Australian Science Media Centre | 7 February 2009
A career profile of the Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS magazine, focusing on how he became a science journalist. Produced and published by the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide.
How did you get into science journalism?
I have always had a fascination with science, and did the occasional piece (when they let me) at The Sydney Morning Herald when I started there. But it wasn’t until years later, when I was working as a foreign correspondent at Reuters, that I had the latitude and freedom to select more of my own stories, and that was when I concentrated – for part of every week – on science news and features. And I loved it!
What are the main obstacles you face?
My main obstacle used to be getting story proposals accepted by the editor, who usually suspected science was not all that interesting to his audience (mostly because he didn’t like it himself). Nowadays, it’s getting the excellent journalism we do at COSMOS to be noticed by the general public – because when they do, they seem to love it.
What aspects of science do you feel most passionate about?
Its spirit of exploration and discovery, the selfless pursuit of knowledge – sometimes for its own sake, but mostly for the benefit of all humanity. Its rigour and devotion to excellence; and its determination to understand the universe as it really is, based on evidence. I adore it!
What is your most memorable experience as a science reporter?
Several! Walking on the radio telescope dish at the Very Large Array in New Mexico and atop the Parkes radio telescope; flying for eight hours aboard the Kuiper Airbone Observatory at 12.5 km altitude while astronomers observed the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy on Jupiter; spending a night at the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, inside Sweden’s Arctic Circle; filming at an archaeological site in Tibooburra, in the New South Wales outback; overnighting at observatories in Mauna Kea and Siding Spring.
Do you have a particular philosophy when writing a story?
I work very hard to find an inviting, intriguing, surprising or exciting lead – and then follow through a ‘journey of discovery’ approach to the rest of the text. I try to make it conversational and engaging throughout, and imagine the reader is with me as a travelling companion. I try to focus on the personal angle where possible, and always try to weave in a bit of philosophy or a ‘big picture’ view. I start each story on the basis that science is extraordinary and exciting.
What is your advice for people trying to get into science journalism?
By all means acquire as much understanding of science as possible – whether through doing an undergrad degree or reading lots about it. But be sure to develop strong storytelling skills. A science journalist needs to be a journalist first and foremost. It is important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of journalism, its rich history and tradition and what it is meant to do in modern society. Science writing should be done for the benefit of the reader (and the public) not for the scientist or the science. A journalist may be enamoured and supportive of science, but his/her first loyalty is always to the audience.
What do you do now and then to get science out of your system?
Have raucous pub discussions about life, the universe and everything; play games with my very naughty dog; catch a movie or theatre with friends or go hiking for days away from civilisation. I love to travel and see the world, and I enjoy reading a good book. But I also attend the occasional science lecture, visit a museum, or settle down to a good bit of science writing in books and other magazines. And I admit that I often include an excursion to a research institute or some historically significant science site during my holidays.