The Science of News

Joint Meeting of British Association for the Advancement of Science &BRLSI

Jules Hyam, Creative Director, Einstein TV & Independent TV Producer

25 November 2003

A news story involving science on TV or radio has to be told in a very short time – ‘one minute thirty’ (1½ minutes) is typical. It also has to have general appeal so the usual format emphasises the people and events rather than exploring the science.

Seven selected summaries of press releases from a list of 62 in an email distributed to journalists by Alpha Galileo on 14 November were displayed and the audience invited to decide which one to put on a TV news broadcast.

The subjects were:

A potential cure for paralysis reported from Brazil
Mar Express arriving on Mars for Christmas
A Russian pain relief process that did not involve drugs
Some research connecting obesity and diabetes
How strategic research planning could increase UK prosperity
The rise in allergic diseases
The choice of mattress for relief of back pain
Five of them were proposed by various members and debated. Some were rejected as unfinished research; others as too complicated to abbreviate; others because no pictures were available. The final choice was the last – a letter from specialists to a paper saying a hard mattress is not the best choice for sufferers of Low Back Pain, a medium hardness is better.

Recent stories that have appeared all had pictures and were about policy and effects rather than explaining the science. An extract from a recent bulletin on BBC1 o’clock news was an example. A letter from specialists to a paper advocated banning smoking in public places because of the effects on other people (passive smoking). The reporter visited a café and gathered opinions from smokers and the owner but there was no information about the scientific results on which the letter was based.

Other examples were given:

two machines for DNA testing for children’s diseases were to be named by children, but it was not explained what their advantages or purpose were

the use of bright light to destroy a cancerous tumour in the oesophagus of a patient showed the procedure and mentioned that it had to be carefully targeted but said nothing about the side effects on healthy tissue and the risks.

It was emphasised how much effort it took to produce ‘one minute thirty’ of TV and how limited was the time available.

The discussion was general throughout the talk but points that were made included:

that science can indeed be dealt with in depth in other programmes but news programmes get the largest audiences.
that the BBC has only four science journalists so the subjects covered in the news frequently rely on mid-week press releases by the New Scientist magazine or Alpha Galileo.
that programmes consist of many snapshots lacking detail because the producers believe their audience have a very limited attention span. Evidence that this is the case is not available and it may be a false assumption
EinsteinTV try to make science ‘fun’ in longer programmes. They do few news items. A part of one of their programmes on the tenth planet of the Sun and the asteroid belt was shown. It was a succession of very short (2-6 second?) shots interspersed with ‘talking head’ pictures taken at unusual angles (e.g. rom floor level).
many science programmes repeat two minutes of science several times over to fill a 50 minute slot. This may be a good technique for a general audience.
putting substantial science programmes like Horizon on at peak times gets larger audiences of ‘high class’ (ABC1) viewers, although some people change channels to avoid them.
Commissioning Editors follow fashions: History at present, will it be Art next following the Channel Five success with art subjects?
Donald Lovell