Beam me up Scotty: The struggle to cover health and science in daily news

CTV Health Reporter Karen Owen shares the challenges of covering highly
complicated health and science stories within the confines of television

After a recent assignment I couldn’t help but
marvel at the challenges we face every day as reporters, and why it’s important
to let the people we interview know about those challenges.

I spend my days at CTV Calgary as a health
reporter. It’s a great beat, and over the years it has become easier to frequently navigate
my way through complicated research.

However, nothing prepared me for a recent
story on antimatter. Antimatter you say, what does that have to do with
medicine? Well, nothing. It’s got a lot to do with physics; but medicine, not
so much. Nonetheless, as I do spend a lot of time interviewing researchers, I
was given the assignment of interviewing a local scientist about his role in storing
antihydrogen for 16 minutes. Apparently, I seemed like the logical choice to
cover such a monumental event.

So what’s a journalist to do? Well I did “the
Google”, and found the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research)
website, and in particular the “Kids” page called CERNland. I didn’t need to be an expert in antimatter. I just needed a little background.
At the end of the day, it’s not about being the smartest person in the room,
but knowing how to interview the smartest person in the room!

It’s my job as a communicator to write a
story that conveys important information in an understandable fashion. I got
the whole complex business of antimatter down to a 45 second voiceover and
soundbite. Certainly not my finest work, but it offers our audience a sense of
what’s taking place and how local scientists are playing a role. By the way,
once the antimatter story was done, I had to fill another three and half
minutes of the show with five medical related stories.

I used this recent example to illustrate the daily demands we face as
journalists during a panel event hosted by the Science Media Centre of CanadaThe Centre’s goal is to try to
help journalists write science-related stories. The panel discussion was an
opportunity to share with an audience, largely made up of university staff and
faculty, the realities of daily news.

I often try to explain to the people I interview the inherent constraints
of TV news, such as the need for brevity, good video, and meeting constant
deadlines. I think if we’re upfront about our requirements, the people we
interview will understand why we’re in a rush, or always asking for visual
elements. If we give the experts a
peak into our world, it helps them understand why we ask for short concise
answers about their world.

Just to note, I did discover that the
Starship Enterprise was fueled by an antimatter reactor. Don’t ask me how that works—I’m no
expert, but I know I could find an expert to interview.

Karen Owen has been working at CTV Calgary
for the past twenty years, the past dozen as a health reporter, and is
currently a candidate for a Master of Professional Communication at Royal Roads