Despite the safety risks while covering Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, former CNN anchor Miles O’Brien reported in areas where other journalists did not venture.
O’Brien, now an independent science reporter, spoke about his personal and professional experiences in science journalism at a discussion hosted by the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Nov. 24.
Robert Lee Hotz, SHERP distinguished writer in residence, moderated the event.
Hotz began the discussion by asking O’Brien about the challenges behind simplifying complicated scientific topics.
“It was an amazingly disarming way to get an interview going and to get people thinking outside their box of jargon and lexicon and get them trying to come up with analogies that would work for a mass audience,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien spoke about how he navigated an area struck with natural, industrial and governmental disaster.
He said he found alternate channels to gain access into exclusion zones that he was previously denied access to.
“I connected with a group of hackers in Tokyo who were building Geiger counters,” O’Brien said. “And I said, ‘Can you get me in the zone?’ and they said, ‘Oh yeah we’ll get you in there.’”
O’Brien explained how the danger in Fukushima was miniscule because of the extensive safety measures he followed.
“In the grand scheme of things, me flying my single engine airplane at night in bad weather versus me going to Fukushima with a respirator and an entire bagged suit — whatever risk was there was far outweighed by the benefit of going there,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he believes a science journalism TV network, despite barriers and costs to entry, could survive because there is still public interest in the subject.
O’Brien also discussed the events following Fukushima in the Philippines that led to the amputation of his left arm. O’Brien lost his arm after a film equipment bag fell onto it while he had a day off in the Philippines. This accident changed the way he approaches his work.
“I think it’s changed the way I view everything, how I talk to people and the way people talk to me,” O’Brien said. “Especially people who are disabled, the connection I have with them — it’s very interesting.”
Zehra Rehman, a GSAS student in the Global Journalism program, said O’Brien’s narrating ability makes science an enjoyable topic to learn about.
“I think he’s a really good story teller,” Rehman said. “I’m not interested in science but I enjoy listening to him because he does explain it in a way that can be understood.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 25 print edition. Email Suebin Kim at [email protected]