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Prince has died at the age of 57. Yesterday it was Victoria Wood. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett…the list of cultural giants who have passed away this year doesn’t end there.

For a few years now I’ve been boring friends and colleagues with my theory that the rate of ‘celebrity-deaths’ (please pardon the crude phrase) is only going to rise over time. It’s almost too easy to point to 2016 as evidence of this – but I do think it provides food for thought. It also provides a reason for me to write the following: we need to start the discussion about how the media covers celebrity deaths in the future. Why? Because I worry that these deaths will become so frequent that the way we currently do it is not sustainable.

“We’re entering an era of mass celebrity death”

Not sustainable?

When these famous people lost their lives this year, the coverage has been, arguably, suffocating. If you’re a Twitter user there’s no point in looking at your feed for hours after the news breaks unless you want to read the same tributes a thousand times over. And unless C-listers who-sort-of-vaguely-knew-the-celebrity-in-question relaying tenuous anecdotes at length is your thing, you must avoid any radio/tv/online outlet which deals with breaking news. World leaders pay tribute. And so on it goes.

Of course – for fans of the person who has just died – this coverage will always be appropriate. I’m not saying any outlet got their coverage wrong this year. I just wonder if we need to think more about how it’s done in the future because I believe it will happen more and more. And what do we do when two massive ‘names’ pass away on the same day as a massively important news event (eg. EU Referendum day)? The news world could implode.

The rate of ‘celebrity deaths’ will increase

In the age of The Beatles there simply weren’t enough media outlets to facilitate many big celebrities. Since then…radio blossomed, TV became commonplace in every UK household, the numbers of channels increased, magazine publishing went into overdrive, the internet arrived, smartphones and tablets came on the scene, and blogs and vlogs have recalibrated how easily and quickly people could become significant celebrities and role models for an entire generation. There are LOADS of celebrities these days.

I know, I know…the likes of Bowie and Prince truly are unique due to their position in history. When there were fewer world-famous artists each one had a deeper meaning (arguably) to a greater number of people. But in the same way that humans are capable of having anywhere between two and 200 friends they know and care about, I believe we are all capable of liking and caring about a huge number of celebrities. And there are simply more celebrities now.

We’re entering an era of mass-celebrity-death

The only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.

Sorry, I don’t mean to sound crass. But if the ‘media revolution’ happened in the 50s and 60s – then the increased number of people we nationally love and care about are becoming more and more at risk of their lives coming to an end. Five, ten, twenty years from now that trend will increase massively. So if a daily ‘celebrity death’ becomes the norm – how should the media deal with it? Should there be rolling news coverage of each one? Should regular TV and radio programming be replaced by tribute programmes every time? Should big news stories be pushed aside for obituaries?

Of course – the answer will depend each time on who it is. Personally, I think the way forward is less blanket-coverage.

Immediate tributes – yes. Well-crafted and thoughtful obits on the evening news – yes. Hours/days of rolling coverage? No. A few years from now, if ‘celebrity death rates’ increase, I just don’t think that will be possible. Otherwise, the only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.

ps.

I’ve just listened back to last Friday’s episode of ‘More of Less’ (Radio 4, 15th April 2016).
They looked at whether more celebrities have died in 2016 than in other years, and discovered how many ‘official’ BBC obituaries have been run in the first quarter of this year compared to the years since 2012.

obits

I was pleased to hear the BBC’s Obituaries Editor, Nick Serpell, sort-of agree with part of my argument. Here’s what he said on the programme:

Before television arrived in the early 1950s, the only really famous people that people came across all the time were movie stars – because they went to the cinema.

In the 50s we had television, that brought more famous people into people’s rooms. Music in particular; we had the growth of rock and roll. Remember The Who sang about ‘my generation’, hoping that they’d die before they got old. But whilst some of them did, the majority of them didn’t. And all these people, in the ‘rise and the growth of celebrity’, if you like, are now reaching that period in their 70s and 80s where they’re going to start to die, and I think that’s causing this.

ie. Should I stay up all night/get up early/plan a party/book a day off work?

The path to victory...for someone. (Actually the path up Ben Vrackie near Pitlochry).

The path to victory…for someone. (Actually the path up Ben Vrackie near Pitlochry).

The Short Answer

It’s impossible to be accurate. Especially because it’s a first-of-its kind vote with more than four million registered voters.

But the best-guess is ‘around 7am’ on Friday 19th.

The Process

Polls open at 7am on Thursday 18th with voters answering the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Polls close at 10pm. Counting begins at 32 regional centres.

Ballots have to make it from the farthest flung bits of Scotland to these centres. For that reason helicopters are being used in some areas, and the WEATHER could actually slow the whole thing down. Really.

The 32 counting centres will report results through the night. Results will trickle in until we know the final result.

The Final Result

Here’s the important bit! The chief counting officer, Mary Pitcaithly, is the person who will tell the world whether it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If you’re bleary-eyed on Friday morning and she steps onto live TV listen carefully – she might be telling you the result.

IMPORTANTLY – she will announce who has won BEFORE the final result is known. She will do this as soon as it’s mathematically impossible for the other side to win.

Timings

Counting starts when the polls close at 10pm on Thursday 18th.

Early results could trickle in from around 1am.

Most of the results will pour in from 3 – 6am.

The result of the referendum (though not necessarily the ‘final’ count total) is expected around 7am.

So – if you’re a referendum die-harder with no job you’ll want to plan a party which runs from late evening on the Thursday through to Friday morning.

Most people with a keen interest might want to get to bed early and get up around 3am to track the results as they come in.

Or you could get up at 7am and hope the result hasn’t been announced yet.

The recount theory/problem

When the final result comes in, everyone’s agreed: that’s that. No recount. Even if there’s only one vote in it. The result sticks.

However, at each of the 32 counting stations, both the yes and no camp can request one recount.

And there’s a lot at stake. Obviously.

Ideally people will have a good reason to request a recount. And it’ll be up to the counting officers to allow them or not. But a good theory – explained to me by very reputable sources – is that recounts could be likely in just about all 32 regions. This vote is forever (supposedly…). And the losing side in each area has nothing to lose by requesting a recount.

Therefore – the timetable of the whole thing could be derailed by a long series of recounts.

So if you’re a REAL referendum die-harder, plan the party, stay up all night, and make sure you’ve booked the day off work on Friday in case of bad weather or lots of recounts.

Read more here: the official document explaining how it all works.

Perhaps you’ve seen this image doing the rounds:

flowers1

Since @OliverJamesUK posted it on 6th July it’s gone viral. Thousands retweeted it immediately, others nicked it and re-posted it, campaigners and celebrities like Frankie Boyle shared it, and it’s all over Facebook timelines.

But is it accurate? And where’s the picture from?

This is not about the pros or cons of the Work Capability Assessments. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest they’ve gone wrong in many instances, and the Atos contract is due to come to an end. This is about how a simple, powerful message can spread on social media even when people don’t really know what it is they’re sharing.

This picture was actually tweeted a few times over previous months, but never got much attention. It actually dates back to a rally against disability welfare cuts held on 28th September 2013. More pictures here… The fact that it’s gone viral this time suggests that the wording of the tweet was important.

The flowers are meant to represent “more than 10,000 people who died shortly after undergoing the Atos Work Capability Assessment“.

But hang on – the number of people who underwent the assessment is very different from the number of people who were actually declared fit for work, as the tweet stated.

So how many really was it?

The protest last September, and the ‘10,000’ people the flowers were for, are based on the table below, which comes from a DWP report from July 2012.

flowergraph

What does it mean? Those 10,600 people started the fit-for-work assessment.

  • Of those, 2,200 never completed the assessment
  • 7,100 were placed in the ‘support group’. These people were specifically deemed not fit to work.

The DWP states in that report:

“Those in the Support Group receive unconditional support due to the nature of their illness, which can include degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability.”

  • The remaining 1,300 were placed in a ‘work related activity group’.

From the DWP:

“Those in this group are not expected to work, but are provided with help and support to prepare for work where possible.”

And here’s the most important bit regarding our original tweet. From the last page of the report:

“Data on the number of ESA claimants that have died following a fit for work decision is not available, as the Department does not hold information on a death if the person has already left benefit.”

So is the original tweet accurate? Absolutely not. Do people sharing it think it’s factually accurate and shows a new, current picture? Almost certainly.

Confusing a desire for accuracy with giving an opinion

The difficulty with writing things like this is that people jump to the conclusion that you’re somehow arguing one side or the other on the issue itself. I’m not. Just because I’m pointing out that the tweet is misleading doesn’t mean I don’t agree with its sentiment.

This exchange on Twitter regarding the ‘flower tweet’ is typical – if you go looking there are many like it:

flowerchat

Politics aside, @guy_herbert is right that a number with no context is unhelpful. Statistics are an important business. But when you question them on such an emotive topic people become angry, as if because you want accuracy you don’t care for those 10,600 individuals who died.

If you believe in a cause and want to campaign on it, those in power will ignore you if your numbers don’t add up, or if your facts are not facts. So if you want to share things to further a social cause, I would argue that asking what exactly it is you’re sharing, and whether it might be accurate before you click ‘retweet’ can help.

I attended a great event at the University of Lincoln yesterday (‘Headspace‘, April 2014) – a ‘general’ networking thingy involving media/radio/audio students and a bunch of people like me. Thanks to Zara Healy for organising it.

Headspace Poster

I had a few thoughts from the day to share, which might be of use to media students in Lincoln and beyond: 

At Q&A events, ask good questions

A lot of questions we were asked yesterday were about ‘how to make a good impression on people in the industry’. The whole event was built around students asking questions. And people immediately made a good impression when they asked a good question. So there’s one simple answer!

That is so true both at events like this, but also any time you’re chatting to people in your industry (ie. when you’re ‘networking’, as much as that word is slightly horrible). Ask good questions.

A lot of people yesterday didn’t try to ask any questions. Why not? Are you not interested? Not curious? Not passionate about your future career? Not confident enough to ask?

Then, a lot of people ask incredibly generic and predictable questions. There’s nothing wrong with this, if you have a question and want to ask it – good – it’s important that you do so, even if it’s not a ‘new’ question. These questions are along the lines of “how do I get a job as a radio presenter?”. “How can I get work experience?”. “What tips do you have to get into radio?”.

But the people who really make an impression ask precise and practical questions and are clearly interested in the answer. “I love driving radio desks; how can I persuade the manager at my local radio station to let me get some practice there?”. “I want to be a presenter. Should I send people a demo on CD, MP3, or with a link to my Soundcloud?”. These are still simple questions, but they are focused.

Even better/in addition – ask someone a question specific to what they do, and make the question interesting. “You do xyz. If I wanted your job one day, what’s the one skill you would focus on if you were me?”. It’s just a thousand times more interesting than the question “how do I get a job?”.

Email people!

This is an easy hit – and a really simple and non-intrusive way of doing the whole ‘networking’ thing.

There’s no doubt that networking is really important. Not just for helping get experience now. In ten years’ time someone you say hello to today could prove really useful in your career. That’s as true for you if you’re just graduating as it is for me – for all I know later in life you’ll be my boss.

So when you’re starting out and trying to get experience or a job, email everyone you meet in your chosen sector. Just say hello, say who you are, and perhaps ask a simple question to get advice and build a relationship. It’s amazing where it can lead, even if it seems a bit pointless at the time.

Take yesterday’s networking event, for example.

Perhaps the best thing an attendee could have done would have been to look at the list of speakers, and to email each and every one beforehand to introduce themselves and just say “look forward to meeting you”, or something similarly cursory.

I don’t think anyone did that.

Second-best is doing the same thing after the event. If you go to a conference or guest-lecture or shadow someone in their job – get in touch with everyone you met or heard from afterwards just to say hi and thanks.

I met a few people today who I know will do that – but it’s always surprisingly few. See my last post about getting work experience for more on that…

Is LinkedIn important?

I’ve never been the biggest fan of LinkedIn but I surprised myself by answering this question yesterday with an overwhelming ‘yes’.

This might sound slightly stalker-ish… But people from the University of Lincoln and elsewhere often get in touch to ask if I’ll be an interviewee for a project associated with their course. I invariably, out of curiosity, stick their name into Google to find out if this person has a Twitter/LinkedIn profile and I find myself making surprisingly quick judgements about them on this basis. A student getting in touch who has an up to date and comprehensive LinkedIn profile and an active and engaging Twitter page really, really stands out – because the vast majority don’t have these simple things.

I think increasingly there’s an expectation that if you’re part of the next generation of broadcasters you’ll at least be on Twitter and LinkedIn. If you’re not already, it’s never too late to start.

Don’t be passive

The above advice is all very simple stuff. Some people might read that and think ‘why do you even need to say that?!’. Yet some students were totally passive yesterday – happy to turn up, sit, and listen as if it were a day-to-day lecture. It was a day about networking, about asking questions, about being engaged.

Turning up and listening isn’t enough if you want a job in any highly competitive sector, and the media is most certainly one of those.

And I was so encouraged by many people who spoke up with good questions and looked excited just to learn more about the industry they want to work in.

So if you’re studying media/radio/audio/similar don’t be passive. Be active. Ask good questions. Email people. Be excited about what you’re doing. Understand that your course gives you vital skills but does nothing on its own to get you a job unless you get out there and make that happen for yourself.

Scientists want more science, more accurately represented, in the media. Yet I find they so rarely want to come on the radio and talk about it*

I work on a large daily current affairs radio programme, and certain big topics get covered frequently. The state of the economy, immigration laws, high-speed rail, welfare; those and many more get regular outings on air. Climate change is another topic that, in one form or another, will warrant regular discussion.

On most subjects, finding knowledgeable pundits on either side of the debate isn’t too tricky – especially for the ‘big topics’. But when it comes to climate change, something funny happens. In fact, it’s a problem more broadly across most scientific topics.

People don’t want to talk about it. Scientists – the ones who know their stuff the most – seem the most reticent to get on the radio to explain what they know.

climatechange

Good scientists don’t want to go on air

From the many conversations I’ve had with scientists, university press officers and other science-representation groups, I believe the following to be true: the more specialised a scientist is, the less qualified they feel they are to talk to the media about it.

But why?

Science is a highly complex and specialised profession. Academics trade blows over incredibly niche little-by-little discoveries through peer-reviewed journal articles. The more you know about your specialist field, the more you think you’re not necessarily in a position to be ‘the authority on all of climate change’ (or whatever your specialism is) in a five-minute radio interview.

And, the more you know, the more you dislike the way your speciality is portrayed in the media. The less willing you are to devalue your work by debating it with someone who just hasn’t studied it like you have, and who is out of step with the scientific community.

But here’s the problem: that ‘someone’ is perfectly happy to be on the radio, and there’s a real danger your viewpoint – and more importantly your scientific research – won’t get properly represented.

Global warming sceptics are easy to book

Let me be more specific. Let’s take a basic “is climate change happening?” debate: yes or no. The following is absolutely typical in my experience:

I call round lots of universities and lots of climate change experts. They all say “yes it’s happening” but “no I couldn’t possibly come on the radio today…I’m not the right person for this”. Or, often, “no!! I won’t argue with a climate-change sceptic! They don’t deserve to be on. I don’t want to be party to giving their view equal weight in the debate!”.

Well, there’s one hour left until we’re on air, and at this rate your opponent’s viewpoint will be the only one that gets heard. What’s more – from the conversation I had with you – you sounded like the perfect guest. Please do the interview.

Meanwhile…I find that climate change sceptics are in comparatively short supply. Yet everyone I call on that side is willing to come on the radio in a heartbeat. So here we are in a situation where, because so many scientists are unwilling to come on the radio, the majority scientific viewpoint (in my experience) is in danger of being woefully underrepresented.

I must pause, briefly, to address a question some of you will be thinking:

Why must you represent the minority viewpoint at all? Surely that’s mis-representative?

I’m a radio producer and journalist. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an economist. I’m not a breastfeeding new mum. I’m not a ‘victim of the bedroom tax’. I’m not qualified enough on the vast majority of subjects we discuss to decide to completely silence a particular point of view. If people hold that opinion, it deserves some representation. So it’s my job to do that, rather than to unilaterally stifle particular sides of the argument.

And, as much as many in the scientific community dislike it – there are lots of global warming sceptics, not least our audience. And as with any media debate, if one side makes an overwhelmingly better case, that should shine through on air.

But if no-one’s willing to give that side of the argument, there’s a problem.

But I digress; for more on this particular debate I suggest you read this.

Scientists! Please embrace the media!

I know it’s easier said than done – but I really wish scientists were more happy to come on air. The fact is, the media ‘rules of engagement’ aren’t going to change. Sometimes you’ll only get a few minutes to discuss a HUGELY complicated topic. Sometimes you might have to debate with someone who you quite simply think is wrong and hugely underqualified. But those are the parameters in which the majority of the population will normally discuss your speciality, if at all.

And if you tell me you can’t come on the radio, or you don’t want to, I’m going to have to find someone else who can. And they may well know far less than you. And that’s not annoying for me because it makes my job more difficult. It’s annoying because I care deeply about doing my best to make sure scientific viewpoints are portrayed fairly and accurately to seven million listeners.

Thank goodness, then, for organisations such as the Science Media Centre. They get it – they fight to get science in the media, represented as accurately as possible. They’re adept at responding to media requests. For anyone grumbling about the under-representation or misrepresentation of science in the media – get behind these guys and help them do something about it.

Brian Cox is too busy to do all of the interviews on all of the science all of the time*. Scientists: science needs you!

*

Caveats!!

Coverage of science in the media is a gigantic topic – I could only mention one tiny point here. I’d like to give the above a couple of additional caveats:

1. There are LOTS of brilliant scientists willing to be in the media. I know that. My point is that there are, arguably, not enough!

2. There are LOTS of brilliant scientists willing to discuss climate change. And despite what I write above I’ve never failed to book the guests I need. However, by comparison with other professions, in my personal experience it can prove more difficult.

3. This is NOT a post about the way the media covers science – with the exception of the penultimate section. That’s a whole other debate.

4. Another ‘whole other debate’ is the way the media deals with the ‘climate change debate’ – where the majority of scientists would argue there’s no debate about whether climate change itself is happening. I appreciate that, but it is not my point – I merely use it as an example of an occasion where I’ve found many scientists hesitant to speak.

5. The headline of this article was an exaggeration, ok? (see points 1 – 2!).

6. I’m JOKING about Brian Cox!