Mike Swain is a former news correspondent turned Science and Environmental Editor who worked at the Daily Mirror for 17 years, before leaving recently to work as a freelance reporter. He tells Impact about some of the highlights and challenges of his career.
Could you tell me about your background?
I’ve always wanted to write – I first started working in a bookshop and initially wanted to work in publishing but I turned out hating it in the end. I then started applying for newspapers and started off with a part-time job in sports journalism in a local paper, after which I began freelancing in London – working at places such as the Sunday Times and the Evening Standard, before starting to work at the Mirror.
How did you first get started in science journalism?
I was at the news desk for 10 years at the Mirror and was asked to change to science as there were a lot of science stories around at that time with no one to cover them. At the Mirror, no one person had covered science for 25 years.
I’ve personally always been interested in the environment and agreed those topics were covered along with science. As a topic, the interpretation of science, especially in the tabloids is very wide – e.g. as a mix of health and technology –it doesn’t fit into one category, which makes it so interesting.
“As a topic, the interpretation of science, especially in the tabloids is very wide”
What have you most enjoyed covering in your career?
I’ve really enjoyed going to CERN with others such as Brian Cox, trips to science and environmental places such as India and Africa and covering the Copenhagen environmental conference. I also had to opportunity to climb to a summit in Everest and go to the coast of Bangladesh to cover stories.
What do you think the biggest challenges are in science journalism – do you feel that it often gets overlooked?
In national papers, there has to be a balance between being too highbrow and oversimplifying the topic. In tabloids, there is often pressure to oversimplify and it is assumed that topics such as the Higgs boson are very difficult – how would we explain it to readers? In this way, papers are often ‘frightened’ by science stories, but in actual fact readers understand more than people think. Both media and scientists underestimate what readers understand.
“In national papers, there has to be a balance between being too highbrow and oversimplifying the topic”
I’ve written very complicated health stories – they are more interesting than they’re given credit for. It’s a wonderful challenge to write in a clear and accurate way, especially in the tabloids. In actual fact, there is not much difference in the way science is reported in tabloids and broadsheets – they are still ‘dumbed down’.
Do you have any advice for aspiring science journalists?
National papers are becoming smaller – but the media has expanded and there are more opportunities now, especially online with blogs, social networks such as twitter etc. and with all kinds of organisations and press officers. It’s good that there are now more opportunities but this means it also gets overcrowded.
People who want to get involved tend to know about the science but not about how the media works – it’s actually very difficult to work in the media – in order to get it right, it requires a lot of hard work and a lot of thought. I would like to see more emphasis on actual media skills as it is quite difficult to write a good article.
You need to get proactive – in order to find your way in must stay determined and focussed. There are no great entry requirements– and often you can try to make way into paper with any topic, rather than focussing directly in science.