The other side of the screen
It’s easy for scientists to complain about research being misrepresented in the news, but what happens when you drop a researcher into the crew of the BBC’s Horizon programme? MRC researcher Andrew Holding received a British Science Association Media Fellowship to do just that and tells us about the experience.
I’ll admit that I used to be something of an armchair critic of how science was reported in the media, but after my two-month fellowship experience with the BBC I have nothing but respect for the teams getting science shows onto our screens.
As I waited on an unfamiliar platform at my local train station much earlier than usual on that first morning, London instead of Cambridge-bound, I started to ponder what I was expecting.
I, like the majority of science enthusiasts, have watched a few Horizon episodes over the years, but what happens behind the camera was as much a mystery to me as it was to anyone else. What goes on from that first bright idea to the show making it to people’s televisions?
Several hours later and I’d finally arrived at the BBC Media Centre at White City. Before long I’d been welcomed into the building and provided with a coffee, a collection a newspapers and a laptop to begin the first of many sessions reading the newspapers and looking for new ideas to pass out to BBC Factual.
Along with weekly development meetings, these morning sessions were the only constant in what turned out to be a frenetic mix of heading out on shoots, checking over old recordings to search for past material, prop making, fact checking and researching new ideas. Priorities would change as deadlines approached or a long-booked film shoot interrupted the flow of another project. Changes and script edits happened throughout, with shows finally coming together perhaps just a week before they go out.
The development meetings were time to review the previous week’s show and sound ideas for new commissions. As my placement went on I grasped what made a successful pitch; the show has to provide entertainment and relevance to daily life first. Only then was it the work of the researchers to find the facts behind that story — quite the converse to research, where we have no choice over stories, and it’s the science that guides us.
The thing that struck me most was how the skills needed to work in the media and in science overlap. At many points I found myself scouring through journals to find that all-important reference to support my story the same way I would for a research project.
On returning to the lab, many of my colleagues had questions: what was it like working for the BBC, how do you get to work with the media and, probably the most common, did you meet Brian Cox?
I have to shatter the illusion that those making TV don’t understand the topics. The majority of the Horizon team have science degrees and spend hours trawling through journals and phoning academics. They struggle constantly to keep the scientific integrity without losing the audience. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail, but they do try. And that’s the same skill that researchers who want to work with the media need too.
And for those who must know, yes I did meet Brian Cox. As you can see I have photographic proof.
Andrew is a researcher at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.