Impact Talks To… Peter Aldhous

Peter Aldhous, a former PhD student at UoN, now works as a freelance science journalist. He has worked as the News Editor and San Francisco Bureau Chief of New Scientist, and has also worked for Science & Nature. He studied under Chris Barnard whilst at Nottingham and returned to Nottingham to deliver a talk for the 2013 Chris Barnard Memorial Lecture.

Impact Science asks him about the highlights of his career and the current state of science journalism.

How did you first get started in Science Journalism?

I wrote bits while doing my PhD, pitching stories on interesting new papers, or meetings and talks I’d go to. I did most of my writing for BBC WILDLIFE MAGAZINE, one piece for NEW SCIENTIST (that I really struggled to get them to pay me for!) and for some national newspapers. Chris Barnard, my supervisor, was really supportive, despite science writing not necessarily being seen as a respectable thing to do in those days. On the basis of that, I got a job straight after my PhD working for NATURE as a news reporter, and never looked back.

How do you think technology and new media have changed the nature of journalism?

I characterise the situation in which we are in now as ‘the best and worst of times’. [Technology and New Media have] broken the business model of journalism. This is the ‘worst of times’ in that newspapers and magazines are in a world of declining circulation, revenue, and staff as more people are being laid off. But although it’s a challenging time, I’m optimistic. I think people do still want good quality science journalism – we just have to work out how we’re going to pay for it and develop a model that works.

There are a lot of weird science stories about Bigfoot and goldfish listening to Bach. Is this what we want our science coverage to be like?

What is your opinion on how science is represented in the media?

I think certain pressures are pushing the media in the wrong way. There’s a lot of science journalism as ‘listicles’ (such as Buzzfeed) or ‘infotainment’, such as weird science stories about Bigfoot and goldfish listening to Bach. This is all interesting stuff, but is it what we want our science coverage to be like?

But at the same time, people are doing really good journalism – a colleague of mine, Anil Ananthaswamy, did a piece recently about people who think their limbs aren’t part of their body and want to have them cut off. He even went out to the Far East where these sorts of operations take place. So there’s not a simple answer to that question – we’re in a state of flux and turmoil.

What are the highlights of your career?

I’d had opportunities to do some amazing things, such as catching quolls in the dead of night in in Australia and going to the forests of Borneo. But what I really liked doing is putting science and data analysis into science journalism. The piece I’m most known for in NEW SCIENTIST is called ‘How My Genome Was Hacked’ and the idea behind it is if someone picked up a cup I’d been drinking from, could they get my DNA from it and analyse it?

It turned out it was absolutely possible. No questions were asked, and they could find out some pretty sensitive things – including that I have a genetically elevated risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I think that article had some influence in the US where they are no laws to prevent this, whereas there are in the UK.

Science journalism is in a state of flux

Any advice for aspiring science writers?

You just need to start doing it! Write for a student newspaper or blog. It will make a huge difference if you can get paid for your work. You ought to be thinking about other options – not just writing but video, audio, programming and coding, and how you can apply that in journalism. People who get on are the people who DO, not people who ask HOW.

Faiza Peeran

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Image: Richard Carter via Flickr


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