Science Broadcasting: Star Gazing With Bob McDonald


He is known in many Canadian households as the popular host of CBC's radio show, Quirks and Quarks, and as a science journalist for CBC's television news program, The National. Bob McDonald's enthusiasm for science and the excitement it can generate has carried him through more than 25 years as a broadcast and print journalist, and in June 2001 his efforts were rewarded with the prestigious Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion. Contrary to what one might expect, McDonald does not possess an academic background in either science or journalism. To his credit, he carved his niche in Canadian science journalism by way of his passion for science, his perseverance, and his natural journalistic talent.

It was opportunism, he tells Next Wave Canada, that launched McDonald into his successful career; he was simply "in the right place at the right time." Prior to his entry into the world of journalism, McDonald studied English and philosophy at university. He claims that he has always liked science, especially space science, ever since childhood. During his undergrad he naturally took the opportunity to enroll in an astronomy course. But McDonald was weak in mathematics and struggled with the theoretical aspects of astronomy. "When it actually came down to the time to try and do some real science, I actually found it tedious and boring and complicated I didn't like doing it," he admits, "But that didn't change the fact that I like what science sees--it's a different perception of the world, beyond the obvious."

Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion

Each year, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) honours individuals and groups who make an outstanding contribution to the promotion of science in Canada. Named after Canadian Nobel Laureate Michael Smith, the award recognizes sustained and significant efforts to inspire public understanding and develop abilities in science and engineering.

Dr. Michael Smith had a distinguished career in genetics research. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in chemistry. Smith helped pioneer the use of synthetic oligonucleotides to bring about site-specific mutations in isolated genes. In many ways, his DNA manipulation techniques helped unlock the secrets of the human genome and lead to numerous discoveries. Smith died of complications related to leukemia on 4 October, 2000. He was 68.

Feeling a little jaded and not knowing what to do with his life, McDonald dropped out of university. He dabbled in construction and became a truck driver. Soon after, the Ontario Science Centre was seeking a demonstrator, somebody who was interested in science and a good communicator. This was the perfect opportunity for McDonald to combine his love of science and high school theatrical training, so he applied. He became an expert in explaining how lasers work and took every chance he could to read about science and communicate with the resident scientists at the Science Centre.

But not long after joining the Science Centre, NASA began sending probes to Mars and Jupiter. Letting his interest in space science get the better of him, McDonald traveled to the probes' mission control in California on a press pass and it was this decision that prompted his first "break" in journalism. Space exploration was a new phenomenon and, as it turns out, McDonald was one of only two Canadian reporters there to cover the story. Upon his return to Canada, McDonald was highly sought after by the news media and made his debut on CBC news to spread the excitement about the novel space project. "They asked me to become a regular and that's how my freelance career got started, appearing on programs as 'the science guy,' " he says. Before long he had gained a reputation as someone who knew how to write and talk about science. McDonald found himself learning television, radio, and print journalism on the job. "I threw myself into the freelance world and more and more projects kept coming my way. People knew I was reliable--I always finished what I started. They really like it if you're there on deadline day!" he says.

His career in science broadcasting has evolved into 8 years as the host of Quirks, numerous science documentaries, location stories, and investigative reports for radio, educational videos, and the creation of a children's television science show called Wonderstruck. He has also written for the Globe and Mail newspaper and authored several books.

Bob's Five Top Tips for Science Journalism

  • Good ideas are everything. And ideas don't necessarily have to be today's news--it can just be a different angle on an old story.

  • Tell a good story. Make sure your story has structure--a beginning, middle, and end.

  • Speak the language of your audience. Make it a readable, watchable, or listenable story. Have fun with it, if it's appropriate.

  • Package it appropriately. A news program is not interested in documentaries, and a documentary program doesn't want a short, news pitch. So know your media and package your story according to their format and style.

  • Be persistent. If you are turned down by one medium, there's always another one to recycle and repackage your story to. While it may not fit one medium, it may well be of interest to another.

  • The key to his success, explains McDonald, has been his ability to take science stories and shape them to the different media, "It's all about versatility--being able to recycle the same story in print, radio, and television but make it look different." And that means being able to convert a one-page spread for the local newspaper into a two-and-half-minute explanation on a television news program, or even a one-hour radio show. "I also try to visualize the science in my mind and often use metaphors to describe what I see," says McDonald, adding that getting bogged down in details and correct terminology is a definite trap in television and radio. "With print, you can go back and read sentences again, whereas TV and radio only go by once so you have to be clear and get it right the first time." And accuracy is of more importance today than ever, he says, as science journalism frequently revolves around issues surrounding science, rather than the science itself. "The public is much more educated and skeptical these days," says McDonald, "particularly when it comes to genetic modification and the corporate agenda behind the science." In his experience, the old stereotype of the mad scientist portrayed on TV still underlies a public mistrust of science, and therefore good science journalism must go beyond just looking at the facts.

    McDonald is deeply touched to be a recipient of the Michael Smith Award, the first personal award he has received after a long succession of program awards. "It feels like maybe I did get something right," he smiles, "and it has validated the way I got here." But he adds that if he could do it all again he would not make it so hard for himself. He would get that science degree first!

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