outside interruptions and if you really don’t know the answer to a question, say so rather than trying to concoct an answer on the spot. Third, understand that the interviewer wants you to do well, because if you perform poorly they look bad too. No one is out to get you or make you look foolish. And finally, as I found to my cost, if you’re going to be speaking into a microphone avoid fizzy drinks immediately beforehand.

The Media Fellowship has given me a new appreciation for what journalists do, and a better understanding of how academics can work with them. More than ever I am convinced that academics and journalists need each other and despite our different dialects and time horizons, share the goal of creating and disseminating knowledge. I would like to thank the BSA and the Fellowship sponsors who made it possible, and the University of Nottingham for supporting me. Amelia Perry and the BSA team were unceasingly enthusiastic and highly competent administrators. Deborah Cohen and the science team welcomed and encouraged me in a way that I am very grateful for. Fiona Roberts and Science in Action presenter Marnie Chesterton indulged me with patience that I probably couldn’t muster myself. Jonathan Webb and Paul Rincon on the web team were fantastically supportive and turned my drivel into passable copy. Based on my experience, I would say that for any academics considering working with the media, the BSA Media Fellowship is a very worthwhile investment of your time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.