Digging complexity: an example

Digging complexity: an example

This is a follow up post after my talk to science students at UBC yesterday. The instructor asked for an example of using my science background to make sense of something complex. My answer on the spot wasn’t great, but a better one came to me as the session ended (isn’t that always the way?). So I thought I’d post it here. I have to stress, a scientific background is not necessary — anyone can ask the same kinds of questions. But, for me, the muscles I exercised in science help. I imagine it would be similar for someone with a background in economics or the law, who can skip a couple of steps en route to finding interesting information in those fields. Meltdown in the media After the earthquake in Japan caused damage to reactors in Fukushima, there were a lot of scary headlines about radiation. I remember waking up to a news that the nuclear fuel rods were “exposed” and in danger of melting down. I was tasked that day with explaining to our audience, an ocean away, what that meant. Step one: what does “exposed” mean? Many of the early reports were not explaining that bit, leaving the audience to wonder whether the nuclear fuel was exposed to the outside world—meaning the reactor was totally compromised. So what was happening? The officials were slow to release information, the aerial shots were not clear, and I had no idea what the inside of a nuclear reactor looked like (despite growing up in nuclear towns). So, I needed the help of people who know about nuclear reactors, would pick...
Is TV News Salvageable? A response.

Is TV News Salvageable? A response.

To be fair, I should have known. Look at the title: “Is TV News Journalism Salvageable?” It presumes a thing broken, that may or may not be rescued from the alley before the garbage truck comes. But, I went, because I find it a luxury to step back from the daily panic of doing, and talk about doing better. Maybe there would be talk instead of sanding and refinishing, or a fresh coat of paint. One new path Kai Nagata was headlining, with a critique of TV news, and why he quit his job when he felt more like part of the problem than the solution. He’s a very engaging speaker, but I bristled when he took some cheap shots, mocking CBC News and CTV’s Investigators (one of whom was in the audience) for having flashy graphics. As I said on Twitter, if you’re going to criticize TV news, don’t start by dogging new investment in enterprise and original storytelling (something CBC is also putting more local resources into). Still, he made solid points analyzing one of his own previous stories, describing how he hadn’t the time or freedom in that job to do the journalism he wanted. So, he’s now sleeping in a tent in his parent’s backyard, working on a solution—networking online and across the country to talk about new models of production and distribution. And let me be clear: I don’t take umbrage with that, or with anyone taking risks to tell stories they care about. Is that it? But the discussion that followed left me disappointed, because it turned so cynical, despite the smart people...
What if the middle man disappeared? (Or picked his battles)

What if the middle man disappeared? (Or picked his battles)

How people get their news is changing, which changes how the news is made. I’m not sure anyone really knows where it’s going (and I’m sure I don’t). But here’s a path I wonder about sometimes, that Darren just reminded me of by mentioning “churnalism” — a derogatory term for practice of rewriting press releases and calling it news. To be clear, I’m not saying I hope this is where we’re heading, I’m musing out loud about something I find partly ominous. I also see it as a possibility if certain existing traits of the current news environment thrive and outcompete others. Follow your own news What if mainstream media organizations gave up on covering anything that came written well in a press release? As in, if there’s enough in the release that “churnalism” could be practiced, it just isn’t. The public would still get the information that’s available from the big institutional sources of news by signing up to those institution’s feeds. Instead of reporters tasked with checking whether there’s anything new from the Delta Police or Vancouver Coastal Health, the people who want to know what those bodies have to say pull the information in themselves. Aggregators would emerge (probably from the news media and elsewhere) to curate feeds for people who aren’t interested in doing that themselves. This is something we already see, a bit. Celebrities talking directly to fans via social media to bypass critical coverage. PR people with more followers than the reporters they pitch. What, role, then, would journalists play? One possible path (and my hope, in this thought-experiment) is that by curbing...
Canada’s beef-is-safe campaign, circa 2003

Canada’s beef-is-safe campaign, circa 2003

The main purpose of this post is to put up a neat graph from my Masters thesis project seven years ago, mostly because I want to refer to it elsewhere. Please read on for the backstory, or if you are interested in political rhetoric about science (or to see a pic of Jean Chretien gnawing on beef). My thesis was on risk communication, using mad cow disease as a case study. I looked at the language and sources used in news articles to discuss the safety of Canadian beef after Canada’s first mad cow was found in May 2003. I remember that day vividly. It was my first summer at CBC, and I was interning at Quirks & Quarks in Toronto. As soon as the news broke across the wires, producers from The Current in the next room were buzzing about what to put on tomorrow’s show. Quirks, a weekly show, was deciding what people would want to know by Saturday about it. As It Happens was also chasing experts on the topic. The name on everyone’s lips was Dr. Neil Cashman, a Canadian neuroscientist who specializes in prion diseases, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. As the summer progressed, BSE remained a major national story, mostly because the U.S. had banned Canadian beef, leaving cattle producers without a major source of income. There was a huge SARS benefit concert in Toronto that summer, but I remember dubbing it “Beef-stock” because of the amount of Canadian beef promotion, including a city block-long aisle of BBQ. I wrote about it at the time: Veteran comedians...
First author, no comment

First author, no comment

Q: When is the lead author of a paper published in Science not allowed to comment on the subject? A: When she works for Canada’s federal government. In this case, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). It is not a new phenomenon that Canada’s federal scientists are prevented from talking about their taxpayer-funded work. Margaret Munro, the science reporter for Postmedia News, wrote a news story last year that pushed this practice into the public eye, prompting coverage by other media outlets (including the CBC), and an opinion piece in the journal Nature calling for change. From Munro’s story: The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply to not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago. But, even if it’s not new, I still think its worth noting when it happens. In this case, the scientist was the first author of study on Fraser River sockeye that provides a new piece to the puzzle of their declining numbers. (CBC story.) Researchers took tissue samples from migrating sockeye salmon, and tagged the fish to see which ones survived to spawn. They found a pattern. The ones with a certain set of active genes were more likely to die before the spawning grounds. The researchers said it looked like the genes were responding to a viral infection — as in the fish that were dying had caught a virus out at sea. The journal’s embargoed release sent to media around the world told reporters to contact DFO communications to reach the lead and...
An alternate taxonomy of the interview

An alternate taxonomy of the interview

I recently participated in a workshop for scientists about talking to the media, led by Nancy Baron, who has written a smart book on the subject. It got me thinking about how mysterious the media can be for people who haven’t interacted with us much. One thing we don’t always make clear to people is just what kind of interview we’re asking for. Which can make a difference in how someone will prepare, and what they can expect to come of it. The most obvious taxonomy of an interview is by media line: print, radio, TV. And that has merit. It can help you decide, for example, whether to put on a tie, or brush your hair. It will also determine whether an interview over the phone might be enough (print, radio) or likely won’t be (TV). But, here’s another way of looking at it. Conversation vs. quote After the split between print and broadcast, I think the next most important difference is not between TV and radio, but between two types of broadcast interviews: the conversation vs. the quote. [Note, these are my labels, not standard industry labels. They’re both called interviews, but I’m trying to make a distinction.] The biggest difference for the interviewee is how quickly and clearly they need to make their point(s). Conversation In the conversation, where the interview airs as an interview (either live, live-to-tape, or edited down) people will hear more of what you have to say. A typical current-affairs interview one of CBC Radio’s local shows (e.g. The Early Edition) is 5 minutes. So, there is room for a (short) anecdote,...