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The science of a good story

Jack Burgess

is a BBC content producer

Over three decades in journalism BBC News science correspondent Pallab Ghosh has witnessed a change in how the media works: “20 years ago there was a lot of kowtowing to what scientists thought,” he told me. “You wouldn’t get that in other areas of journalism. Now we make our own stories more.” 

Science has its own issues as a specialist field in journalism: “Sometimes some scientists may push their own agenda,” Pallab says. “It’s important for journalists to decide their own story.”

To make those judgements, do you need to have studied science? Although Pallab agrees that a scientific background can help science reporters with accuracy and detail, he points out that some of the best science journalists don’t have such a background and bring their own strengths. 

Pallab Ghosh

“It can help to have a sense of detachment and understand things from the public’s point of view.”

Pallab studied physics at Imperial College London, but picked up the skills of working as a journalist through BBC Radio’s international current affairs programmes.

“I started off not in science journalism… my first job on World at One taught me how to be a journalist.”

He has gone on to interview some of the world’s most influential scientific figures, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking and has previously been president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)

Pallab Ghosh interviewing Stephen Hawking

Another change that Pallab has observed throughout his career is an increased demand for reports on the latest scientific research and findings.

“Newsrooms have changed… in the past it was a battle to get stories on the Six O’Clock News or News at Ten. Now it’s easier… attitudes have changed and people really get it.”

“Science is now treated by the media as a grown-up subject. You’re able to do stories in a more mature way.”

Two substantial science stories that Pallab believes gave momentum to this change were Dolly the sheep and the MMR vaccine controversy, which both gained widespread attention towards the end of the ‘90s.

And a recent story that captured the public’s imagination was the discovery of gravitational waves, which created a social media storm in February. 100 years on from the publication of Albert Einstein’s momentous General Theory of Relativity, his prediction that colliding black holes would create ripples in the fabric of space and time was confirmed with their detection. 

Black holes collide

The remarkable triumph of observing such a disturbance 1.3 billion light-years from Earth is highlighted by Einstein’s belief that there was a strong possibility humanity would never be technologically capable of doing so. 

“There was a strong sense of engagement online and on social media. People were astounded by it”, said Pallab.

When speaking to him I thought that, due to the fairly specialist nature of the physics behind the discovery, this might have been a story the public would find difficult to engage with. Pallab argues that the story’s popularity was helped by the media’s use of simple, effective metaphors for explanation.

The use of illustrations, CGI depictions, and graphs to demonstrate the findings in Pallab’s report, for instance, helped to break down the details of the discovery. 

“People were expecting to find it baffling, but actually it’s one of the easiest things to understand. Like dropping a pebble into a pond, the collision created ripples through time and space.”

BBC science journalists have to remain impartial and therefore need to be able to scrutinise information, weigh up other relevant arguments and make reports that give a breadth of view.

This can be a tricky balance in a field where, as the BBC Trust stated in a 2012 report, “coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degrees of prominence such views should be given”. 

Viewpoints that come from a more informed perspective should carry a greater degree of authority and a representative weighting.

In making such judgements Pallab says “an ability to question” helps, allowing journalists to analyse information to a greater extent and “add value to the story”.

Ultimately, Pallab told me, what a successful science journalist definitely needs to have is a real passion for science and the stories they are telling.

“Enjoy it! You’re talking to people who are telling some of the most important stories of our time. Enjoy it and it’ll shine through in your writing.”

“You have to have an affinity with science reporting. If you have an enthusiasm, you’re 80% there.”

 

Reporting science: Professor Colin Blakemore

Scientific data: Dr Karol Sikora