Review by Emma Tegg (28th November 2022)
The Imperial College community celebrated science journalism on the 17th of November with a guest lecture by award-winning science journalist, Melissa Hogenboom.
Hogenboom is currently Editor of the global digital documentary platform BBC Reel. She has written online news and features and produced and reported for television and radio. Her curious mindset has led her to forge a career traversing troll hunting in Iceland to searching for her cosmic twin in a parallel universe.
As a recipient of the 2017 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award, Hogenboom discussed her pathway into science journalism. She shared her ‘idea-making’ process and gave practical advice for working in science journalism, which as an aspiring science journalist, I found exciting.
The golden thread of insight Melissa offered at the event was the difference between a topic and an idea. Topics, she says, are a dime to the dozen, from veganism and food waste to space colonisation. However, an idea requires a captivating storyline to engage audiences. This skill of extracting original storylines from an array of topics left me brainstorming ideas in a new light.
When conceptualising stories, Hogenboom ventures beyond the everyday and into the weird and wonderful. As Editor for BBC Reel, she uses short videos to connect viewers with people “living remarkable lives around the globe”. Her work highlights “inspiring and innovative ideas for the future, discovering new mysteries and debunking hype.” The transformation from topic to story idea is best exemplified by her award-winning work on parallel universes. In this example, Hogenboom started off with the relatively incomprehensible topics of quantum physics and multiverses, and ultimately created a story about ‘Finding my cosmic twin’. As she aptly reasoned during the lecture, “because who wouldn’t want to find that?”. This is the magic of storytelling, where stories hold the power to reveal something about yourself, speak to the human condition, or simply satiate your curiosity about an unfathomable topic.
Paradoxically, Hogenboom also discussed how well-known topics can be covered again through a new lens. For example, stories about the experiments of twins separated at birth formed the subject of a Netflix documentary, ‘Three Identical Strangers’, as well as a three-part BBC reel series ‘Split at Birth’, the latter focusing more on the problematic science behind such experiments in more detail.
Hogenboom also shared practical tips for working in science journalism. One highlight included ‘managing upwards’ by offering solutions to logistical problems or ensuring your work fills a knowledge gap. It’s a win-win scenario: as your work progresses, the overall mission of the team also benefits. I found this to be invaluable leadership advice, as the encouragement of more upward management fosters a culture of agency and progression rather than creative stagnancy.
Another key takeaway lies in Hogenboom’s liberating advice to explore multiple mediums. A strong story can be adapted to engage audiences across audio, visual and text-based platforms. The exact media form is flexible because it’s storytelling that forms the heart of journalism.
Melissa’s catalogue of thought-provoking and humanistic work speaks for itself, but her generosity in sharing her creative strategies was insightful and inspiring. Hogenboom instilled the importance of collaboration throughout the lecture; our ideas are better together as collections and reflections of the human experience. As a bonus, I’m now learning something new every day with my dose of BBC reel!
The event took place on Thursday, 17th November – if you’d like to hear Melissa Hogenboom’s lecture in full you can watch it here. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) lecture was held in partnership with Imperial’s Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication. The event was hosted by the Science Communication Unit and chaired by Gareth Mitchell. The AAAS Kavli lecture series celebrates the role of science journalism in society and stimulates critical debate about the future directions of science.