Tips about Science Writing, Podcasting and Film (WCSJ2011 Day 1)

“So what do you do? Are you a journalist”. “Ehm, I’m not sure, not really, I’m freelance” I said. Not the best of answers, come on you can do better than that — a bit more confidence. “I’m a science writer, editor and I’ve setup a science cafe in my home country”. “So where is that?” said Samuel. “Malta, Malta” … blank stare … “it’s an island just below Italy, north of Libya a fusion of European and Arabic, but we’re in the EU, and you where are you from Samuel”. “Ghana, I’m a science journalist, I work for and I write freelance article for” Fuck, I thought “that’s amazing”

This was the first person I met, strangely I made a friend in one day. And, it was just the beginning. I’m at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in Doha, Qatar, which is amazing [add gorgeous picture of Doha here]. It has the highest GDP per capita, is advanced, clean, ordered, safe and has the most amazing architecture I have ever seen — and I’ve been to Beijing’s Olympic Village.  Though Doha is a strange place, only 20% of it’s citizens are from Qatar the rest are migrants.  But, this doesn’t feel like a function city, it feels like a perfect city.

Back to the bus leading to Education City — a series of huge complex whose architecture are simply astounding [show picture of education city] that the Qatar foundation is building to put this country on the science map. By 2030 Qatar will become a knowledge based economy – much better vision for oil wealth than Iran (have to admit).

I walked in late, scurried to the back of the room, no places, tip toed to the front. Nancy Shute was talking about online resources for science journalists, most are free:

  • Amy Wbb free and paid sections
  • WGBH lab sandbox for independent filmmakers

Find more on: NANCY SHUTE (multimedia) – find on @nancyshute

Then Beryl Benderly talked about how to get good reliable sources for science journalism:

  • — The best!
  • Pubmed Central — classic academic tool, if you can understand the paper it is the best source
  • Free medical
  • — stuff like all earthquakes in last 7 days)
  • — information dump
  • newswise
  • eureka alert (publish science mag, releases on studies, embargoed release service. This resource sounds great!
  • National library of medicine

Then we had a great exercise in podcasting by John Bohannon a science correspondent for science magazine. Great guy, so gave us a few good tips: Podcasting is cheap and easy, all your need is great content, decent equipment. Also remember not to speak to fast and give a decent intro. He got us to talk about a made up science story, ours: A pepertual motion machine as been built and energy has seeped into inanimate objects making them come alive. Rock monsters in Ghana and baby-eating carpets in Saudi Arabia. Idea adapted from Terry Pratchett.

This was followed by Diane Finch on data visualisation. Data visualisation is a process to display information in a manner understandable to a general audience. For a science journalist this means you got to do some research. Find the data, run some stats, find some interesting story within the data. Then Visualise it. A good picture is an easy sell.

Find data from Worldbank or WHO.

There is lots of software she recommended:

  • Excel
  • filemaker pro
  • Google refine for BIG messy data

Another tip: geomap the data. This links your XML file (a spreadsheet from excel) to a location, turning it into a .KML file. Will help you connect data with neighbourhoods. Best tools for this seem to be google maps, google eat and google fusion tables. (also geocommons, openheatmap and More software for geo mapping and data visualisation:

  • ARCview
  • ArcGis
  • Quantum GIS – MapWindow
  • Phython/Django and R —more advanced and FREE (SPSS has become redundant)
  • For Timelines: Simile and Timeline software

Then we had Randy Olson talking about science films and documentaries. This guy was yet another great speaker, very succinct, best to list tips:


  1. Why? (non literalism)
  2. What? (is a story, what is not)
  3. How? (Study structure)
  4. Why (Film/Video)
  5. The Nerd Loop – (refers to 4 organs)

What is a story? A story is a fact wrapped in an emotion ( Fact — literal, emotion — nonliteral)

A story has 3 structures A Beginning a Middle and an End.

Act not think = emotion, plus there are 4 organs for acting. The head which is cerebral and its ideas must go to the muscle (action), the gut (instinctual) and the genitalia (visceral) i.e. must have sex appeal. Sex sells.

A very important point to film making, writing, podcasting — is that story telling comes from the Greeks (and other ancient cultures). To remember a story orally it had to be riveting to the speaker, so the Greeks had tragedy and comedy, plus Simple Ideas and a good take home message. This is really the Hollywood formula — Hollywood unfortunately has no brains.

It is more important to arouse people with film and video, than bombard with messages. This is why Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has failed to change the minds of so many. Sadly enough. Randy Olson’s answer was Sizzle. We had a free screening, and it was a fusion of Borat interwoven with a climate change message i.e. MENTAL!

I loved this movie, and I’m a scientist. Apparently most climatologists hated his film, because Randy’s approach is so unique and clever. First he lets you listen to the skeptics. Then shows them up for what they really are: charlatans, petroleum drunk, cocky, aggressive and liars. Watch this film, it’s a must.

By the end of the day I met people from Malaysia to Mexico to Nambia to Denmark. If science journalists from so many nations can be in one room and enjoy each others company, why can’t our politicians and the countries they represent?

So that’s it for today. I hope these tips help in the quest to find the next story that simply must be told. Please note that this is a very very rough draft and I hope to expand/flower/shorten this. Comments are welcome 🙂

Follow me on Twitter: username DwardD for real time updates on the conference, just search #WCSJ2011

For some Photos Samuel has already uploaded mine to:

Edward Duca,

Doha, Qatar

26th July 2011



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: