Science and the visual image--the two are inseparable.
What is the Copernican revolution without the nested circles of the planets tracing their orbits around a central sun? What is evolution without a procession of hominid ancestors forward marching off the page, taller leading shorter?
From atoms to cells to galaxies, the mere mention of key scientific concepts immediately conjures up an accompanying series of mental images. History suggests that great leaps forward in science begin as pictures, specifically pictures that contain solutions to problems. Einstein imagined a beam of light on a speeding train; Watson and Crick imagined a double helix. In both cases, special relativity and the structure of DNA, the discoverers reported that the image came first, words and equations followed.
The science television journalist recognizes the inherently visual character of scientific thinking and aims to harness it, making complicated ideas simple, and simple ideas transparent. While words must be chosen with the same precision and economy that is the essence of good print journalism, in science television they are married to images for a result that is more powerful than the sum of its parts.
As a science journalist, I enjoy working both in print and broadcast media, but these days I spend most of my time making science television. It's the kind of work where forming mental images early in the process of reporting a story is as crucial as forming words. Whether it's a 3-minute news item or a 13-part documentary, the first question is always the same: "How am I going to show this?" This question is particularly relevant in a newsroom setting because images take time to acquire and without them a story cannot proceed. You have to get the visual ball rolling right away.
Print journalists would immediately recognize similarities between print and television, including the value of a fast turnaround, good story telling, and the need for strong quotes from sources. But there are differences too: The television story reads faster on the page and may seem stilted or bland. This is an indication that the visuals are carrying some of the storytelling load and providing eloquence without words.
Perhaps the biggest differences lie not in the product but in the process. Although print involves collaboration between writer and editor, in television the circle of collaborators is much larger. Producers, directors, host/interviewer, camera operators, editors (in this case the word means the people who put the shots together) may all be intimately involved in shaping a story. Whereas the producer coordinates the effort, there is no doubt that the end result is a team effort. For those who love science journalism but not the isolation of being a writer, television can offer a great working environment.
Getting started in science television may be more of a challenge, particularly to those coming in from the sciences. Before entering print journalism, science students can try their hand at writing in campus newspapers and other publications. With television, getting beginner experience is not so straightforward. In my case, it was a long history as an Ontario Science Centre staff member that provided the bridge. When the exhibits and public events happened, I was involved with attracting media attention. I found I had to learn something about television presentation, and the lessons were valuable.
Despite the benefits of on-the-job training, a surer way to learning the ropes is to enter a journalism program and take courses from the broadcast stream. This offers hands-on time with equipment and practical experience putting stories together for television. It may also be a stepping-stone to a first job in the field, through an internship or placement program. As with science, success in television is about making connections.
A career in science television has additional benefits for those who like to reflect on science's larger role in society. As a visual medium, television is uniquely adapted to reveal the thing our vision systems are most adept at discerning--human emotion. While it may seem counterintuitive to think of emotion and science going hand in hand, it's a marriage that's made for TV. Science, in its effort to describe the physical world at all scales and in all directions frequently suggests the metaphor of the quest. This is more than a story-telling device. It is written on the faces and in the enthusiasm of scientists as they tell their own stories. The excitement of science is real. Television lets everyone see it. Even when the details are hard to understand, it's the motivation we all relate to.
*Ivan Semeniuk is a producer and astronomy columnist for the daily science news program "@discovery.ca" on Discovery Channel, Canada. See his bio online at http://www.exn.ca/Stories/2001/03/09/57.asp.