UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 4 | Feb.
Young scholars put to test in media hot seat
Journalism, genetics students hone communications skills
by Michelle Cook staff writer
At a recent news conference on campus, genetics company
EnhanceMe Corp. announced plans to rid the world of unwanted large
noses with a drug they've developed for pregnant women that will
prevent their babies from growing genetically inherited big schnozzes.
The company's head scientist and other representatives stumbled
over several of the reporters' questions, often giggling and blushing
in reply to queries about how much the drug would cost, what permission
the company had to test it and whether, if taken in large doses,
it could cause a nose to disappear completely.
The big nose news, of course, wasn't really news but one of three
announcements that UBC Medical Genetics students dreamt up to bait
journalists-in-training in a series of mock news conferences organized
by the School of Journalism and the Centre for Applied Ethics.
The annual exercise is designed to get students on both sides thinking
about the process used to introduce serious scientific advances
into public debate, says Journalism Prof. Stephen Ward.
"I wanted to develop an exercise in which students not only get
to practise basic journalism, but do it in a demanding forum on
topics like science and business," Ward says. "I also wanted to
reach out across campus and have them work with other students,
to get them thinking about how we communicate important issues in
While the Genetics students explore the ethical issues of their
work, the Journalism students learn to probe scientific authority.
Ward has been organizing mock newsers in collaboration with other
faculties for three years. He first partnered with Commerce Assoc.
Prof. Wayne Norman and his MBA students, then linked up with
Medical Genetics Assoc. Prof. Michael Burgess, holder of the chair
in Biomedical Ethics.
Jehannine Austin, a first-year Genetic Counselling master's degree
student, found the experience of being peppered with questions valuable,
if somewhat intimidating.
"As genetic counsellors, part of our role is communicating genetic
issues to the public," Austin says. "I think we all learnt that
you have to be well prepared and that if you have something to hide
it is a very uncomfortable situation to be in."
First-year Master of Journalism student Hayley Mills also found
the practice conferences valuable.
"Sometimes journalists have a fear or dislike of scientists and
vice versa, and I think for this group there will be less of a divide
in our real lives."
In future, Ward hopes to involve other faculties in the mock newsers,
and invite real broadcast and print reporters with TV cameras and
tape recorders to participate.