Getting the point in science.
May 2014“Shhhh. It’s news time!” – That’s what children used to hear at lunch time. This family tradition has been lost over the years. But not so the broadcast of the Swiss Radio main news at 12:30 am every day. Since 2009, Biozentrum alumnus Thomas Müller works as a producer of the news program “Rendez-vous”. He gives ALUMNInews an insight into his radio work and his many years of experience as a science journalist for leading Swiss newspapers.
You initially studied at the Biozentrum before you embarked on your career in journalism. Was this always your goal?
No, this idea grew and took form towards the end of my course of study, when I realized that a doctoral thesis wasn’t the right thing for me. I couldn’t imagine myself in a lab coat and focusing on one single topic. After all, I had chosen to study at the Biozentrum because at that time it offered the broadest science course available.
What fascinated you about journalism?
I liked the thought of grappling with a broad range of subject matter from medicine and astronomy to politics. As I had always been able to write a good essay at school, I knew that the language aspect suited me, too. And I also felt that scientific topics tended to be neglected by the papers and this inspired me to tackle them.
Isn’t the situation similar today?
I was lucky to work as a science journalist in the 1990’s, at a time when newspapers earned more money than ever before and ever after. One couldn’t expect the readers to accept three pages of advertising for one editorial page. So, the editorial offices expanded and more was invested in scientific topics among others. Then, with the dot-com crisis, the internet and free daily newspapers, the whole structure threatened to collapse and what had just recently been established, was then the first to be cut.
Was the reason then purely financial or had it also to do with a trend to trivialize the content?
They are related to each other. The financial situation in the 1990’s made it possible for the major newspapers to invest in content that didn’t have to be sold on the front page. That’s no longer the case. However, there are still newspapers and other communication tools, as well as public broadcasting that provide good scientific journalism. But I agree with you, it has become less. In the world of gratis media, there is hardly a place for science journalism.
How has being a journalist changed your view of science?
I quickly realized that certain areas of research harbored a potential for social conflict. At that stage in Switzerland, the issue at hand was the genetic engineering of crops but also genetically modified organisms and human gene technology. In these cases you cannot simply argue with scientific facts. This is not how political discourse functions. It is vital to consider all sides. I still believed that with good information one could allay fears. But I had to experience that this may not alter some firm, set ideas. Let’s take the genetic modification of crops as an example: Its benefits are hard to convey to those living in an affluent society. It is different with human gene technology. The individual benefits are more obvious.
Does it make any difference whether you work on a scientific contribution or write about politics?
The basic rules are the same. Scientific journalism just takes more time. If you do this seriously, you should not only read the press release but also the original paper. Furthermore, one cannot, as with politics, simply present the best arguments from both sides. Let’s take climate change for instance. The statements of 95 percent of scientists would be in agreement. Five percent would have another opinion. If you represent both views equally, the story is not balanced. And in dealing with ideological issues, such as the pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of embryos, for example, scientific facts are not very helpful. Here emotions and social and political views collide. In this respect there are differences.
You are now working for radio. How is this different from working for a newspaper?
In a newspaper you can spread a topic over a whole page, illustrating the text with boxes and graphics. An everyday background report on the radio lasts between two to five minutes. And you rely on listening. What the listener does not pickup or understand immediately is gone. One has to break down the material, keeping it clear, simple and to the point but still remaining faithful to the facts. Achieving this is a real art.
Now you are producer of the news program “Rendezvous”. What is your daily routine?
At around 7:15 am, I am at the editorial office in Bern. By then I already have read two newspaper in the train. First, I check the news agencies, to find out what has happened in the meantime, then I look over the most important websites and call the news correspondents, at this time of day, those in the East. Also, I take a look at the subjects, a colleague of the foreign affairs desk proposes for the day. For the meeting at 8:30 am, I establish a list of topics that we discuss in a team of about six people. At the large meeting with all involved desks at 9:00 am it’s down to work. By 10:00 am the program is fixed. The items are then edited, telephone calls made and reports produced. From 11:00 am to the airing at 12:30 pm it becomes more intense. This is followed from 1:00 pm to 1:30 pm by the “Tagesgespräch”, where we present a deeper look at a particular topic. After this there is time for a short lunch break. In the afternoon a feedback and planning meeting takes place. Towards evening, I prepare for the following day and call correspondents in the west, for example in the USA.
Your day seems very packed. Is it always like this?
Yes, this is the most hectic form of journalism that I have ever experienced. Everything moves fast and unexpected things come up, to which I have to respond quickly. The longer I delay my decision, the less time is left for the corresponding journalist to make his report. We usually follow this daily rhythm for five consecutive days. This makes sense, as many stories continue from one day to the next and in this way I always stay in the picture of what is happening at all levels. I am, you could say, in the news flow.
What do you wish for the future of journalism?
Each morning and evening, I commute between Basel and Bern by train and see many people reading gratis newspapers. It saddens me to see news being consumed like fast food and I think that this development in a country like Switzerland – a country with a direct democracy, where it is important that the people understand much of what is happening around them – could prove detrimental. I hope that we find a way to convince people that information about politics, economics and science cannot come for free.
Thomas Müller is producer of the news program “Rendez-vous” at Swiss Radio SRF since 2009. He studied in the early 80’s at the Biozentrum and subsequently took various courses in journalism and communication at the University of Hohenheim, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel, as well as at the Swiss school of journalism MAZ. In 2010 he graduated with an MBA from the University of St Gallen. From 1988 to 1992 and again from 1998 to 2005 he had the position of Inland and Science Editor for the Basler Zeitung. In the interim and afterwards, he worked as a freelance scientific journalist and science editor for the Tages Anzeiger and Facts and was responsible for communications at SystemsX.ch. Since 2010 Thomas Müller is a member of the management committee of TA-Swiss, the Center for Technology Assessment of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. Thomas Müller lives with his partner, the Basel State Councilor Eva Herzog, and their two sons in Basel.