A top programme – Media7’s Spotlight

By Anna Sandiford 19/08/2010

I’m not a climate scientist and I don’t pretend to be. Although I’m a forensic scientist, I know a surprising amount about climate change in New Zealand over the last one million years and how volcanic eruptions from various different volcanic centres might affect a large urban area like Auckland (that was my PhD subject). That sort of relates to the climate debate, but it’s not something I feel qualified to discuss properly. However, I was still very interested in last night’s filming of Media7’s Spotlight on Science and Technology where consideration was given to the Climategate debate and how the media went about reporting it.

Science communication is a new field, certainly to me, and it was interesting to hear the takes that people had on the issue, both as scientists and journalists. Peter Griffin of the Science Media Centre (SMC) did a splendid job of discussing how the SMC managed the debate and how it unfolded in the press. As an observer of media stories, I often wonder what it’s like to be there when something significant starts to kick off and Peter provided an insight into that – which, just as with most important things in life, didn’t happen to occur at a civilised time like in the middle of a working day.

I was also really pleased to hear from Rebecca McLeod about how she has found the transition from being a traditional scientist to a science communicator through her blog, Science-Life. Forensic science is a very reserved occupation where people are not encouraged to have personalities on the main stage, i.e. in a court room. Traditional science also suffers from a similar stigma. It was therefore great to hear that Rebecca has found the freedom that science blogging can provide and seems to feel just a little bit liberated by it. I know I do. Having the courage to express an opinion that is not totally confined to theories, data and research is scary but once you get used to it, it’s a hard thing to move away from it.

The other thing I noted about the Media7 programme was a segment they showed about how to tell whether a story in the media actually has any credibility – basically, whether the scientist in the story is credible and whether the journalist has made the effort to check the facts and then report them accurately. I know from my casework experience that some reporting needs to be taken with a bucket of salt but the criteria presented on the programme are applicable not just to assessing the validity of science reporting but also to any area of science where an opinion is being presented. In fact, is the term ‘story’ even appropriate? A story implies something made-up or fictional whereas the aim of science research is presentation of facts and logical interpretation of those facts.

I don’t if anyone remembers a programme called Tomorrow’s World – I am assured that it was shown in NZ but it was a BBC science and technology programme. One thing I liked about the Media7 programme was actually seeing some of the scientific creations that could be making real differences to peoples lives in the near future: a robot to assist the elderly and a cable that can be used to download software via transistor radio – these kinds of demonstrations reminded me of Tomorrow’s World and the impact that the programme had on the general public; it was a chance to see new scientific advancements in the comfort of their own homes. I think we need more of that kind of thing.

Apart from the actual programme content, the experience of being present at a TV filming was also very interesting. Being of shorter stature (which I am not) is a definite plus as an audience member because of how low the camera boom swings as it pans around (or maybe they were just trying to freak out some of the members of the audience). Also, I recommend that anyone who attends as an audience member should make sure they have well-toned forearms because having to clap on demand for long periods (it was minutes and minutes…) makes one’s arms ache.