Going on camera? My first piece of advice

Going on camera? My first piece of advice

People get nervous about being interviewed on camera — even those who perform all the time in lecture halls or meeting rooms. I get this, because it’s different and, I’d argue, harder. Because you’re trying to reach an audience that exists, but isn’t there. I had to learn this when I started doing television after several years at CBC Radio. It was more of an adjustment than I expected. I was already a performer and comfortable in front of crowds: teaching, public speaking, the lead in my high-school musical. But what I could do naturally in person wasn’t coming across on camera, at first. Then, things clicked—and I changed from being a reporter they were nervous about putting on for a live segment, to one they wanted “live” early and often. This wasn’t just experience; I figured something out. Focus in, focus out My top piece of advice for communicating on camera is to keep your focus out, not in. I’ll walk you through what that means, but it’s all in the eyes. I learned this by watching my own work, and noticing there were moments when I saw a person telling me what she knows, and others where I felt nervous for or bored by the person on screen. It’s subtle—too subtle to see in these grainy screengrabs, though these are from “before” and “after” live hits. In my early hits, I was looking at the camera, but my focus wasn’t there, because I was thinking about what to say next. To connect through the camera, you have to shift your focus from inside your mind, to somewhere...
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...
How my science degree helps me in journalism

How my science degree helps me in journalism

Tomorrow I get to return to my alma mater, to talk to first-year Science students. This is pretty exciting for me because I really enjoy teaching, and visiting campus brings some nostalgic joy too. They invited me because I use my degree in science in a non-traditional way. Here’s a sneak peek at the Prezi I made for the talk. It’s not that rare to be a reporter with a background in science; we have a few in our local newsroom. But it’s still uncommon enough that when people I encounter on the job learn I studied biology, they’re surprised. Many ask whether it was my plan all along to learn about science, then report on it. (Not at all —I really thought I was going to be a biologist). And, I often hear, “Oh that must really help you on scientific stories.” (Absolutely! But not in the way you might think.) Bring on the data! The fact is, the facts I learned don’t help me much. Even if I remembered every nephron and neuron I scribbled down in a final exam, my information is more than a decade out of date. What’s important about what I learned is it gives me the faith that even complex things can be understood, and it’s my job to make sense of them, and use that information to critically evaluate what people tell me. That helps on science stories, but not just on science stories. Being unafraid of numbers and spreadsheets is good too. I learned Excel spending many hours volunteering in a lab measuring millimetres of stickleback tails. Now on the...
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,...