23 September, 2010

On (the) telly

Yesterday I spent mostly trying to stay out of shot, and trying to keep my shadow out of shot, too.

My placement at the BBC has been organised by a presenter who doesn't do much science news, but who's been the contact for a while in organising the BBC placements. In previous years someone was attached directly to TV news and spent about 3 weeks trailing him which though interesting, wasn't massively productive - it just takes so long to learn how to do telly that you can't actually make anything in that time. But watching a couple of interviews in a day is not such a bad idea.

We were seeing two authors for a Meet the Author segment, one at lunchtime and one in the afternoon. Of course we got off to a bad start with traffic, though I have no real idea what London traffic "should" be like to drive in. The cameraman/producer wasn't really sure why I was there, though he seemed impressed and surprised that I would be writing stories that actually get on the website, and that were on non-psychology stories.

Filming was actually pretty efficient, which is really interesting to know - I can imagine it being really tempting to film hours and hours for a 5 minute segment, when really, doing it two or three times and then re-doing the bits you aren't sure about is more efficient - certainly, there will be less editing.

What I really had not realised was how much setup there can possibly be for a filming session. It's not like radio, where the most you have to do is get people to turn off the air conditioning and their mobile phones*. Apart from moving the furniture, the cameras are incredibly heavy, time-consuming to set up, and take up loads of space, and then there are the lights... and like the old-fashioned data projectors, you have to let them cool down before you leave the room. It's been a revelation.

I wasn't much use to the whole enterprise of course, though apparently they had a sound failure recently and the cameraman didn't have his headphones on, so I was In Charge of headphones. And I do have a reasonable memory for conversations, so recapped what exactly had been the questions asked so the interviewer could run them through again. Apparently I should have been given a "real" producer's job and then would have been taking notes on them - which would have been fine - if I get another chance to go out filming, I may see if I can be a bit more useful.

*which I have learned to my cost, though thankfully only on recordings made for note-taking purposes, when I discovered how much interference a phone can cause to a digital recording.

22 September, 2010


I spent last week at the British Science Festival with large numbers of other science journalists, and very interesting it was too. Some of the interesting part was the science, and some was learning about how science journalists think, what gets into the news, and why.

I spent four days there and for most of the first three another BBC person was there. So this should mean we shared the stories and either did half each, or one of us did something for the radio (not me) and one of us for the website (me). In practice this did happen, but then I was left on my own for a day and a half... and got very panicky about what seemed to be an important story.

As it turned out, it was an important story for geeky scientists, and the Guardian covered it in quite a bit of depth on their website, but what happened after the interview was that everyone rang their editors (including me) who told them to ring their health editors (ditto) who said, not a very interesting health story. In fact, the BBC Online health editor gave a different reason to some of the other health editors, but I was a bit relieved to see that none of the other papers covered it, since we weren't!

I tended to be a bit random about which stories I covered, partly because I knew I had some backup, if anything was ultra important I wouldn't get in trouble for not covering it, but also because of course I'm not as attuned or experienced in what makes a good story, what's been covered, what's hot... But there were a few stories that were covered by absolutely everyone else (but not me), or by me (but no-one else). I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it when one story I wrote up for the website was mainly ignored by the other papers, but our radio guy decided to put it on the news. More exciting than everyone else thought, or I was over-hyping it to him?

But one thing that I've experienced this week is having soooo many stories out that older ones begin to fade into insignificance. And it does mean I was less bothered when I found a science blogger criticising one of my stories - not sure if that's why, but it was the most-read Science story for 2 days running, and I don't really mind why people are reading my stories!

09 September, 2010

It's always nice if someone notices

As I said before, quite a few people ended up reading my story about Arabic. Of course that one has my name on it, but today I was at a press launch for the British Science Festival which all the Media Fellows are going to next week, and someone from the British Science Association mentioned a study that looked at what happens when people disagree with scientific findings.

I spotted this study while I was in the Science Radio Unit and researched it, and got the author, and another psychologists looking at attitudes to science, to come on the programme. You can read/listen here. It was actually broadcast after I left the unit so I hadn't put it up here. So it was really nice to know someone had been listening (or, possibly, reading Ben Goldacre's blog, but I like to dream!).

Another story I researched also went out after I left - and in some ways was the most challenging radio story I did. I not only knew nothing about solar cells, but had to look up what a synchrotron was - I researched this one quite early on so it was a rude introduction to "how to use Wikipedia to your advantage". Don't worry, I checked I had all my facts and terms correct with the scientist in question! But perhaps a lesson for the person who wrote the press release? I'm not a physical scientist, but nor are all science journalists, though I am finding that this job makes you incredibly knowledgeable at a surface level about a wide variety of topics. So I now know about theropods, the Cretaceous, the Palaeolithic etc. etc.

08 September, 2010

Carry On And Keep Calm

I used to live and work in London but was never really phased by travel disruptions as I could cycle (or, in fact, walk) to work so if there was a strike I just hopped on my bike. Unfortunately where I'm staying during my placement is a leeetle far from Television Centre, where I'm based at the moment, so I had a slightly lengthy but not too stressful journey to work on Tuesday. I thought it was one of those ironic co-incidences that the strike was on the anniversary of the start of the Blitz.

People were remarkably cool and collected and only a few rude words were heard. My journey home wasn't as easy (although we were going to a friend's house for dinner, the hardest part of it was the bit I would have had to do anyway), and I can see if you don't like London you might find it overwhelming.

Though it's not directly relevant to my placement, I do like London and I'm enjoying working here again - in fact, the two most irritating things about working here are specifically about TVC. One is that it is incredibly easy to get lost here - despite following signs for the Restaurant Building the other day, it took me 10 minutes and a couple of useless changes of floor to get there - it's probably 2 minutes' walk away. The other is the celebrities. How dare they get in the way of our work.

I'd been working on a Health story and wanted to ring up a private clinic to cheekily ask their prices. But outside my office window was, in full flow, the launch of Strictly Come Dancing. Lots of Good Life fans, it seems, as the applause for Felicity Kendal was probably the loudest.

Anyway, although officially I'm on Science and Nature, I think my interests lie a bit closer to Health and I've had one story on how the brain reads Arabic which got a lot of interest over the weekend - and a couple of pretty negative emails! Some were easy to answer but I was told just to ignore one of them... This was a story where I spotted the press release, and checked who else had done it - turns out it was no-one in the UK - before writing the story. It was great then to see that actually I had been right and people did find it interesting.

I had another couple of science stories out last week - and another one this week with some great dinosaur pictures. The hard part about writing that one was struggling to understand the Spanish scientist's English. I don't speak Spanish well enough to talk to someone about their research in Spanish, but at least I had a small clue about some of the things he might be groping for or how a word might be mispronounced.

One of the other Media Fellows told us the other day that she finds one of the hardest things about doing this is talking to people on the phone. I am not particularly phone phobic, but I have in the past tried really hard to make phone calls only in quiet circumstances. I just can't get away with that here. Both here at News Online and at the Science Radio unit the office is highly open plan - our "area" is smaller here but I don't even have a cubicle. I'm getting better at ringing people on the off chance, without having written down every single thing I want to say, and also at not getting a little nervous and forgetting important questions.

Writing this blog, which is one of those things I've been doing in my off moments, waiting for someone to ring me back, waiting for a meeting etc., is a total stream-of-consciousness job. Write, and press "publish" or "save" depending on whether I've run out of things to say or am getting bored or someone calls me. I tend to write my stories quite quickly too but go back and look at them again (you'll be pleased to hear!) but never really do for the blog.

So I was intrigued to see a slightly gimmicky website called "I Write Like". Apparently this blog is like Dan Brown. Urgh! At least my dinosaur story turned out to be like HP Lovecraft. I think that's better!

02 September, 2010

Busy busy

This week I started at News Online in a different BBC building. Apart from the fact that my nice BBC swipe card doesn't seem to work here, and I have to keep getting temporary badges every day, it is going really well.

I sat down at one desk on the first day (it is all rotas and hot-desking here, one part of working life that I'm glad we mainly avoid in academia!) and was immediately handed a story to work on. Then another one. And another one. I also found some pretty pictures (it's nice to use pictures!) and two of my stories went out yesterday. Can you tell I was VERY EXCITED?

Coral reef story

Stone age funeral feast story

These were very much time zone stories - I had to get on to the Australians on the coral reef story immediately before they went to bed (and I ended up begging one for pictures as he was getting home after an evening out) and then wait for the East Coast US researcher to get to work before calling her.

It's a lot more immediate in this part of the BBC, though it's not necessarily a case of getting things out the minute we get a press release - stories can be embargoed for up to a week, giving us plenty of time to call people up. Also, even if we are a little late on a story, if it doesn't get picked up by a lot of other outlets, it doesn't matter if we get it a few days late as we will be first.

And if something is really big news, and then a paper comes out, everyone will remember it. Personally, I am not that bothered by free kicks, but I gather that a lot of people are quite keen on that sport where men run up and down in shorts and try not to touch the ball - so a mathematical formula for a free kick that took place in 1997 is new enough to make the top story as I'm writing this.

I'm just waiting for someone to get off the phone so I can publish two more stories which had an embargo time of 5pm here, however - I finished them about 4.45 but we can't put them out yet then, so sometimes the time is pretty precise.