People don’t like asteroids turning into planets!

Okay, I don’t have much television experience. I have been interviewed on TV exactly once, and it was early in my outreach career. However, that one experience taught me a lot about what television wants from a scientist. Put simply, they want what they want from everyone they interview: a short snappy soundbite. (Of course all media loves them.)

The background: it was August 2006, and the International Astronomical Union was about to vote in Prague on the definition of a planet. The original proposed definition not only included Pluto, but would have brought in several other objects into the planetary fold, increasing the number of planets in the Solar System to 13 overnight. This made a lot of people annoyed, not least because we’d have to learn a new planetary mnemonic.

Just about everyone at work was away at the IAU General Assembly – where the vote was to take place – so when the ABC called asking for someone to comment, I was the last man standing. They sent a cameraman out, but I spoke to the journalist over the phone, holding it behind me to keep it out of sight of the camera. It must have looked pretty stupid to any onlookers.

I was young and naive (well okay, maybe not that young) and chatted with the journalist for a little over 10 minutes about the proposed definition, and why people might love or hate it. In the end, the line they used? “People, you know, don’t like asteroids turning into planets”… there was more, but all you need to know is I said “you know” too many more times. At least I didn’t say “like, you know”, but that’s small comfort!

So, not really what I had hoped for, but that is all down to my inexperience, and false expectations, rather than the media. If I had my time again, I might have done things differently. I’d definitely be more careful of my choice of words for one thing, but that’s pretty tricky when you’re holding a mobile phone behind you and have the Sun in your eyes, which didn’t help either. All in all, not my finest outreach experience!

I came close to television on one other occasion, this time it was CNN International, and it fell through, probably because of my initial response. The person who emailed me asked if we could test out the Skype connection before the interview. I was happy to do it, but when she asked it was 10:30pm in Sydney, so I suggested we try the next day. Needless to say they got someone else while I was asleep.

Moral to the story: if you want to do outreach on TV, do whatever the producers, assistants or whoever suggest when they suggest it unless you really can’t do it. At least until you have a name for yourself and they can’t just get someone else.


About drsimmo

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
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