This is a transcript of a presentation by Toss Gascoigne to the Australian Academy of Science, February 2008, The Shine Dome, Canberra.

The discussion following the presentation was chaired by Prof. Philip Kuchel.



I am talking about the media today. I run media skills workshops with a colleague Jenni Metcalfe, and have been doing it for about 15 years.

Normally, if we were running a media skills workshop we would have a room about one-third the size of this, and we would have 15 people involved.

There would be 10 of you and there would be two of us as trainers, and we would be bringing in three journalists, one from print media, one from radio, and one from television. And each one of those journalists would be there for somewhere between one and three hours.

At the beginning of each session with a journalist we have a question and answer session out the front, usually led by me.

I will talk to the journalists and ask:

  • What time do you get in to work?
  • What sorts of stories are you looking for?
  • How do you choose between the hundreds of stories that come to your plate every day?
  • How does the interview process go?
  • What do you want from a scientist, if you are going to interview them?

We will have a conversation for about half an hour about that, and then the people in the audience will ask questions.

And then we will pick up one person who has been foolish enough to stick their head above the parapet, and we will stand him out the front for the journalist to interview them, to fire a few questions at our guinea pig, while rolling a television camera over the top.

Then we play it back, and ask the television journalist to comment: ‘Well, that was a good answer. But that one was terrible, too much technical jargon. If you make a mistake halfway through, don’t blunder on. Stop and start again,’ and so on.

After we have done that, then we will go outside with the other nine participants in the room—me, the journalist, the camera and the scientist—and we will interview each person in turn. So, while I am outside the room doing people one by one, everyone else in the room is talking about something else—media releases or whatever. We do the same for radio, and we do the same for print media. So everyone gets interviewed about their story three times.


Disappointed scientists

One of the things that people discover about this process—and it is a deep, deep disappointment to many scientists—is that the journalists are generally not very interested in the science at all.

What are they interested in?

[Audience suggests answers, none of which are accepted.]

They are interested in the implications for the people who watch the TV station, read the newspaper or listen to the radio program: what does it mean to the ordinary punter?


Betty from Blacktown

We had a journalist from Channel 9 News in Sydney running one of these sessions on TV, and he said that whenever he looks at a bit of paper—a media release—about a science story, he is thinking of ‘Betty from Blacktown’.

That is the person he has got in mind, because it is Betty from Blacktown who watches Channel 9, who drives the ratings up, brings in advertising revenue and pays his salary.

  • Why would Betty from Blacktown be interested in this story?
  • What does she want to know about it?
  • And what sorts of questions would she ask?

That is the filter that is going through his mind.

That has huge implications for you. It means for a start that you can substantially forget about all the processes that you went through to get to where you got, and you can start thinking about:

  • What does it mean to the ordinary punter?
  • Does it mean a cheaper loaf of bread?
  • Have I solved an environmental issue?
  • Have I contributed to a new industry coming to Australia?

That is the sort of thing that they will be interested in. If you can’t explain your science in those terms, you are going to have difficulty getting any TV station interested in it at all.


TV news stories – the formula

How long does a TV news story go for?

Let’s have answers from this row in front of me, all the way up and down. You have watched, between you collectively, about 1,400,000 TV news stories. How long does an average TV news story go for?

[Audience gives various answers.]

It is a very strict formula, actually, and it runs in ascending order. If you are a metropolitan station, commercial Channel 7/Channel 9, it is about 1 minute 10 seconds. If it is a big story, it will be 1 minute 20 seconds. If you are ABC, it will be about 1 minute 20 seconds. If you are Channel 10, it will be about 1 minute 20 seconds.

Why is Channel 10 longer than Channel 9 and 7? They have got an hour’s news—more time to fill up.

If you are in rural or regional areas, like Townsville or Hobart, perhaps, or Canberra, places where less news happens in a day, you will get longer time, maybe 1 minute 30 seconds. That is the formula.


3 components of a media story: talent, story, pictures

There are three components to any media story you want to do—it doesn’t matter whether it is print, radio or television—and these are the things you have to think about.

The first is the story, the second is the pictures, and the third is the ‘talent’.

1. Talent

Who is the talent? That is the person being interviewed. You are known as ‘the talent’, but don’t get too carried away by that; it doesn’t necessarily mean you are any good.

But you can be ‘good talent’, ‘great talent’, ‘shocking talent’. Natasha Stott Despoja, for example, is great talent; Philip Ruddock is shocking talent, based on their capability of expressing simple ideas in simple language that Betty from Blacktown can understand.

So we have the talent, the story, the pictures.

2. Story

If you are talking about story and about television, you have got 1 minute 10 seconds, perhaps 1 minute 20 seconds, in which to get an idea across.

To turn to a different audience row: how long would you, the talent, be interviewed for? How much of youwill appear in that story, of you talking?

[Audience gives various answers.]

The little bits where a talking head pops up on camera are called ‘grabs’, or ‘sound bites’.

So when a television comes to interview you, they are interested in getting you saying something bright and sparkling and interesting, and looking enthusiastic, using colloquial language that everyone can understand. So if you can bear all that in mind at the time, you are doing okay.

They will give you (they’re getting shorter these days) perhaps three seconds, up to about nine seconds.

How many words a second do you speak? 3? 3 words a second is about ABC News-speak.

So if you have got a 3-second grab, that is about 9 words: ‘This – is – the – recession – we – had – to – have,’ which was the 3-second grab which was enough to get Paul Keating into an awful lot of trouble.

9 seconds may be a sentence or perhaps 2 short sentences. That is about how much time you will get.

But the interviewer will also use the interview for something else.

What the television reporter will do—and this is the art of reporting—is to retell your story in their language, in terms that they know will appeal to Betty from Blacktown and that she will be able to understand. So they will be listening to you, but they will retell your story.


Journalists fall into 2 categories

How long does a television journalist spend researching a news story?

[Audience gives various answers.]

Perhaps an hour or two? It depends, because journalists fall into two categories.

Almost everyone in the electronic media in news—and I am talking about news—falls in one category, and most of the people in print fall in the other.

All the people in the electronic media—radio news, television news (I’m not talking about Robyn Williams, I am talking about news)—are generalists. They will do a flower show opening one day, they will do an election story the next, they will do a bomb blast the day after that, and then they will do your story.

I suspect that most news journalists last did science round about grade 10 high school, and it was probably biology and they got a B pass, terminal.

But when you talk to print media journalists, you are probably dealing with someone who, though they may not have formal science qualifications, will have been working on the ‘round’ for a while.

You talk to someone like Leigh Dayton, from The Australian—I have forgotten what degree Leigh has, somewhere in the biosciences I think—but she has worked for Science, she has worked for New Scientist, she has worked for The AustralianCatalystThe Sydney Morning Herald and so on.

And so, not only does she have some formal scientific qualifications, but she has hung round the science scene often enough to know what the issues are, who the players are, and not to be fazed by some of the curious terminology that scientists sometimes lapse into.

You will find that Leigh has print media colleagues in most of the newspapers around Australia. Some of you might have read Rosslyn Beeby’s articles in The Canberra Times. She is getting huge coverage on environmental matters now, and being CSIRO’s sharpest critic. Again, she has a science degree and she has a lot of experience of working in that area.

Deb Smith works in health matters for The Sydney Morning Herald; Justine Ferrari spent quite a lot of time working on medical matters for The Australian before she went off to the UK.

You have got to get that distinction clear in your mind.

When you are talking to a print media person, you are probably talking to someone who has got experience and ideas, understands the issues, knows what the NHMRC is and so on.

When you are talking to television people or radio people, it is just one of the stories which are going to skip across their desk that day—and, as I say, flower show next day, bomb blast the one after that. And so you are going to have to adjust your language.

You don’t have very much space in these stories, so you have really got to distil your story to, probably, a single idea.

And just because you might be extremely good scientists and very bright, that does not necessarily translate to being good with the media. It does require some work.

And the work that is required is to find a way to distil the complex story of your research down to something that Betty from Blacktown can understand, something that is going to have an impact and get a message across.

Talking radio news now: that is about 35 seconds on the ABC, and if you get into the FM radio stations, the youth ones, you are down to about 12 seconds for a whole news story.

If you are talking print media, you have 300 words, perhaps, unless it is a feature. An ordinary news story in The Australian or The Sydney Morning Herald has about 300 words. There is not much space, so you have got to distil.


Best advice

I think the best advice that I can give you about entering the process of being interviewed is that you should know what you are going to say before the interview starts. That is really important.

Quite often, when I am talking to scientists and they come into contact for the first time with a television journalist, what is the first thing they say to the journalist – after ‘Hullo’?

[Audience gives various answers.]

‘What are you going to ask me? What questions are you going to ask me?’

What questions do you think they are going to ask?

[An answer from audience]

Yes, its implications.

A television journalist who spoke at one of our workshops said:

‘Look, there are only three things I really want to know from you.

  1. What are you doing?
  2. When is it going to be ready?
  3. And what does it mean for people watching the news?’

And that’s all.

They are not going to ask you any searching, tricky questions, and yet so many people in your position will react in a very defensive way. You will sit with the portcullis down and the drawbridge up, and you will wait for the questions to come at you.

If you are going to be successful in the media, you have got to be on the front foot. You have to know what you want to say, why you are doing this, what is the point you want to get across, before the interview starts.

Do you think there is ever a politician who goes out to front the media without knowing what they are going to say?

They work out their lines of argument back up in the room. They will talk to their advisers—‘How are we going to explain away this latest disaster? Hmm?’—and they will think out their line of argument.

Journalists ask question A, they get answer Z. It doesn’t matter what they ask. If they ask question B they get answer Z again. And that’s the way it goes.

I am not suggesting you should be like that, but I am suggesting that you need:

  1. to be on the front foot
  2. to know what you are going to say
  3. not to be defensive
  4. to be able to turn that question so it gets across the main point that you want to make.


Wrong question? Right answer

As another TV journalist in one of our workshops said: ‘If I don’t ask the right question, you make sure you give the right answer’.

That means that, as well as being confident in having worked out your story and being able to explain it simply, you have also got to be pretty disciplined.

Journalists sometimes will test you round the fringes, or sometimes they will ask you questions because they last did science 15 years ago and they really don’t know. They’ll be blindingly ignorant and they throw you. You don’t really know how to cope with it, because it is a sort of a meaningless question.

Has anyone had that experience?

Okay: this is an occasion when you go back to your main message.


It’s not over till it’s over

One thing you have to remember too is that whenever the microphone is running, it is all on the record.

There was a guy I used to work with called Ian White—some of you would know Ian, an excellent fellow. He was doing some stuff on acid sulfate soils, and he was interviewed over the phone by a print media journalist and after all the chat he was told, ‘Thanks very much Dr White; that was terrific. That’s really good. That’ll be up and running in tomorrow’s paper. Oh, but just before you go, can you tell me: how acidic actually is this acid sulfate soil stuff?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s about as acidic as vinegar.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘how acidic is that?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘when you were a kid did you ever drop a penny in a jar of Coca Cola and have a good, shiny, clean copper the next morning? It’s about as acidic as Coca Cola.’

So guess how the story began the next day, and guess who was on the phone to whom at about 8.15 in the morning, quite angry?

So the interview is never over, until it is actually finished and the phone hung up. And so you have got to be really disciplined about what you say.

I think that as part of the preparation for interviews you have to know what you are not going to talk about and what you are not going to say, as well as what you are going to say, because sometimes journalists will say things to you like, ‘Do you think the state government is doing enough to help research in this area?’ You might have strong views on this, but answering it honestly can be a career-limiting move.

So that covers the first two elements of a news coverage—the story, and the talent.

I think it is a good idea to run the story past someone who knows nothing about your science. It is almost like that old thing about when you are trying to write a publication for general use, if you just write at the top,‘Dear Mum,’ and then go on with the rest of it—now, this is assuming your mother doesn’t have a Nobel Prize in astrophysics or something—it will be about the right language level.

So get someone who knows nothing about your science, but who is intelligent and knows a bit about the media, to read through it as well.

And that is why you should not write your media releases; get help from someone.


3. Pictures

I am going to spend 30 seconds on pictures. That is the thing that television will make decisions about. They will decide to run the story or not run the story on the dramatic quality of the pictures you can offer (or they can organise).

There are stories that television journalists hate, like the balance of payments deficit. How do you illustrate that? How do they illustrate that? What are the shots they put up?

[Audience gives various answers.]

Ships and containers being loaded, and there will be a graph there somewhere. But there are no pictures in that story—it’s about an abstract notion.

A television story needs about 20 pictures to make it up.

One of the things we do in our workshops is to count the pictures. We also run a stopwatch over the quotes (the grabs), to give everyone an idea of the pattern, because it is very formulaic.

So if you are going to get a story on television about your work, you need to think pictorially.

Don’t do the interview in an office; do it in a laboratory or on a field site. Have some experimental gear lined up, and it is good if it has got moving parts and machines that go clickety-bonk.

Australia has the impression that every scientist has got a pipette [audience laughter because just such a picture is on the screen behind the speaker] and coloured liquid, and all you do all day is squirt, squirt, squirt.

Why do they do that? It happens in movies, too.

It is exactly the same reason—it says ‘science’.

Does anyone here use pipettes still? I see that two of you do, so I suppose it is right up your alley!


The power of a good story on the minister’s desk

There is more to it, of course, but that is a brief taste of it, anyway. I think it is good having a working knowledge and an understanding and a comfort zone in working with the media. I think it can be really useful to you.

The staffer of a minister for science said to me once that you never want to underestimate the power of a good story on the minister’s desk in the morning.

It can lead to funding, research promulgation, research partners and collaborations, it can make your work just sing into life and have effect, and it can be a valuable tool to use in conjunction with all those various other things that you do, like writing papers and presenting talks.

But it is not to be entered into lightly, so you need to be a bit careful because it can get you into trouble.



Philip Kuchel: My first newspaper interview was with a fellow called Dawson, who worked for The Australian. He came in with a cravat and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, just before we start, are you a science graduate or not?’ He said, ‘No, I’m an arts graduate. But don’t worry about that—I’ll make up something!’ And he did. It was an NMR spectrometer, he had me photographed sitting on the console, which was a no-no, and the headline said, ‘Sydney University gets new blood machine’. So I learnt then.

Toss Gascoigne: Well, if it is of any encouragement, they did a big survey of CSIRO scientists a couple of years ago, and something like 80% of them said they were extremely satisfied or very satisfied with the media coverage they got. But I think there is always going to be a little down side to it. They will get some facts wrong, they will misspell your name, they will say you belong to CSIRO when really you are University of Tasmania and so on, which can hurt.

Philip Kuchel: It is almost as if they don’t care, because you can read any science article and the game you can play is to find how far down you get before you find the first error.

Toss Gascoigne: [To audience:] Do you think science journalists care? Or journalists generally care?

[Audience gives various answers.]

Bob Williamson: The specialist science journalists care a lot. The ordinary journalist you have referred to doesn’t care much at all.

Toss Gascoigne: Bob, they all deeply, deeply care. Sometimes someone in our workshops is unwise enough to say to a journalist, ‘Do you care if you get it right, you guys?’ and they bristle. They really bristle. It is absolutely fundamentally important to them.

One of the things about it is that, if I am a science journalist, I will write my story and file it. In it goes to the system: copy taster, night editor, chief subeditor, editor, subeditor. Each one of these people can change it without referring to me. Julian Cribb, who I think was, in his day, the most effective print media science journalist in Australia, once said he could hardly bear to read his stories the next day.

Philip Kuchel: Because they had been edited?

Toss Gascoigne: Yes.

Question: I realise that in the day of Big Brother a worthy goal is to be on television at all, or to be in the media at all. But many of us are kind of tired of that. We are tired of writing press releases and having journalists come up with the same story, the same story we have seen about our colleagues’ work.

For instance, I work on the evolutionary biology of sexual behaviour, and there are really two stories there. The first story is: Animals have sex, ha-ha, isn’t that funny! And the other is: Does this disprove Darwin’s theory of evolution? (It’s always ‘Darwin’s theory’ for some reason.) Those are the two stories you see coming out. Folk get weary of working with the media on stories because of that frustration of not really being able to say something new.

I appreciate everything that you say about how to pique the interest of the journalists, but how do we project the message that we really want to project, which is that science is a process which is about the uncertainties, and thereby try to lift the game of the viewing public so that it is not just Betty from Blacktown—or Betty from Blacktown as she is—but the viewing public becomes a little more literate in how to understand and in their interestedness, I guess, in science and that kind of work?

Toss Gascoigne: Maybe the news is not the appropriate place to get that. I am deeply in sympathy with the point that you make, and I think it is really, really important, not just for the general public but also for people like politicians who have this rather, I think, naive and optimistic view of science as providing solid rolled-gold solutions and being full of expertise and certainty, when really they don’t appreciate the fact that it is a process of improvement, counter-argument and so on all the way through.

One thing that happens, though, is that, if you get a story in the media, the next morning your phone will ring, your email will buzz and so on, and I think that is an opportunity to take up some of those other issues. But as to how to turn round the notion held by the broad public, basically I think that the public has too much belief and faith in science, believing it is all made of stainless steel, whereas people who work in it know it is a colander, with constant striving to improve and improve the ideas and theories till you actually get somewhere with it. It is a subtle concept to get across. So I don’t have an answer, really, I am afraid.

Kurt Lambeck: Toss, there are a couple of tactics that I have found very useful in dealing with the press. One is, when they call up for an interview, never to be available straight away. Hold them off for five, 10, 15 minutes; if you have the good fortune to have a PA, get her to say, ‘He’s busy. He’ll call you back in five minutes.’ That gives you an opportunity for her to ask, ‘What is it that you want to talk about?’ and for you to have a few minutes to get your thoughts together and respond. That works quite well, and the more serious journalists and interviewers will accept that.

The other way, if there is a bit of time, is to say, ‘Look, just put your notebook away, switch your microphone off, and let’s just talk about what you want to talk about.’ Then you go through it. They seem to take that, by and large, as an acceptable process.

Another tactic I have found quite useful when they ask you a question that is unexpected is to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s the wrong question. This is the question you should have asked,’ and then give them the answer straight away before they have a chance to come back.

So there are a whole series of ways that you can collaborate with the journalist, in whatever form, and get away with it, actually, and it works quite beneficially to both sides.

Toss Gascoigne: I would agree with Kurt’s general points there. I think, though, Kurt, that you are in perhaps a slightly different position from some people in the room, in that you are a known performer and so your name is writ in black ink in the books of journalists—anyone who does science or science policy and so on throughout the country. So someone else, say, the minister, will announce a policy and they will say, ‘Quick, get Lambeck on the phone to see what the Academy’s reaction is to it.’ And so you will get this phone call saying, ‘What do you think of the minister’s new announcement about a review of the innovation inquiry, particularly looking at the terms of reference for the CRC scheme?’ ‘Oh,’ you say, because you may not have seen it.

Kurt Lambeck: I say, ‘Could you give me 10 minutes to look at it, and then I’ll come back.’

Toss Gascoigne: Sure, and I think that is exactly the right technique. But people who are in this position, who have done media and are known to be ready and willing and capable of responding, will get rung up out of the blue for a reaction.

It may happen to you too, because when someone overseas has done something, something astronomical, they’ll say, ‘Oh, who’s Australia’s best astronomer? Get Brian Gaensler on the phone.’ And so they’ll ring him up to say, ‘Such-and-such has just come out in Nature. This has happened. What do you think?’ And you may not know anything about it.

Buying a bit of time by, for instance, asking them to send the media release through, may help.

Bryan Gaensler: I feel as if there is a paradigm set out where the scientist sets themselves up for frustration because he or she will feel that the story didn’t really capture what they felt was the main point—like what you said about the animals having sex, ha-ha.

My attitude is that so long as the story is positive, and it is correct, I think it is okay if the spin that the media take is totally not the main point that you wanted to make. I think, in that sense, any news is good news.

When we had the media release about this star that was the brightest explosion ever seen in the whole history of humanity, we wanted to focus on the energetics and the magnetic reconnection, and I made the casual throwaway line that anyone within 10 light-years would be dead. And every media outlet picked up on the ‘Earth could have been annihilated’ aspect of it.

That didn’t cop a mention in any of the scientific papers or the conference talks but ultimately I thought it was a positive story on the event, even though it had nothing to do with why we did it or why it is worth doing.

Toss Gascoigne: Do any of you remember People magazine? It used to appear in barbers’ shops and went out about 10 years ago.

That had a story—actually, it might have been one of your stories—‘Foxes bonk themselves to death’. It was the work of one of the CRCs that was trying to release sterilised foxes or something, and so ‘Foxes bonk themselves to death’ was the headline.

One of the biggest hits that I got when I was doing work at CSIRO about 10 years ago was some stuff about methane emissions from cows, which has quite serious implications for greenhouse and so on. That all became known as the ‘cow fart’ story. I remember a television story on one media outlet—the ABC Landlineprogram, in fact—beginning with a shot of four cars in a paddock, with opening voice-over, ‘Corrr! Who farted?’

And it went on from there. But by the time you got down to about the fourth sentence, they were talking about methane, potent greenhouse gas, Kyoto agreements, number of ruminant animals Australia has, whether you can sort this problem out by giving better quality feed.

So it is like Bryan’s 10 light-years, every human being wiped out. It may not tell the story in the way you would choose to tell the story, but they will quite possibly get there eventually.

Philip Kuchel: This has been a very interesting session. Would you join with me in thanking the speakers.