In a Nov. 17 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture, BBC Reel editor Melissa Hogenboom answered two questions for the community of science journalists, slight variations of which she often asks her scientist sources: Why do you do what you do, and why does it matter?
Science journalism “advances conversations that make a difference,” Hogenboom said, pointing out that the public’s understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, sometimes meant life or death. More generally, science journalism that manages to explain the science behind the flow of our daily lives gives the public a better understanding of how the world, which is constantly changing, actually works, she said.
“If we can guide people through how the world is changing, I think it’s quite empowering.” Hogenboom said, continuing on to mention science journalism’s role in combating the ongoing, and sometimes deadly, misinformation crisis. “If we can communicate things accurately, that’s what matters, and we can hopefully find an audience and share.”
Hogenboom has written many articles and a book, and has produced a huge range of videos for television and for online distribution. She launched BBC Reel in 2018, and was a winner of a 2022 double Webby Award in the Science & Education category for a documentary entitled “A Mother’s Brain.”
Hogenboom spoke as part of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture series at the Imperial College in London. The first-ever lecture of the series to take place outside the United States, the event was a collaboration between AAAS Kavli and Imperial’s Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication, which hosts the college’s Science Communication Unit. The annual AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture series brings winners of the prestigious award to university campuses for public lectures and workshops with journalism students. Hogenboom won a 2017 AAAS Kavli Gold Award with video producer Pierangelo Pirak for an experimental film entitled “Why there could be many identical copies of you,” where they explored the possibility that we may have cosmic twins in parallel universes.
In her talk, to an audience made up mostly of students, Hogenboom referred to another reason for why science journalists do what they do — their personal interest and genuine excitement for a certain idea, or as she referred to it, their passion. Hogenboom called passion an important ingredient in a science journalist's work.
"I think I’ve done my best storytelling when I’m really passionate about the idea. I really want to tell this particular story and invest time, and it shows,” she said.
Such passion can start a journalist out on a wide topic of interest, such as quantum mechanics and the possibility of parallel universes, and arrive at an imaginative story idea about finding your cosmic twin, as occurred with Hogenboom’s AAAS Kavli award-winning film. Developing a good story idea, Hogenboom said, often involves making the distinction between the broad, “sprawling” topic and the particular story idea that will provide an audience-engaging storytelling vehicle.
Making that differentiation — as well as boiling an idea down to the opening “top line,” or lede, and a good pitch — often involves talking through the idea with a colleague, Hogenboom emphasized throughout her lecture. “This is basic, but often forgotten,” she said. “We think we have to take ownership of ideas and keep them to ourselves. But, actually, talking it through can really help.”
Questions that might come up in such a discussion go back to Hogenboom’s list of reasons why science journalism matters.
“When I think of a story, I think of the bigger picture. What conversation is this starting? What curiosity gap is it opening up?” Hogenboom said. “Are you telling someone something new about the world?”
Such questions, Hogenboom suggested, don’t mean that every story needs to have far-reaching, serious reverberations. Even more minor revelations, if they satisfy curiosity or entertain, are valuable.
“Are you just giving them a snapshot? A little fact that they could share in the pub that evening?” Hogenboom said.
Ideally, all of these considerations get condensed into the “why now” story pitch, as Hogenboom referred to it, presented by a staff journalist or freelancer to the person or team that determines which stories get written or produced. Other information in the pitch, while steering clear of minute detail, explains basically what’s new and what the lede would be — and why the person pitching the story is the best person to tell it. Hogenboom also advised what a colleague of hers calls “managing upward” — being fully aware of what your editor or boss wants, but working to convince that person that what you want is valuable.
“Work out what they want, and make them want what you want to do,” she said.
Part of the calculation of why the person pitching the story is the right candidate might involve connections to other journalists who can collaborate. Sometimes this means collaborators one can learn a particular skill from — and sometimes it means delegating. Hogenboom said she leaves the shooting and editing to others who specialize in those areas.
“I find really good shoot editors, and I craft the story and give them my vision,” she said. “I ask them what their vision is, and we come to a common ground.”
Hogenboom extolled written text for its potential for depth and detail, as well as its ability to be produced anywhere with a phone and a laptop. She referred to video production as an “amazing art form,” with “endless opportunities” for experimentation with such techniques as fast-editing styles, animation and soundtrack music. Hogenboom said she believes “a good story is a good story. It can be told in almost any format.”
Asked to what degree science journalism should be entertaining rather than educational, especially as it competes for the screen time of a social media-hooked public, Hogenboom said journalism can both educate and entertain, as evidenced by the popularity of documentaries. She also advocated for “going to where the audience is,” as BBC Reel has by putting its content on YouTube.
“People want to be educated as part of their entertainment," Hogenboom said. "All we can do is keep publishing powerful journalism and going to where the audience is.