Media moguls

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Prof. Jay Melosh

EAPS/Physics Prof. Jay Melosh

Cameras. Studio lights. Lavalier microphones. National broadcast television and international documentaries.

More and more, mainstream media are looking to science experts for their stories, segments and webcasts. And more and more, it’s become important for these experts to become comfortable under those lights and with questions from reporters or producers who may not have scientific backgrounds.

At the College of Science, many faculty members are becoming quite media savvy. For some, news outlets seek them out because their fields are taking on tremendous importance right now. Others have been a fascinating source for decades.

“The area I work in, planetary science, is one that creates a lot of public interest,” says Jay Melosh, Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Physics. “My first media contacts were way back at the beginning of my career. The things I published on –– impacts, planetary science and especially when I got involved in the extinction of the dinosaurs –– there was a lot of media attention. I have all along talked to the press.”

Melosh has been in front of documentary cameras since the 1970s. Flipping around your cable provider, you might spot him on the History or Discovery channels talking about the threat of asteroids, the origin of the moon, where life came from or space exploration.

Melosh revealed the behind-the-scenes process of a science documentary.

“Typically six months to a year, a network starts planning,” he says. “I’ll often get a call during the planning stage. It might be a call for background information, and they may enjoy talking to me and then they’ll say ‘Well, we’d like to have you on-camera.’ I’ve done that many times now. It’s approaching 50 documentaries I’ve been in over the years. In fact, a month ago, I was part of a Howard Hughes Medical Center documentary on extinction and evolution, and they wanted to talk extinction. They were quite well-funded so they flew me out to Meteor Crater, Ariz., where we did the interview over a day and a half.

“They’ll often put together a script, sometimes on the basis of the interview or sometimes multiple interviews and email exchanges. It does take a lot of time to do this. These are not paid. No one pays the scientists. They pay your expenses but nothing beyond that.”

Melosh was a part of a NASA documentary called "Space Shuttle" that had some big money attached to it. But it all went to the narrator –– Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner.

Though no payment is involved, the exposure is valuable and sometimes random. Due to his insights and proliferation, Melosh can say he is big in Japan.

“I had a PhD student who had just come from Japan, and he came up to me and spoke to me in Japanese,” Melosh remembers with a smile. “I don’t know Japanese so I was unable to respond. He got very upset and said ‘I saw you on television and you were speaking perfect Japanese.’ He was a young student and didn’t realize these are dubbed. Yeah, I speak perfect Japanese when I’m on documentaries in Japan.”

Melosh has traveled around the country to spread his knowledge of moons, asteroids and extinction with documentarians and film crews, but most faculty members do not have similar experience –– at least not yet.

A movement among Purdue faculty members is stressing the importance of being comfortable with the press, and realizing that not all reporters are experts in science.

The same skills involved in talking to the press also help in policy engagement — a form of influence projection similar to the media. Getting information on the latest research in science out to the public and policymakers not only helps advance awareness, but it serves part of Purdue’s mission as a land-grant university.

One new initiative of the Purdue Global Policy Research Institute (GPRI) is to establish a “policy academy” to help teach faculty how to present their work to policymakers and the media.

CS Prof. Gene Spafford

Computer Science Prof. Gene Spafford

“We’re trying to get faculty involved to help them understand how to present to the public the implications of their research,” says Gene Spafford, professor of computer science and participant in the GPRI efforts. Purdue News Service also has tips and training for faculty on how to deal with the press.

Spafford’s knowledge in cybersecurity and ability to present complex issues understandably has made him a regular on NPR, the New York Times, Federal Computer Week and CNN as well as numerous other news outlets. For example, in June, Spafford made the national news rounds on television and online regarding the controversial PRISM data-mining program run by the National Security Agency, and he commented on CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s compromised computer. Spafford helped explain the technology behind those events for the masses.

Of all the cyber experts out there, how did Spafford get on the national scene?

“Part of it is that in the field, I have done some things that are notable and in several in my talks and papers, I’ve regularly commented on the implications for the public about that technology. That’s one element that may have led some members of the press to me,” says Spafford, who is also the executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) at Purdue.

“A second has been I have been very involved in professional organizations that have created networking opportunities and appearances where people have seen me in addition to the usual academic
events. Starting back to when I was a grad student, members of the press would call for comment or explanation because so many people knew that I worked in the area.

“It appears, judging from responses, I’m able to explain issues to them in a reasonable way and that leads them to call back. Sometimes that leads on to other references. Sometimes news organizations repeatedly go back to the same experts.”

Sometimes science faculty also must deal with media outlets that usually have nothing to do with science at all, except for an infatuation.

Physics Prof. David Miller at CERN

Physics Prof. David Miller at CERN

In July 2012, physics professor David Miller was contacted by producers of WJFK 106.7 The Fan, a Washington, D.C., sports talk station owned by CBS. Morning jocks Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier of “The Holden and Danny Show” were bewitched by the Higgs boson discovery. With a celebrated crew at CERN and many more supporting them back in West Lafayette, the Purdue Department of Physics showed on many media news outlets. Miller’s 40 years teaching physics at Purdue made him a sound choice. However, what was it going to be like
talking to two DJs who are more adept at debating Bryce Harper’s baseball maturity or Robert Griffin III’s injury status than science?

Miller held his own during the lengthy interview. Miller’s dry humor and matter-of-fact explanations of the new particle discovery, which was one of the science stories of the year, scored well with the DJs, producers and audience.

“Certainly the hosts thought it went very well, and they got a lot of great feedback showing interest and asking questions,” Miller states. “I was able to explain the science and why it is important in understandable language, and one does not need math or abstract concepts to do that. What I have found is that basically everyone saw something about the Higgs so every man in the street that I meet if I mention the Large Hadron Collider or Geneva knows something and is interested. I think it is like the Hubble telescope that caught people’s imagination and there really is a worldwide interest in science.”

On Feb. 15, Miller made a return to 106.7 The Fan with a near 13-minute segment discussing the Chelyabinsk, Russia, meteor landing and the 150-foot DA14 asteroid approach. Both events occurred that day.

Mainstream media’s news cycle and the science world’s cycles are usually incompatible. Science’s is much slower and methodical while mainstream media thrives on fastpaced
breaking news. It cannot wait years for a follow-up, which Miller finds unfortunate.

“The lifetime of a discovery in the normal media is very short so there is a lack of continuity,” Miller laments. “The LHC is now shut down until 2015 so the next (Higgs-related) discoveries –– if they exist –– will not be before 2015 or 2016.”

Though most media inquiries can be handled over the phone –– like Miller’s radio spots — Spafford and Melosh are no strangers to the video studio in the depths of Purdue’s Stewart Center. Making use of professional studio lighting, high-grade cameras and the only satellite uplink between Chicago and Indianapolis, faculty members tape segments for news channels about once a month, says Ed Dunn, manager of video and multimedia production services for the studio.

Of course, the frequency depends on world events. Steve Wereley, professor of mechanical engineering, was in the studio several nights in a row to discuss the 2010 Gulf of Mexico BP oil leak, and members of a research group on concussions in football found significant live television in fall 2012. Often when a major earthquake strikes, faculty members from science or engineering are quickly requested and set up for live analysis on national television.

The studio is undergoing a $400,000 renovation, mainly in the control room.

“The main reason was the equipment needed to be upgraded to professional HD for our clients including the major television and cable networks that use our facility to interview Purdue faculty and staff,” Dunn says.

On a recent morning, a lapel microphone rested on a stool. The area was expertly lit with numerous spots shining down from the tall ceiling. A few TV studio-quality video cameras were parked over to the side. Behind the stool, Purdue banners and bookshelves proved to be adequate background. The books included old science journals from 1961 but their bright red spines pop well on the camera.

The scene probably seems foreign to most science faculty who are more comfortable in the lab or lecture hall. But it may be the best way to get their research and knowledge out there.

“I regard it as one of my jobs as a professor: to interface with the public,” Melosh says. “It’s a form of education. It’s not classroom teaching but it reaches many more people than classroom teaching does so it is important to be able to do that.”

Should Purdue science faculty start getting agents?

“Carl Sagan had an agent. I am not Carl Sagan,” Melosh laughs.