Posted tagged ‘journalism’

Tempest in a teleconference

May 22, 2008

Last week I was working on a story for National Geographic News about the discovery of the most recent supernova explosion in the Milky Way. The story posted on May 14, and you can find it here: Youngest Supernova in Milky Way Found. There was ample material available for reporting the story: a press release and photo, a copy of the published paper, an accessible study author and even a call-in press conference. Because of scientists’ accents, other reporters’ phone noise and variability in technological performance, teleconferences are hit and miss as sources of usable quotes. I’ve found that my best bet is to draft the story beforehand, as if the teleconference weren’t happening at all. Then I can listen to the proceedings with more interest than need—and grab any great quotes or clarifications if they emerge. So that was my strategy on the afternoon of May 14th. The teleconference started at noon, my time, and so I called about four minutes early, gave my verbal passcode, name and affiliation, and listened to background music until the scientists were ready to begin.


I liked this teleconference in particular because the scientists were so joyful at their find—and with good reason! The next most recent supernova explosion in the Milky Way, as far as astronomers can tell, happened 340 years ago, and was discovered early in the 17th Century. The lead author, N.C. State University’s Stephen Reynolds, said he was so accustomed to the previous record holder that it took time to realize he’d usurped it. And this phone-in press conference was unusually clear; his excitement was audible.


So that’s why I was mortified for him when the panelists—Reynolds, a co-author and an independent researcher—got a crank call. The question, though I was too stunned to write it down verbatim, had to do with moon crickets: “Does this have any implication for the removal of moon crickets from Earth?” And as soon as the panelists and moderator were in agreement that they’d heard him correctly and began to cut him off, the caller deftly changed his tack: “Does this have any bearing on the Squooshee Supernova of 2007?”




After an impressively quick pause, the moderator took the next caller, and the conference resumed. But the assault wasn’t over. A few moments and a handful of questions later, there was a muffled exchange after which the moderator haltingly began to make moves toward wrapping up the show—20 minutes early. Someone on the line could be heard taking the name of the Lord in vain and repeatedly pushing *1, the code to join the question queue. Then he started shouting. “Hey! Hey! I wanna talk to you guys!” And with that, the moderator, who sounded a little rattled, did her best to end the call. Sort of shocked, I held the line, silently, and inadvertently eavesdropped on the aftermath. A couple of the scientists tested the line, asking if anyone was there. Suddenly shy, I didn’t speak up. I didn’t have a question anyway. Before cutting off his own line, one of the researchers sighed and said, “I thought that went well, except for a couple of loonies.” I agreed wholeheartedly.


I have no idea how two crackpots accessed a teleconference that was supposed to be somewhat controlled. I would hate to think that control is even an answer, because scientists celebrating their hard-won results shouldn’t have to worry about who listens in. It’s not that science has to be so serious that there’s no place for humor, but those calls weren’t even funny. They were childish attacks on the earnest accomplishments of hard-working people. Those callers should be ashamed.