by Jacob Ward
From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3
Behind the news on Al Jazeera America
In 2013, I left a job as editor in chief of Popular Science to become the first science and technology correspondent—based in San Francisco—for Al Jazeera America, the fledgling cable news network.
After a career trying to get story ideas past roomfuls of editors, the move was frightening and counterintuitive. I’d worked all my professional life to make it to the top of a magazine masthead. But I could also sense that something was wrong. Early in my career I had deluded myself that I was being promoted up through the ranks because I was special. Once I got into the top job, however, I met other editors in chief at various events and began to realize that all of us were the youngest leaders in the history of our respective publications. And I thought that that might not be a sign of a healthy industry.
Soon I noticed other signs. I saw how advertisers can bend and warp content, and the process of creating it, when a publication becomes desperate for revenue. Editors attend sales negotiations to extol the virtues of their publication, and they become consciously or unconsciously attuned to the desires of the advertisers—desires that are supposed to be irrelevant to the editorial staff. That staff then comes under pressure to devote resources perhaps not to a specific story, but to a story category, such as car reviews, in the service of attracting that industry’s advertising. And editors—who are supposed to be responsible for nothing but integrity and excellence—are increasingly made responsible for inventing new streams of revenue, such as conferences. Outlets covering science and technology are especially vulnerable to all of this, because stories on those subjects often directly mention, and sometimes even praise, the very companies looking to advertise. I tried my best to insulate my publication against this stuff, but it’s a strong tide. When Al Jazeera came along, I saw an opportunity to be nothing but a reporter again. So, after fifteen years in magazines, I leapt.
Immediately I was a rookie. Al Jazeera America has a domestic focus but international DNA. The correspondents and producers tend to come from decades of experience in war zones and democratic upheavals, so they bring a level of polish and fearlessness to their reporting that I found astounding and intimidating. As I scrambled to shift from the months-long process of crafting a magazine article to the hours-long sprint of producing a report for the camera, I had to learn new tricks.
First up, I learned to stop dancing around and just go ahead and ask embarrassing questions. When interviewing highly technical people—scientists, engineers, coders—journalists can often feel pressure to win their cooperation by responding to their expertise with a knowing nod. You can see the result, far too often, in writing and on television: jargon is simply repeated, perhaps with a bit of cursory explanation cribbed from the interview subject. It’s like rushing through a name you never quite learned to pronounce, for fear of looking silly at a dinner party. But when you stop a Nobel laureate and ask her to describe her work as she might to an uncle at Thanksgiving, you’re doing your audience a service: absorbing embarrassment so you can properly understand and explain a concept for them. Pretty soon, stories were taking shape in front of me. And beyond the gee-whiz science—the robots and lasers and tiny satellites—I found that there’s a curious appetite in audiences around the world for current events as seen through the lens of science. Without realizing it, I’d slipped the bonds of traditional science reporting and was doing something that feels quite new.
I’d also escaped the larger commercial pressure that had been growing so heavy in my prior jobs. It wasn’t because of the new medium; the commercial pressure on science and technology coverage is, if anything, heavier on television. It’s why you’re always seeing tweedy guys like me showing off “awesome tech gifts for the holidays” or the latest self-driving vehicle from a major manufacturer. But Al Jazeera doesn’t seem to care about any of that. Its credo is to give voice to the voiceless, and while I can’t speak to the details of our financial situation (because no one shares them with me), I can say that I don’t seem to be constrained by the same commercial pressures that hound science and tech reporting in other outlets. And that, combined with the professional example of my peers, changed everything.
When, in my first few months, I pitched a typical laundry list of Apple product announcements and collision-avoidance systems, I was turned down cold. “We are about social change,” one producer told me. “Find the science in that.” To be handed a sincere intellectual challenge with no mercenary purpose—well, it’s a revelation for a science journalist. So I did what she said, or at least I’ve tried. And in the process I’ve developed a beat that I hope I get to cover for the rest of my life: the catalysts and challenges and patterns of social change.
Consider the shooting of Michael Brown and other unarmed African American men at the hands of police. As the sci-tech correspondent, I’d typically be sidelined in a story like that. Our coverage of his shooting and others, of protests across the country, and of the ensuing revelations about police violence against Americans of color, has been deep and broad. At Al Jazeera, the story had room for me. I pitched a look at police body cameras, and found myself quickly assigned to know everything about them: the technical specifications of the latest models, sure, but also the flaws in their design (namely that officers can turn them on and off, or cover the lens and microphone), and the potential problems with standard operating procedure (officers are allowed to review the footage before giving testimony in a shooting).
We then did an entire package on the parents of young black men who must decide whether their sons should attempt to record police stops with their phones (young black men are stopped at least twice as often as their white counterparts). We treated it as a logistical consideration: How does a young man afraid of being shot or arrested tell the officer he’s reaching for a phone and wants to place it on the dashboard to record their conversation? Under what circumstances will officers confiscate the phone? From there, the story led me to look at available data about officer-involved shootings. Turns out there’s no national database in the United States. Not only doesn’t the Department of Justice collect that data, but the definitions of things like “use of force” vary from police department to police department, making meaningful comparisons impossible. That in turn led me to a look at researchers trying to draw racism out in experiments, and subjecting officers to those tests. And on it went.
Then there are the terrible stories that have been surfacing in the last few years, of electronic dance festival attendees unwittingly overdosing on “bath salts.” At least that’s the summary you’ll see in most media coverage of the topic. We went after the same story, and very quickly discovered that bath salts are a by-product of well-intentioned research by major pharmaceutical companies. The sixty or more cannabinoids in marijuana are widely understood to act together to decrease pain and the perception of pain. They have anti-inflammatory properties, they reduce nausea, and more. Amazing effects. So pharmaceutical companies have tried to mimic those effects by isolating two or more cannabinoids for use in a possible prescription drug. But it never works. They’ve been unable to reliably replicate the intended effects without other, terrible side effects. And so, every time, they have abandoned the whole project. Along the way, however, as pharmaceutical companies do with whatever they’re working on, they patent the combination, which means it eventually makes its way into public knowledge. Soon, unscrupulous labs around the world put the two cannabinoids together, spray the compound onto smokable plant matter, and label it “bath salts.” The result is unregulated stuff that offers a high but also comes with the ugly side effects that put off the pharmaceutical companies to begin with. In one case, the side effect is that the drug disables the user’s gag reflex, to horrible effect.
That story led us to look at the ungainly way the Drug Enforcement Administration deals with this situation. The agency tries to outlaw each combination of cannabinoids one by one. But the labs just move on to another combination that’s not yet illegal, and the problem continues. The DEA doesn’t quickly publish warnings about the up-and-coming bath salts they’ve found, and various independent toxicologists I talked with say it points to the general dysfunction of an agency that’s all about enforcement when it should be all about communication.
Behind most major news stories, it turns out—train derailments, plane crashes, police shootings, chemical weapons—there is a science story that serves to deepen our audience’s understanding. It’s not a way to sell cars or watches, but editorially it’s a clear lens through which to illuminate almost any story. Want to know how terrible the effects of long hours for low pay are on a family? Take a look at the CDC’s new numbers on the correlation between those long hours, low wages, and poor sleep—it’s incredibly consistent across the United States. So off we go on a deep dive into the long-term effects of poverty as seen through the long-term effects of poor sleep.
I don’t know what to call this yet, and if you have any suggestions, please be in touch, because I keep thinking in terms like “logistics” but no one will ever willingly tune in to the work of a logistics correspondent. I do know that in an age where science and technology are allowing us to measure and weigh the oppressions and poisons as well as the pleasures of our modern age in new ways, I’ve managed to land a gig in which science and tech aren’t just the story—they’re also how we tell all kinds of stories.
Photograph of digital television interference patterns by Mike Hill/Getty Images.