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Interview with Jay Ingram

March 11, 2010

Jay Ingram is the co-host of Discovery Channel Canada‘s daily science and technology magazine show, Daily Planet. He is the former host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, an author, and a former columnist at The Toronto Star.

We talked about the benefits of the different mediums in conveying science, engaging versus educating, and tying science journalism to current affairs.

[Full disclosure - I worked as an intern at Daily Planet in January, 2010]

Colin: What do you think is your role as a science journalist?

Jay: I think my role is to try and communicate, better, what sorts of interesting science is going on in labs and research institutions that, generally, people aren’t aware of. Now obviously I can’t do everything, so a certain amount of personal preference comes into this, because I like to do stories that I find the most interesting. But, I also am guided by what stories I think an audience will find interesting. And obviously, depending on what medium you’re working in, your audiences will be different.

I got interested in doing this a long time ago for the same reason that I do it now – I think there’s a lot of science that’s really interesting that doesn’t get out into the public domain, and not only do I think it’s interesting to hear about this stuff, but in many cases it’s also important, because it can involve issues that ultimately affect people’s lives directly, or indirectly. Climate change would be one, vaccines and the risk of autism would be another, and so on. They can be sort of frivolous or just fun, but they can also be important. Mainly it’s to search though the scientific literature and communicate some of that stuff that doesn’t normally get communicated.

C: Now you’ve worked in print, you’ve worked in radio, and you are working in TV. I was just wondering which of those mediums do you prefer? Do you have a preference?

J: I don’t really have a preference; they afford you different things, though. I like doing print occasionally, well all I really do print-wise now is book writing. I like that because it enables me to go into much greater depth than I generally have to or can in television. So I really like that, because if you like science then a certain part of you will always want to dig more deeply, because in science a lot of the most interesting stories are at depth, and aren’t likely to be carried in a five minute TV story, or an equivalent radio story, or even, well, maybe on a blog. So that’s why I like print.

In terms of radio versus TV. I think if you’re a host, I think they’re pretty much the same. Each has it’s strengths and weaknesses. They are a little bit different, but acting as a host is pretty much the same. If I compared hosting Quirks and Quarks to hosting Daily Planet. The job is pretty much the same. One of the great things about that kind of job is that you are exposed to an amazing breadth of material. So to a certain degree, it’s breadth versus depth.

C: When you were talking about the difference between print and broadcast, with the depth issue, do you ever worry about not getting enough of the science in? Or if it’s maybe a little too simplified?

J: I don’t really worry about that because you do have to take very seriously the medium that you are using. Let’s face it, a large article in a newspaper or a book, you’re inevitably going to be able to deal in much greater depth than in TV. But your audience is different, your audience’s desires are different. For many people a five minute piece on an Egyptian pharaoh is perfect, especially if it’s on TV and you have all that other information that’s carried by the visuals. But if you want to get into the entire family tree of that pharaoh, print is a better medium.

So I don’t really worry about – you know if you have 30 seconds, or 20 seconds, then it would be a bit harder to say, “Yeah I’ve gotten enough science into that.” I think it’s so important to consider first – audience, and second – the medium in which you’re working. To a large degree those two things in combination dictate what you should do if you want to be most effective.

C: One of the considerations that seems to be brought up a lot about the audience is whether they interpret the facts the same way as the scientists are presenting them, or the scientists put them out there to be interpreted. Do you ever worry about the audience taking the facts differently than they are meant to be?

J: Well to a certain degree I can’t control that. There’s plenty of evidence that every single human has a confirmation bias, and they will use new information – let’s say it’s about an issue like climate change, and there’s a new report out. It doesn’t really matter what is contained in that report. There’s pretty good evidence that people who think that human beings aren’t affecting the climate will continue to think that after the report – no matter what the report says. And those who believe that we are affecting the climate will continue to believe that. And in fact there are experiments that show that, if anything, people’s views become even more polarized when faced with information that can be contradictory.

So I can’t guarantee that anything I say is going to be taken in the exact sense that I intend it. But I pay pretty close attention to what I say, and how to craft it in a way that experience tells me is going to be most effective. So you know, all you can do is try and make sure that you are communicating in a way that people grasp.

Some of that means eliminating jargon and all that, but that’s kind of elementary. I think that you can only do so much, and then after that you just have to hope that people are grooving along in the same place as you are.

C: Is there anything you could do to reach across the aisle, to try and engage the people who disagree?

J: The best way to do that is to be engaged in a face-to-face dialogue. Or to put it less pretentiously, a conversation. Besides writing books, the other opportunity I have to get into depth is giving talks where – I don’t just give the same talk over and over – I try and tailor them specifically to the audience I’m speaking to. That requires on my part a lot of work. Now it gets quite condensed when I give a talk. But the advantage of giving talks is that there is Q&A afterwards. That’s where you get a chance to really nail down the kind of views that you wanted to express in the talk.

But I know that people, especially in the electronic media, people remember, “Oh you did a story on Bigfoot.” But in terms of the details of that story, very few people can actually come up with those. So in the end a significant part of communicating science is just to establish a positive atmosphere about it. That’s why I like it that so many young kids watch Daily Planet. It’s not that I want them to be addicted to TV in the future, it’s not that I want them to be able to repeat word-for-word everything that was said. It’s that they get the idea that science and technology are cool and interesting.

C: And then maybe they’ll go from there?

J: Yeah you know, you can only do what you can do. If they love it when they’re 15, maybe they’ll be influenced. I have met the very occasional person who was inspired to go into science in university as a result of listening to Quirks and Quarks, or even watching Daily Planet. So you know, that’s amazing.

C: One thing that I noticed, while I was at Daily Planet anyway, we don’t tend… hah “we”. They don’t tend to get too heavily into the controversial topics. You don’t go out of your way to always talk about climate change, or always talk about evolution. And I was just wondering why that is?

J: A large part of that is, what is the story? We like to do current stories, or stories that are hooked to current events one way or another. So a lot of the so-called debate in intelligent design vs. evolution, or climate change, has nothing to do with new studies. Look at climate change, it has to do with a bunch of hacked emails and some prediction of Himalayan glacier recession that was exaggerated and so on. That’s not science. It may be the absence of science in some cases, but it’s not science.

When I was at Quirks, and also now at Daily Planet, our focus really was on – we want a new finding, and then we can talk about it’s relevance to some of these topics. When it comes to evolution, there is no controversy – 99.999% of the science supports the idea that there’s been evolution. People who argue for intelligent design just sit there and try to pick holes in the evolutionary evidence. So we’re addressing it every time we talk about a new fossil dinosaur. We’re saying “Here’s this, it evolved from these earlier species, and it was the progenitor of T-rex.” But that’s all about evolution.

But the controversy is not science, so we wouldn’t do it. And in climate change, you know we do do – like there was a report out of Queen’s University about the temperature regime in an arctic lake that could be traced back even further than ice cores. And the researchers said straight out – what this lake shows, what these fossil sediments show, is that we are in the most unusual climate time ever. Well that’s really addressing the climate change debate, except it’s doing it by bringing in some new science. So that’s the way we approach it.

C: One thing that I talked about when I was at Daily Planet, and was actually strangely echoed by someone that I talked to at the New York Times, was the idea that science is just inherently interesting. That we don’t need to play it up, or change anything to get the general audience interested. And I remember you saying to me that it’s inherently interesting to you and me, but not to everybody.

J: Yeah I totally think that. And I think those people who think science is inherently interesting, and you don’t really have to do anything to present it to people, are producing a lot of science that nobody is paying any attention to. I mean it’s one thing if you write for the New York Times science page you can assume that there is a certain number of people who might methodically go through every single piece on the Tuesday science page. But that’s not true of very many people. Here, at Daily Planet, unless we choose stories that we think are really interesting, and then we s hoot them in an interesting way, edit them to keep up suspense or pace or whatever – Make them into good stories… A lot of science does not necessarily, inherently, make a good story. You have to create the good story out of the science. And that’s what we spend a good part of our time doing.

Science may be inherently interesting to a few of us, but that doesn’t mean it holds for the much larger audiences that we’re trying to grab.

C: So what are some of the things that you may be able to do to grab someone whose not keenly interested in science?

J: I think most of the things that you see us do in the show. One of the things that we insist on,  and every TV program should, is really attractive, fantastic images. And on a science show they have to be a certain kind of image that not only grabs your attention, but also tells you something. Because that’s the whole point. If you’re showing bat flight in slow motion, it’s not just the aesthetic of bat flight in slow motion, you’re actually trying to explain how these animals fly and what’s unique about that flight.

In TV you tell it with images and with really great interviewees who are interested and excited about what they do, and want to communicate it – because all of those features are critical.

The same is true in radio. You don’t have the benefit of the visuals but in a good radio documentary you can employ all kinds of sound, you have fantastic guests, and you can be very, very careful about the script you write so that every word seems to be right. And all of this is to make it accessible, to turn it as closely as possible into conversation. But a really exciting conversation that carries with it either images or sound effects or everything else.

To go back even further, it’s the choice of the story. I mean you know what it’s like from the story meeting in the morning. Some of the stories just aren’t that interesting, and they never get done. Some just seem inherently interesting.

I just did a “Jay’s Journal” this morning about what the difference between the sinking of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania can tell you about human behaviour. Because a whole different demographic of people survived the Titanic, than did the Lusitania, even though if you looked at the passenger lists before they set sail, they were more or less equivalent. The same number of rich people, the same number of poor people, the same number of men and women. Roughly equivalent. And yet in the Lusitania it was all young, healthy adults that survived. Men and women, but especially men.

In the Titanic, men in that age range, 16 to 35, survived least. And the explanation is, or at least the presumed explanation is, that it only took the Lusitania 18 minutes to sink. It took the Titanic two hours and 40 minutes. So while in the beginning fight or flight takes over, adrenaline rush, and if the ship is sinking fast, then all this crap about women and children first just gets forgotten.  It’s just pure survival instinct. But if a ship is sinking slowly and you’ve got hours, then culture and societal habit take over, and women and children do go first, and first class passengers do go first, and that sort of thing.

So why is that an interesting story? Well the guts of it are interesting, the conclusion is interesting, but even the headline – you can look at two marine disasters and read something about human behaviour into them? Well that’s pretty cool.

C: One thing that you mentioned is that TV is – is there anything special about TV for audience engagement compared to the other media?

J: Well, pictures. If you argue that, in some ways Daily Planet and Quirks and Quarks do similar kinds of stories, if not actually, literally the same stories. Then what’s the difference? The key difference in radio is that you can draw on your listener’s imagination and do stories that we would be hard pressed to do. The big bang. As far as I’m concerned it’s nearly impossible to provide visuals to talk about any new development in understanding the big bang. But you can do that pretty easily in radio.

Now you could interview somebody for radio… you could interview the same person and put them on camera, but I don’t think that really adds an awful lot to it. And we know pretty well that our audience is not fond of one head talking to another. So in that sense, if you are doing things that are hard to get visuals for, then radio is better. But somebody fishes up a colossal squid? You can do as much radio as you want on that, but two seconds of an image on Daily Planet will tell you more about the colossal squid than any amount of talk will. So it’s all about great images.

C: How much of the science do you think people will walk away from an episode of Daily Planet with?

J: Well it depends how exact you’d want their knowledge to be. So for instance that “Jay’s Journal” I was talking about probably will air at about two-and-a-half minutes. I think people will remember a one-liner, “In a panic, people put social niceties aside.” And you know, is that inaccurate? No. Does it have the detail? No. But you certainly can’t expect people to remember much detail.

Now I don’t know that so much about kids, because if they’re focused on something kids really have powerful minds. Whenever I run into a 14 year-old who says he watches Daily Planet every single day, they may just remember more. But how much could you expect people to remember when there’s five hours a week? Not much.

But I don’t mean that in a critical way. I just think that’s the nature of television.

C: Now them not observing everything, do you think that particularly matters? From what my thinking is, maybe the role is just to engage and interest, not so much teach.

J: I don’t think you could make a very strong argument for teaching, at least for us. And perhaps a lot of so-called educational TV may not teach an awful lot. I think engage, and like I said earlier, create a positive atmosphere. And maybe in some cases you do give people insights into scientists and science, and how it works.

On our show I think you get introduced to a lot of – anyone who watches our show regularly will know a lot more about Mars rovers, about robotics, about unusual or curious animals. And those things stay with you. If you see a story that rock pythons and burmese pythons are taking over the Everglades, you’ll remember that. So again, it all comes down to the choice of the story and how you execute it.

C: What do you feel is the biggest issue in science journalism right now?

J: The biggest issue I think in science journalism is to figure out how, in those controversial topics, to provide people with enough, and the right kind of information, that they can make well informed decisions.

So if it were climate change, and I don’t have an answer for this, but the issue is really – in climate change it’s all about the science. What science is out there, how reliable is it, what kinds of decisions can we make based on that science. It’s not about people claiming that other people are being funded by oil companies, or this or that. It’s about the science. What is the science?

But getting that across is a huge challenge because there is a strong tendency in the world for people to put their own spin on whatever the science is. As we’ve seen, there are probably climate scientists who want to put a spin on their results that, if you were taking a purely impartial view, you might not agree with.

So that’s the issue. Complex and controversial issues, what’s the best medium to get them across, and how to best do it. And I don’t have the answer for that yet – but that’s why I’m exploring things like the confirmation bias. I think it’s quite striking to know that if you present a bunch of data on climate change – those people who don’t believe that we’re causing it will probably go away still not believing we’re causing it. So suddenly the science part of the science journalism isn’t as important as the social psychology part of the science journalism. But that’s a pretty deep issue that I’m only vaguely familiar with so far.

C: The one thing that popped to my mind when you said that was the idea of changing the framing of the story. For example with climate change some people are taking almost a religious stewardship angle, that we need to protect God’s Earth. What do you think of changing the framing of a story to reach people who maybe won’t be sold (on the science)?

J: Yeah that’s an interesting thought, and I know that there are people, particularly in the States, who are really pushing the framing idea. I’d like to know how that stacks up, or how you could actually turn people’s attitudes around. I know that stewardship of God’s creation appeals to – I saw some survey just the other day, you know 48% of Americans think that that’s a good reason to be opting for sustainable approaches to things.

So I think framing is important, but in the end people’s attitudes and beliefs are formed early in life and they tend to hang on to them. And they tend to listen to authority figures, whichever ones they’ve decided are most important in their life. And for somebody to come in from the outside and try and change their minds is going to be a huge challenge, and I don’t know, it might be, but I don’t know that framing will be up to that.

But it’s worth trying. It’s sort of a rough and tumble world, where you’ve got to get a story out today, and by the time you think about how you’re going to frame it, your deadline is passed.

C: I was just wondering if there is anything that you wanted to add?

J: I just want to encourage anybody who likes science, but isn’t really that interested in staying in the lab, and would like to speak about it, write about it and show it, to do so. Because there is always a huge need for such people.

C: Thanks so much.

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