Jean Philip De Tender address to the World Conference of Science Journalists, Lausanne, 1 July 2019
I’m Jean Philip De Tender, Director of Media at the European Broadcasting Union.
Our Director-General, Noel Curran, sends his sincere regrets that he cannot join us today. I’m delighted to represent Noel and the EBU at this important curtain-raiser for the World Conference of Science Journalists, here in Lausanne.
The EBU is one of the supporting partners of the Consortium that, three years ago, planned to bid for Lausanne and the transborder regions, France and Italy, to host the WCSJ. We are incredibly proud that this is now happening.
And this campus will soon be the home of Radio Télévision Suisse, with the planned move of its Lausanne-based radio headquarters. A move that underlines the importance of broadcasting being part of the innovation and research community.
It is encouraging to see so many of the EBU’s Members represented at this forum where we will debate the challenges of creating and sharing science programming. Not only the ‘how’, but the importance of ‘why’ we should do so.
Science is essential to news output
As someone who lives and breathes news, personally and professionally, I feel strongly that we must communicate science, knowledge and technology stories with accuracy and with passion. This should be a core goal of every newsroom and every broadcaster that is serious about providing distinctive output.
Science programming should not be side-lined or relegated to late night slots, seen only by night owls and insomniacs. Science IS news. Some of the great issues of our time are rooted in technology and scientific developments, with real consequences for how we live our lives. But we need to be creative about how we tell those stories and on which platforms we present them to find the widest possible audience.
Today we are here to explore how we reach and engage future audiences without leaving behind traditional ones. New audiences who in all probability might have lost faith in the views of experts, thanks to the rapid growth of fake news and ‘alternative facts’. It is no longer clear, in today’s divided world, who the trusted sources are and where they can be found.
Role and ethos of the EBU
For me, this conundrum creates a challenge and a clear mission for public service media.
Trust is of fundamental importance to the EBU and our output. It underlines our public service values. For science reportage, this is particularly critical. Public service media has always been at the forefront of reporting on scientific and technology developments. Not just sharing discoveries but rigorously probing and testing new claims to ensure they stand up. It is central to the mission of public service and goes back to BBC Founder Lord Reith’s ideas a century ago – to inform, educate and entertain. To that, we can also add ‘scrutinise.’
Why is science journalism important?
Topics as wide-ranging as climate change or ‘to vaccinate - or not’ can be controversial. These issues have political and social dimensions, as well as purely scientific, because of the human implications. Enabling better understanding and demonstrating exactly how developments in these areas affect real-lives should be central to the public service remit.
And there are those scenarios where news and science converge, particularly in national and international emergencies such as the Ebola crisis and climate-related disasters. Here expert scientific journalists can provide context to a story which is suddenly making headlines. Audiences want to be up to speed and rightly expect reliable information in order to understand the implications for them and their communities.
Reporting on science requires our journalists to challenge what is being claimed, as well as explain it. It’s also an awe-inspiring subject to communicate! Exciting, often ground-breaking. Who would not want to experience stories like these? Look at what the BBC’s David Attenborough has done for nature and science. He presents complex themes to popular audiences and dominates primetime viewing slots in the process. But without sensationalising or dumbing-down. It is transformational TV.
Challenges facing science reporting
Collaboration and learning from each other is key. But producing good programming
that will be seen, not just by heartland audiences, but a newer, younger profile, will test us.
We’re all familiar with the impact of many more platforms. The viewing public is constantly changing its behaviours. The habit of watching a science programme on a TV, at a scheduled time, is disappearing. Especially amongst young people who expect to access engaging content, anytime, anywhere. And when they do make an ‘appointment to view’, that experience is diluted by competing content on other devices at the same time.
But while these developments might be undermining traditional TV scheduling of science and knowledge programmes, we must not confuse this with assuming there is no appetite or market for complex scientific ideas full stop.
If we are providing output that is concise, visual, attractive, inventive, exciting and that doesn’t compromise on quality, we will develop the audience base.
There are other issues that we need to meet head-on. How do we deliver impartiality and integrity when the conversation is hijacked by groups that deny scientific fact and undermine research to serve vested interests? The internet and social media regularly indulges in fakery. We’ve all seen posts that deny climate change or the life-saving role of vaccines to potential catastrophic effect.
Science used to be a neutral arena, where an expert would present the truth to the audience. Now it is an arena for confrontation and opinion is in danger of taking over from fact. As responsible broadcasters, it is our duty to fight this and redress the balance.
How we meet these challenges
Public service media is delivering solutions to these issues through innovation. Though innovative programming and through alternative platforms so that we can reach new and diverse audiences.
Great work from our EBU Members
Our EBU Members are developing wonderfully innovative examples of programming that may prove game-changing.
For example, using artificial intelligence techniques to bring new dimensions to story-telling. I’ve also seen great examples of how creative animations can inject new life into potentially dry or complicated subjects. I love how ARD and ZDF’s work is rejecting outdated stereotypes around young women and science. How long have we assumed that women are only interested in science when it relates to beauty projects? How dare we.
Women are under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries. There is a role for public broadcasters in addressing this problem. Many of our Members are using the power of great role models, with young women as presenters.
In order to relate, people need to see their own experiences reflected in our content. People who look like them and their friends, who sound familiar, who by being relatable can take the fear out of science and create better understanding of it. Who can inspire interest in a subject and therefore inspire careers.
And of course, distribution is key. Moving away from traditional linear concepts and putting content on platforms and technologies that are already ‘go to’ destinations for young people. YouTube, social media channels, apps linked to public service media websites.
The latest trend for consuming true crime via podcasts can and is being ultilised by public broadcasters to deliver information on related complex subjects - forensic science and DNA testing.
Also, in the best tradition of social media, programming can’t be one-way traffic anymore. Broadcasting is not the future! We must have conversations, by encouraging interactivity. If we don’t know what young people want to see? Engage with them and ask. SVT is ahead of the game here by employing influencers as messengers and actively prioritising dialogue with audiences.
Public service media has always been about informing and educating. Let’s play to our strengths but use the technologies at our disposal to add ‘listening’ to that list too.
Today we will hear from some of our colleagues on their projects. We’ll hear about new approaches to story-telling. How output can be adapted to suit different platforms but without compromising on quality, research or evidence. We’ll hear how to target audiences who simply do not watch TV in any traditional linear sense. The EBU is fully behind these new experiments and we look forward to supporting their development with our Members across Europe.
Lastly, we’re here today because we need to be. Today’s discussions are timely and they are urgent. In the current political climate, robust scientific programming has never been so critical. For those of us with public service remits, even more so.