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A scientist in the media

If you are a practising researcher and want to know what being a Media Fellow might mean to you, read Jonathan Ball's insight into his brief life as part of the media.

The 2013 Media Fellowships applications are open until 18 March 2013.

Why did you decide to apply for a Media Fellowship?

I had had some dealings with the media before and not always positive, which meant I tended to avoid interacting with them if I possibly could. I realised this wasn’t exactly a helpful stance – not for me, not for them.  I hoped a fellowship would let me see it from the other side - gamekeeper to poacher, as it were...

What was your media host of choice?

I wanted to work with broadcast journalism - it was broadcast that I had most angst with and certainly most fear.

What host did you work with?

I was very lucky to be placed with the BBC Science Department, down at New Broadcasting House. I spent three weeks with the Online Science team and was then sent out as a roving “correspondent” to report back on the British Science Association's British Science Festival (with another Media Fellow, aka partner in crime Nick Crumpton). This was followed by a three-week stint with the Radio Science Unit - both Radio 4 and the World Service.

Was this the type of media you wanted to work with?

Absolutely, I was quite open to do any kind of broadcast placement - some other fellows were lucky enough to work on Horizon and Countryfile - but I can honestly say that my time with the Science unit has far, far-exceeded any naive expectations that I had. From day 1 to day...hmmm, sorry I’m writing this on the commute to London and it’s far too early for mental maths. I enjoyed every last minute of it. 

Did you enjoy your time with the Science Unit?

I can honestly say it has been one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever done - and this from one so long in the tooth. I would actually say THE most enjoyable, but I don’t know who from my current employment might be reading this. Would I do it again or recommend it to anyone else? Absolutely – no hesitation!

What did you learn from them?

I learnt so much in so little time. My surrogate colleagues - actually, friends – showed unswerving trust in my abilities (lacking though they were) and absolute support from the day I started to the day I finished. The taught me the art of writing digestible pieces for BBC online – although I didn’t always quite get the hang of writing the four sentence synopsis, which doubles up as the “red-button”/ceefax offering (thankfully the editor, Paul Rincon, responsible for my contributions showed saint-like patience). The stories forced me out of my comfort zone – only once did I get the chance to be evangelical about the fascinating (ahem) world of virology… And it taught me how to meet very short deadlines – one day sometimes shorter - in which to draft a story. I was then sent off armed, with a recorder, to cover breaking news at the British Science Festival, but more about that later…

I returned to London with a freshly rested liver (following my sojourn to the Festival) to start my three week stint with the Radio Science Unit. I’ll confess, apart from the reassuringly dulcet tones of the shipping forecast – you know “Tyne, Dogger. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5…” – and theme tune to the archers, Radio 4 was a bit of a black box. But how my time with the radio guys opened my eyes to the wonderful and, without wanting to sound a bit nerdy, interesting items they covered. I got my first assignment, a “package” for the World Service’s Health Check programme. This gave me chance to further polish my face-to-face interview skills (they’re still a bit dull), you know prepare some broad questions, remember to turn the recorder on, check for levels etc. (I did on more than one occasion forget to press record – easily done I am comfortingly told).  Then arrange a booking for a studio to interview someone from the states down an ISDN line. Once all this is together it’s time to do the edit. The producer who has been assigned to suffer my inadequacies holds my hand through the whole process and the final product is aired the following week – wow I’ve just been described as a reporter on the BBC radio!

There are so many skills you get chance to develop – researching for programmes, writing, editing, interviewing, doing voice-overs – too many to mention. Oh, did I tell you? I loved every minute.

What about the Festival, did you enjoy working there?

The festival… Now what can I say. Apart from the local BBC team, Nick Crumpton (@LSMonster) and I were to be the BBC guys ‘up north’. Our assignment (we had no choice not to accept it) – to report back on any interesting stories, news or research. I arrived in time for the briefing in the media centre, given my Press Pass, then shown around the facilities in place for the ‘journos’ they were very impressive. It was for me and Nick to then fight over (rock, paper, scissors actually) the top stories then submit back to base for the news desk guys to pick over our offerings. Apparently we had a good week, but in truth most was laid on a plate for us – we had the easy job of just writing it up. It was good though to be with the other science press – to see how they dealt with press conferences (surprisingly all were in awe of that cutie Mancunian Prof. Brian Cox – it took Nick to break the ice with the first question in the press conference). I loved the idea of doing real reporting, scouting around for stories that weren’t simply in press releases. It was really enjoyable, and of course, we did feel compelled to do take part in the stereotypical over-indulgence that people have come to associate with journalistic lifestyle.

Will you continue to work with the media now that the Fellowship has come to an end?

Absolutely, I’m already making plans…


Jonathan Ball was a 2012 Media Fellow and has now resumed his work as Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Nottingham and he feels infectect with the comms bug. He is still writing articles for the media. One of his latest was about the Ebola virus.

You can learn more about Jonathan's and the other 2012 Media Fellows' experience on their report, and about the scheme on our Media Fellowships page.

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