Bucking the trend in science journalism, the PBS NewsHour announced last Tuesday that it has created a new Science News Unit under the leadership of veteran reporter Miles O’Brien. An award-winning journalist (and general aviation pilot), O’Brien was a science reporter for CNN from 1992 until 2008, when the network cut its entire science team. Since then, O’Brien has been a writer/correspondent for WNET’s Blueprint America series, FRONTLINE and Discovery Science’s Innovation Nation series. He has also led the efforts to stream live coverage of space shuttle launches and produce “This Week in Space” for the website Spaceflightnow.com. Following PBS’s announcement, CJR’s Curtis Brainard spoke with O’Brien about his return to a major network, big issues in science, and his plans for the NewsHour.
So, how does it feel to be covering science full-time for a major network again? And what do you think of the NewsHour’s investment in this unit vis-à-vis the state of science journalism?
Mile O’Brien: Well, I don’t know the science which undergirds it, but you could knock me over with a feather. Nearly two years after I’d left CNN, I’d pretty much given up on mainstream media coverage of science and technology. It was interesting to be on the outside looking in and seeing how little it is covered, and how poorly it is covered, and how politicized science has become, and how it’s been viewed through a prism that makes it a kind of pro-and-con debate. It has nothing to do with informing the public. I watched that with dismay, and frankly I had kind of moved on and realized there were other ways to reach people, using alternative means of distribution—web 2.0, social networking, tweeting, facebooking, youtubing, all that kind of thing—and that’s been exciting. I’ve enjoyed that.
So, when I got the call from [NewsHour executive producer] Linda Winslow that she was interested in doing this and that she had the funding to do this, it was truly a eureka moment for me. It’s so good that there is a place left that cares about this kind of content. It’s so important for our national discourse and debate; it’s so important for the education of our kids; it’s so important for, ultimately, the competitiveness of our country that we have people who understand a little something about science and technology – these complicated issues. And what the NewsHour wants to do is take a serious look at that – not a boring look, but a serious look, and explore the issues in an engaging way. You know, I’m flattered. I’m honored. I feel like the knight in Monty Python [British accent]: “I’m not dead yet.”
What will your strategy be at the NewsHour? What kinds of resources are you going to have at your disposal and what are your short-term priorities and objectives?
Well, there are so many stories out there that are fun and interesting in the world of science. A story that is fun and interesting and relevant to the NewsHour audience, and which is able to sustain eight minutes—that starts to get to be kind of a high bar. Keeping people going and interested for eight minutes is a challenge, and I look forward to that challenge. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to really get in and explain some things to people. But you have to be careful. You don’t want to go too deep into the weeds and start writing essentially a TV version of the journal, Science.
So, what I want to do is look at big buckets of issues. I’m very interested in robotics technology. I’m very interested in nanotechnology. I’m interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education issues and how this nation addresses a huge problem we have in a lack of expertise among science teachers. I’m interested in the technological shift that is making newspapers and books more or less obsolete—I’m sitting here looking at my iPad as I talk to you—and how that profoundly changes the way we all process and learn. So, those are like big buckets of issues, and what we have to do now is figure out how to fill up eight minutes on that, and find the right people and subject matter. We’ve had our initial story meetings. The NewsHour is interested in a lot of things that I’m interested in, which is always nice, and frankly, stuff that I had a hard time selling at CNN.