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The challenges of reporting science for television news

Catalina Arevalo writes:

Shukman started by talking about his daily struggle at news editors' meetings to get a place for science and environment stories in the 30-minute prime time evening news, which generally only has room for eight stories.

In his opinion, audiences are not very interested in these stories, especially if the information given is too technical or too bureaucratic.  As an example he mentioned the stories about international negotiations on climate change, which many people seem to find boring.

By contrast, Shukman underlined the importance of bringing these stories to people and engaging the audience with these problems. He stressed that at all times he tried to anchor all the BBC’s reporting in peer-reviewed published science.

As an example of how to successfully engage the audience, Shukman showed one of his television reports with which he tried to raise awareness about the problems associated with rubbish thrown into the oceans, especially plastics. He used the touching image of a person trying to remove a plastic ring that was choking a bird, or a popular toy doll floating in a sea of plastic trash in the Pacific.

The reaction of the audience was immediate, and the BBC Science desk received a flood of messages from viewers interested in the problem and offering to clean the beaches as volunteers.

In that context, Shukman also praised the benefits of new technologies and multimedia journalism to involve the audience and to have a chance to interact with them. And this helps TV journalists to reach their goal: providing a window for viewers to know the world through their stories.

More complicated is to convey the importance of climate change to the audience. "We cannot see CO2", he noted. However, Shukman showed two news reports through which he tried to explain the magnitude of this phenomenon: one showed the melting of the Arctic and another highlighted the consequences of rising sea levels on a remote Pacific island.

The Science Editor recognized, however, that this type of coverage is very expensive and journalists need to be very convincing to commit their editors to send them on these types of reporting trips.

Shukman also stressed the importance of presenting science news in an accessible way as possible.  He commented, for example, that when preparing his reports he always tries to find a language about the science comprehensible to students of about 12-years-old.