Media Encounters of the Third Kind

Thursday 6th March 2014

During recent months, the UK has experienced a succession of extreme weather-related, geomorphological (landshaping) events, with heavy rain and wind, landslips, river flooding, tidal surges and coastal erosion foremost among them.  This has led to something of a media scramble for ‘experts’ able to pass comment on the causes, lasting effects, and land planning implications of these kinds of events.  Is this a sign that global climate change has finally arrived on the UK’s doorstep?  How quickly can flooded villages and battered coastal communities recover?  What defences do we need to put in place to allow us to cope with these kinds of events in future?  While there seems to be no shortage of ‘experts’ willing to step forward to provide that comment, in reality there is reticence on the part of some scientists – geomorphologists included – to get involved with the media.  The reasons are varied, but range from simple pressures of time, to not wanting to ‘dumb down’ complex issues simply to satisfy the media’s appetite for quick sound bites, to fear of misrepresentation in contentious and sensitive debates.  But equally, there are plenty of reasons for qualified scientists to get involved with the media, including the chance for subject area (or self) promotion, and the need for some informed commentary to balance the disingenuous or factually incorrect statements that commonly pepper such debates (for one take on this issue, see http://www.nature.com/news/scientist-versus-activist-debates-mislead-the-public-1.14761?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140227).  If qualified scientists don’t engage with the media – and after all, in these kinds of issues they are actually the ones best placed to try and separate fact from fiction – then the void will quickly be filled by self-appointed ‘experts’, many of whom may have agendas other than ensuring reasonably objective and balanced coverage.  But as many scientists have found down the years, interacting with the media is not an easy job, and one that requires some special skills (for another interesting take, see http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Mediarology/Mediarology.html).

I have had two previous encounters with the media where filming for TV has been involved.  Neither encounter was entirely satisfactory.

The first encounter involved spending the best part of a day with a well-known TV figure and a BBC film crew on top of Plynlimon in west Wales, as part of a series on ‘Rivers’.  I was asked at short notice to provide some comment on the landscape history and hydrology of Plynlimon, which is the source of some of the UK’s biggest rivers, the Severn and Wye among them.  No problem: with a bit of rapid cramming of relevant facts and figures, I was able to do that.  And the filming conditions were near-perfect: big, puffy clouds pregnant with moisture were scudding across bright blue skies, and there were expansive vistas across the green hill tops and river catchments of Ceredigion County. Only there was actually a problem: my carefully prepared words about the landshaping agents in the area (past glaciation, hillslope runoff, rivers) and the source and volume of rainfall (Atlantic Ocean-spawned depressions, with around 2 m of precipitation per year) all ended up on the cutting room floor and were never used.  Instead, I featured for about 30 seconds, which included me mumbling something semi-audible about the source of the River Wye, and some rather unflattering shots of my balding pate.  Of course, I was well aware that this could – indeed probably would – happen (after all, the intended audience was the cucumber sandwich-eating, early Sunday evening, grey-haired brigade) but still …. No appearance fee ever materialised and in the accompanying book of the series I didn’t even get an acknowledgment (let alone a mention in the main text).

On location with the BBC film crew, looking down the upper part of the Wye catchment

On location with the BBC film crew, looking down the upper part of the Wye catchment

The second encounter involved a South African film crew who were making a documentary about the scientific attractions of the Vredefort Dome meteorite impact site.  This was a more positive filming experience.  I was asked to take part in a more in-depth interview about why the site attracts overseas visitors like myself, especially scientists who are interested in the geology, landscape history, and river landforms and processes.  I also gained plenty of insight into the camera angles and framings that documentary film makers look for.  Only there was a problem here also: I have never seen the finished product and so I’m not even sure that the documentary has ever been completed.

So when Aberystwyth University’s Communications and Public Affairs Office contacted me at short notice for a possible media encounter of the third kind, should I accept or not?  Quick enquiries revealed that a well-known media outlet was looking for an expert to pass comment on the recent coastal storms in Aberystwyth, as part of a broader documentary about the recent coastal erosion and infrastructural damage in the UK.  Ironically, I had attended a morning’s media training just one day before this opportunity arose.  So third time lucky?  Perhaps, especially if I were to follow three sage pieces of advice regarding media interviews that were provided by the experienced journalists running the training.  First, anticipate the questions, prepare the answers, and practice saying them … as in previous encounters, this can be done to some extent, even at short notice.  Second, aim to get across no more three key messages that will both satisfy the interviewer but also allow you to make some points that you want to make … good advice, but in this case it was hard to know exactly what the main questions were likely to be (the meteorological background to the storms, the erosional processes, the economic costs of the storm damage, or what?).  Third, be prepared for the ‘curveball’ question i.e. the sly one that tries to provoke a comment on an awkward, contentious issue.  If unable or unwilling to answer such questions, don’t just offer ‘no comment’ but make a ‘bridge’ from that quagmire to more solid ground where you can talk about something related but perhaps without directly answering the question.  Err, right, possibly …. in this instance, contentious issues probably revolve around the links between these recent storms and climate change, and the economic, social and political decisions that inevitably are involved in discussions about coastal defence works.

Armed with what I could establish by email and phone about the parameters of the interview, and following a few hours cram revision on relevant facts and figures and the scribbling of a short list of key messages, I agreed to meet the film crew on Aberystwyth’s promenade.  The ‘crew’ turns out to be a pleasant two-person operation, one behind the camera and one behind the microphone.  The promenade is exceptionally noisy, with heavy machinery scraping into piles the sand and gravel overwash from the last high tide, and I suggest relocating elsewhere.  We end up at Tan-y-Bwlch beach just south of Aberystwyth harbour.  It’s windy and cold but with a great view north to the harbour and town, and a expansive view south along a prominent gravel ridge to the eroding cliffs of Allt Wen.  After reading a disclaimer to camera – basically they can use as much or as little (including none) of the footage as they see fit, and for whatever purpose they see fit – we’re off.  About ten rapid questions, with my responses being of varying length.  Multiple takes of me talking to a laser scan image of Aberystwyth promenade’s partially collapsed shelter on the interviewer’s iPhone (image courtesy of 3D Laser Mapping and my colleague, Dr Pete Bunting, and available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S9YFmPNTHI).  Multiple takes of me gazing knowingly out to sea before walking purposefully along the top of the gravel ridge.  Multiple takes of me walking side-by-side with the interviewer deeply engaged in conversation.  Angles, angles, angles.  Sound bite, sound bite, sound bite.

An hour and a half later, we’re done.  So what are my reflections on this third encounter?  Did I get my three messages across?  Partially, yes.  I’m a bit annoyed that despite best efforts, I didn’t manage to sneak in mention of geomorphology: that term was far too complicated for this particular media outlet.  Even ‘physical geography’ or ‘earth surface processes’ weren’t encouraged … essentially after 25+ years of advanced study in the geosciences, I am now billed as an ‘expert in erosion’.  But I did manage to make the key point that the recent storms in Aberystwyth are certainly not ‘unprecedented’ and not necessarily even ‘the largest in living memory’ (two commonly-used phrases), although this latter assessment does depend on whose living memory you are tapping.  Major coastal damage to Aberystwyth’s promenade occurred during storms in the 1920s and 1930s, and minor damage has probably occurred in decades since.  It is fair to say though that such events are relatively infrequent.  But this poses the real question: will these kinds of events become more frequent in future?  My raising of this question also helped to make a bridge with one of the anticipated curveball questions: are these storms a sign of climate change?  Answer: we may never be able to conclusively establish the link between individual weather events and climate change, but we can say that in a warmer, more variable future climate, and with gradually rising sea levels, we might expect to see storms like this occurring more frequently.  One further curveball question, also anticipated in advance: is it going to be possible to defend every part of the coastline?  Here, the elephant in the room is the creeping awareness that it is not going to be possible to afford defences for every coastal town that requires them, and that some Welsh (and presumably English, Scottish and Northern Irish) communities effectively may have to be abandoned to the waves (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-26125479).  Ceredigion County alone has about 50 miles of coastline, and although a fair length is sparsely populated, at many levels of government some difficult sociopolitical decisions are going to have to be made about where to prioritise investment in coastal defences.  By making these points, I essentially answered the question but no specific communities were mentioned, no personal opinions were offered, and no offence would be caused.  Phew.  Curveball question successfully negotiated (I think).

So, overall, it was a reasonably positive experience.  It was not an opportunity to inject high-brow science into the ‘storm chasing’ media scramble but then it was never going to be.  It was a chance to tell in reasonably straightforward terms what was the impact of the coastal storms in Aberystwyth and to speculate as to what may happen in future.  Of course, how it comes across on TV will all depend on the final cut, and I have zero control over this.  Much of it – perhaps all of it – will never be aired.  And the footage was nearly all lost anyway; towards the end of the filming, when still looking for THAT angle, the cameraman hoisted the tripod and camera over his shoulder, only for the camera to promptly slip from the tripod attachment and fall onto the hard concrete.  A quick check revealed no apparent damage, except for a tiny chip to the lens protector.

“Stormy Nation – The Aftermath”: coming to a TV near you soon! If that doesn’t entice you, perhaps the simple strapline might: “These kinds of storms may occur more frequently in future so coastlines may erode more quickly”.  Oh, jeez … finally, finally, I have been sucked into doing Twitter-esque geomorphology.  But if that’s what the rules of media engagement are, so be it.  There’s no point in watching (or listening to or reading) media coverage from the outside and moaning that no one listens to ‘us’ (scientists, geomorphologists, or whoever).  We can only engage on the media’s terms.  But perhaps we can then try to push the boundaries and slowly bend the rules from the inside.