I’m not normally one who would choose to live life ‘in the spotlight’. In fact, I’d say the opposite was closer to the mark. However, following a brief interaction with the media in 2013, I vowed to myself that actually, the media can offer opportunities to share research which might otherwise stay confined to academia. I am fortunate that my research – the biomedical imaging of ancient Egyptian mummified remains – has broad public appeal. That said, nothing could have prepared me for recent events.
In 2014 I was approached by the BBC to discuss the possibility of making a documentary for Horizon on the use of radiographic imaging to study human mummies. As my research primarily concerns ancient mummified animals combined with the fact that human mummies are frequently in the news, I managed to persuade the researchers to run with animals instead.
In October, following numerous conversations with researchers and producers, I was fortunate enough to spend several days and nights filming for the programme, alongside a team from Manchester Museum and the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. Despite the very long hours, numerous retakes and general jitters about being on camera, the whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable and interesting. The programme aired on BBC2 in May 2015 to more than one million viewers.
Working on Horizon opened up a number of doors. The week before the programme aired, a BBC news crew came to film the curator and myself in the museum talking about some of the key findings of the research. This news piece was broadcast several times on the day of the Horizon programme and sparked a great deal of media attention which was over and above what we were all expecting!
Unfortunately for me, the curator was away at a conference so the media attention was targeted at me. I spoke to the university’s Media Relations team who gave me some idea of what to expect at Media City the next day.
I already had three radio interviews lined up so the BBC sent a taxi at 5am to take me to Media City. Once there things quickly spiralled and I did live radio interviews on the World Service, Radio 5 Live, Radio Manchester, Radio Berkshire, Good Morning Scotland and Radio Wales. Live radio is not as bad as you might think, and media training that I had done proved to be useful in giving me a bit of confidence.
Doing an interview in a studio is a little easier because you can actually see and interact with the host, but interviews for stations which don’t have studios locally are performed in a radio booth. This booth is literally a black ‘box’ in the foyer of Quay House. It looks a little like a cross between one of those fancy new-style public conveniences and the TARDIS! Basically, it’s a sound-proof cubicle with a microphone and a headset, through which you speak to a producer before listening to the live radio show, at which point the presenter will introduce you and ask questions.
After coming out of each interview, I checked my phone and found emails and missed calls from journalists, radio and TV people, as well as calls from the Media Relations team at the University who were also busy fielding enquiries. Stupidly, I had gone without my laptop (big mistake!) so I spent all my spare time trying to reply to emails and send out suitable images on my mobile. Around lunchtime, the situation had become so crazy that I called out for help. The museum sent a cab to come and collect me as I had a short break before I was due to go on Newsround at 4pm. I spent two hours at the museum having professional photos taken on the gallery (which were then sold on to newspapers), helping to write a press release and speaking to international newspaper journalists – not much of a rest, but a change of scenery nonetheless!
I hadn’t expected to be going on TV that day, but the Media Relations team had forewarned me to go dressed for it. I appeared on Newsround which was a whole new realm of scary. There is nowhere to hide on live TV, but we had two practice runs before the show which helped a lot. The presenters and crew were very nice and genuinely pleased to have a real-life person on the sofa. The Newsround target audience is 8-13 year olds – dramatically different to the BBC News Channel who had requested that I stay on to film a live interview at 7:30pm. That was a little strange as I had to sit in an empty studio and talk into a black box. I finally made it home at 9:10pm – ten minutes after Horizon started on BBC2!
It didn’t end there. I had many other live and pre-recorded radio interviews over the phone with Irish, Canadian and American broadcasters. Newspapers and science websites ran stories on the research and a documentary team is coming from Canada to film our work.
So what advice would I give to other FLS researchers regarding the media? Firstly, the media is not as scary as it might seem. Embrace every opportunity presented to you and run with it, no one wants you to fail (especially not on live radio or TV). Have faith in the fact that you know your research better than most other people out there so don’t be afraid to speak about it with confidence. If you don’t like the questions, there is a knack to turning them around to one you like better. Don’t feel alone – the University has a team of professional people to handle the media – use them and their experience to your advantage. Lastly, attend some media training so that you have just a little bit of confidence for when that phone call or email comes – you won’t regret it.
You can catch the Horizon Documentary here on the BBC