Inside the BBC’s Award-Winning Body Clock Project with Medical Producer Rachael Buchanan, KSJ ‘15

It’s 9:45 am and my brain is at its most alert. So it’s a good time to write this post announcing that Rachael Buchanan, medical producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation and a 2014-15 Knight Science Journalism Fellow, is part of a team that just won the Endocrine Society’s Excellence in Journalism Award.

The team was recognized for the BBC News Day of the Body Clock, a project that united the BBC’s radio, television, and online channels for a 24-hour examination of the human endocrine system’s diurnal rhythms and the way modern living sometimes conflicts with what our bodies are is telling us about when to eat, sleep, work, exercise, and fiddle with our smartphones.

Buchanan’s colleague James Gallagher, health editor for the BBC News website, traveled to the West Coast to pick up the award at a March 4 ceremony at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Diego.

The society created the award to recognize “outstanding reporting that enhances public understanding of medical and science issues pertaining to the field of endocrinology.” Past winners include publications such as Science News, Newsweek, and New Scientist.

On the Day of the Body Clock—May 13, 2014—the BBC unveiled an innovative Web application, tied into each visitor’s local time, illustrating how factors like cortisol and melatonin levels vary through the day, with corresponding effects on alertness and memory. An overarching text piece on the BBC News site pulled together the themes of the package, while individual BBC television and radio programs returned to the story throughout the day in reports and live interviews pegged to what was happening in viewers’ bodies at the time of the broadcast.

Buchanan says the project—which she and Gallagher produced with help from the BBC’s Visual Journalism team—pulled in record amounts of Web traffic, gathering more than 4 million page views for the BBC News health pages in a 24-hour period.

To find out how the project came together, and what it reveals about the BBC’s evolving strategy for covering complex science and health topics, I interviewed Buchanan yesterday. Here’s an edited writeup of our conversation.

Wade Roush: What aspect of the project are you happiest about?

Rachael Buchanan: It was an awful lot of work, but it was something that, at the end of the day, we were really proud of, because we produced something quite original: a themed project that changed throughout the day. I do a lot of these themed days, and often the message doesn’t change much. You start in the morning and the programs are enthusiastic, but by the time you get to the afternoon, it’s like, they’ve heard this already and they don’t want to run the material. What was great about this project is that we were looking at how the clock changes your bodily functions across our 24-hour news cycle. So there was always something fresh throughout the day for the news programs. No one felt they were getting a tired story, because there was something tailored throughout the day.

WR: So even when you’re producing a big package like this, you have to get the producers of individual news programs to buy in?

RB: It’s up to the individual program editors to decide what they want to run. There are some hard news stories that are going to get on because they are the news of the day, and there is other content that is more feature-y, and that’s where this lies. You get it commissioned, but you are always a little vulnerable, and you hope that the editors won’t lose interest during the day. You have to keep everyone on board, and that is quite a balancing trick.

I have seen these projects sink before because they were unlucky. We were immensely lucky that nothing massive happened on that day to knock us off the air. The Queen didn’t die. We just gave everyone throughout the day something fresh.

WR: How did the project come about?

RB: Every couple of years, the BBC does this internal competition called the Multimedia Ideas Competition. The idea is that people from different teams put in a bid for a budget of several thousand pounds to come up with a multi-platform project. It can be a series of pieces or a themed day of output; the stipulation is that it must provide material for TV, radio, and online, and that you’ve got team members from across BBC News. We put in for this in 2013. There were 70 entries, and we won that.

It took quite a lot of time to put together, particularly the interactive body clock put together by the Visual Journalism team. The hook of that app was that it could sense the time on your device and so know what time slot of information to present you with. Whether you logged on in Britain or Bahrain, you would get the appropriately timed element of the app. That was quite a challenge, but it was one of the beauties of the project.

WR: What were the other elements of the day?

RB: We made two television pieces, one that ran in the morning, one in the evening. We made two radio packages. There was an online piece. There were live interviews throughout the day, each using our virtual reality body clock shots. For that, I worked with our 3D graphic designers. We have a virtual reality studio at the BBC—which is an amazing resource—and I worked with the designers to build a 3D body clock, which we used to record eight of these 30-second slots with our medical correspondent saying, “Here’s what’s going on now in your body.”

WR: The idea lends itself perfectly to a 24-hour cycle of news coverage. But why focus on the body clock in the first place?

RB: James had been thinking about this for a while. He’d done a few stories about lack of sleep. Surrey University had done a couple of interesting pieces of research fairly recently, and the stories had gotten lots of hits. So we knew it was a topic that would go down well with the audience.

Secondly, the BBC is a 24-hour news organization, where everybody has done night shifts and complained about what it does to their body. That gave us a great opportunity. With a few presenters, particularly on our main morning radio show, the Today Programme, we put a sensor on them for about a week before, and monitored their sleep/wake cycles and activity levels, and had someone on to talk about the results. Sheila Fogarty, one of our Radio Five Live presenters up in Manchester, did the same. They really got into it, because journalists are obsessed about not getting enough sleep. But so is the audience.

WR: One could accuse the BBC of contributing to sleep disruption, by offering great news coverage 24 hours a day.

RB: TV and radio aren’t creating the problem, but we are responding to the fact that we have an increasingly 24-hour society. This is a real problem. We always had some professions that did night shifts, but not that many. Now so much of our society is a 24-hour society, and we don’t really think about the damage it does to us.

It’s not just a matter of getting eight hours of sleep at some point in a 24-hour cycle; having those eight hours in the day as opposed to the night really does mess up the body. We are seeing an enormous amount of research in this area. Here at Harvard Medical School, you have Charles Czeisler’s team, whom we talked to. They’re looking at the effects of the blue light given off by our iPhones, iPads, and laptops, which we are all on later and later at night, and how that disrupts the production of melatonin. There is some good research showing that our addiction to these devices, particularly late at night, is altering the expression of our hormones.

Technology is changing our lives, and we have to think about the physical impact that has. We know that disrupting sleep patterns gives you a higher risk for a number of diseases, including cancer. It’s time we really considered that as a society.

WR: Would you say that only a big, well-funded news organization like the BBC can pull off a multi-platform project like this?

RB: I think journalists nowadays are very multi-skilled. A lot of us, not just at the BBC, tend to have some video and editing capabilities and some audio and recording capabilities, as well as being writers. You don’t have to have the might of the BBC to do multiplatform projects. I think this is the future, and why wouldn’t it be? People want a much more diverse journalistic experience nowadays. When you go out and do an interview, why just present it in one way? I do this every day of my working life—reformatting the same source material for presentation in different formats. That is a good use of my time and my contributors’ time, because we get so much more out of it. The very nature of the BBC is multi-platform.

WR: What does the Endocrine Society award mean to you?

RB: Rather than just being a general industry award, this is an award from a specialist medical organization. To be recognized and applauded by an organization like that actually means a lot, because you are being told by scientists who specialize in the subject that they thought what you did was good.