Science Broadcasting: Science Behind the News


"Deciphering the genome", a "micro chip that makes a blind person see" or "Thiomargarita namibiensis, the biggest bacterium of the world"--science headlines are usually based on complex connections and in-depth subject-specific knowledge which are, unfortunately, mostly incomprehensible for the nonscientist. But making the "science behind the news" understandable for everyone is the main task of my daily work being a science journalist.

To explain news ranging from the latest discoveries in the life sciences to physics and technology, medicine and social sciences--no matter whether in television, radio, or newspaper--is not easy. On the one hand, a science journalist should be a little bit of a scientist themselves to be able to understand what is going on in a more and more complex world. On the other hand, one should think and ask questions from a layperson's perspective. My goal as a journalist is to "translate" the experts' jargon into everyday language and to make the newest achievements in research understandable for everyone.

Besides transmitting pure information, one needs to avoid a shortfall of entertainment, because our information usually reaches the public in their leisure time. But caution is required--sometimes the critical, independent voice of a journalist is necessary, too. It is not useful to only transfer scientific results. Questioning and analysing are two basic principles of journalism. Unfortunately, keeping time in mind is also important because most news stories, especially for television, need to be short and as current as possible. Only a little time is usually available for sound investigation or background analysis.

The science journalist career path is usually open to you after the completion of a relevant university degree. This is especially the case if you want to work for one of Germany's public broadcasting stations. In my case, the degree was biology. Additional to that, secondary programs in journalism, or trainee positions that focus on the journalistic skills, are required. This dual training opens the door to a highly sought after career at the interface between the ivory tower and the public.

When I started my biology studies at the University of Mainz in 1992, I did not exactly have a clear picture in my mind about my career. I wanted to have to do something with "life"--that's what I like. I realized quickly that I was not that kind of student who wanted to do research in only one field of specialisation. My interests were broader and I therefore also took courses in other programs, such as medicine and physics. In seminars on journalism I came across films and television and the foundation stone for my career was laid.

After completing my Vordiplom, I transferred to the University of Bonn and continued my broad interest in many scientific disciplines. I worked as a tutor in the Zoological Research Institute of the Museum Alexander Koenig and edited papers for other students. Conveying facts was an easy task for me and I liked it much better than doing scientific research itself. Additionally, I got a certain amount of recognition among fellow students and lecturers through editing text and pictures from field trips. So I tried to take my first steps away from the ivory tower and offered pieces to publishing companies and broadcasting stations. It wasn't easy because they got turned down quite frequently. But eventually I got my chance: In 1996, the ZDF broadcasting station included some of my pictures in their program for the first time. These were mostly underwater pictures from the micro- and macrocosms of the North and the Baltic Sea, which I had taken with special cameras. On eight different days, my pictures where shown on the screen during the "ZDF Coastal Report" program. The student of biology had turned into a journalist.

After completing my diploma thesis, I undertook a short placement with a Berlin-based newspaper before continuing my education. In 1998, I enrolled in the Free University (FU) of Berlin's Scientific Journalism program. Besides biologists, my 16 fellow students were medical doctors, geologists, and physicists. The program lasts for two semesters. The mentoring is great, and the course options are numerous: starting with journalistic writing, learning how to use the microphone and camera, up to research procedures and journalistic law. But still, it is necessary to decide on one's specific work area--television, radio, or print media--as early as possible in order to collect as much practical experience as possible. After all, internships--especially in journalism--are still the admission ticket to jobs. But even the scientific writing program put a focus on practical experience. I had the opportunity to work in the production team of the university's own radio show "News from the Ivory Tower" and to write articles for the FU's magazine "dimensions." Besides the practical work within the program, I also worked for a TV production firm that was producing a scientific show called "Einstein's Heirs." Again, I was fascinated by the colourful motion pictures. Following that, I spent the summer of 1999 with the scientific editorial team of the Südwestrundfunk ( SWR) in Baden-Baden. And in the Autumn of 1999, I was offered the opportunity to work as a freelance TV editor after I had produced a couple of short features myself.

Since October 1999, I have been producing science and research reports for several television formats, especially for nano, which runs on 3sat, the Austrian-Swiss-German joint television channel. As an author, my tasks are to research certain topics, summarize them, and develop storylines and add the relevant pictures--either from the archives or shot on scene. In collaboration with the cutter, I develop the script that will be overdubbed in the final step.

Since October 2000, I have also been in charge of planning and coordinating the SWR's current scientific news coverage for all German broadcasting stations (ARD). News formats such as Tagesschau and Tagesthemen are typical news shows that need to be "fed" with current news themes, such as the award of the Nobel prizes, BSE, or anthrax. Also, I frequently make additional productions, such as the information film "life sciences" for the Federal Ministry for Research and Education (BMBF) for its initiative "2001--Year of the Life Sciences."

Although some topics I am working on today are hardly related to biology, such as a report about a parabolic flight at the European Space Agency, a portrait of Stephen Hawking, or a report about virtual endoscopy, the profession of being a science journalist is the best opportunity for me to deal with the diversity of life, get to know people and their visions, and to present today the world of tomorrow.

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