„I keep my ears an mind open“
MC: I see you have a couple of klieg lights up in your office. What are they for, taking photos or filming?
FH: I just did a video interview. Since last year I started to integrate video with print journalism.
MC: Who did you interview?
FH: A scientist who is involved with embodied cognition.
MC: What’s that?
FH: I’m not sure. I´m on a two or more year quest to find that out. At the end I hope to be able to answer your question with a multimedia story.
MC: What is your professional background?
FH: I studied biology and did my PHD in Neurobiology. After a postdoc in Japan I spent a year studying online journalism, and was educated as a science editor.
MC: Did you also study to become a video journalist?
FH: Yes. I´m an education addict. Every year I swear to myself not to take another course, but I fail every year. Journalism and science are such quickly changing fields. I get dizzy trying to keep up with it all. Two weeks ago I spent a week taking a social media management course. Today I read that the social media manager is passé. I don’t always takes such predictions too seriously. In the end, I have two goals: to understand science better, and to understand better how to communicate science.
MC: Why did you chose biology and then neurobiology in the first place?
FH: I was fascinated by biology. I think you can trace it back to my early childhood. I loved to read such books as Urmel aus dem Eis, a children’s book about a group of animals and a researcher, Professor Habakuk Tibatong who was teaching these animals human language. There was a pig, a dinosaur, a monitor lizard, as well as some other strange animals. I choose biology as my main topic in school, and felt early-on that this was what I would like to do with my life.
MC: Your brother is a neurobiologist at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. Did he have any influence in going in that direction?
FH: I think we both had the same influence from our parents, who are broad-minded, and are more in the rational, scientific direction. They primed us to think in this way early-on; look for truth and ask questions, be inquisitive.
MC: Why did you decide to leave neurobiology and go into science and medical journalism?
FH: I actually changed my mind the first time very early-on in my career. After studying biology for a year, I thought that that was not really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I always had a creative artistic side in me, so I stopped studying biology to try to become an actress. A few years flew by, and this didn’t really work out, although in between I studied theater and philosophy. In the end I realized that I still wanted to be a biologist, but I also had this other side in me, this artistic urge – during my studies I was writing, I was painting, I was dancing, I was acting. After my post-doc in Japan, I had to decide how to go on with my career. I felt that I should combine these two sides of myself, the scientific side and the artistic side, and I thought the best way to do that was to become a science writer.
MC: Did you ever regret your choice?
FH: In the first year as an editor for an oncology journal I found a short article about a study on dogs’ ability to sniff out cancer. Since I was interested in everything that had to do with olfaction I called the leading scientist at the University in Cambridge, England. I asked how the results were coming, and she replied, “Well, everything is underway, we have the dogs, the study design, the cancer probes, but we don´t have the scientist to conduct the study. It’s not easy to find a good neurobiologist who knows how to train animals in olfactory tasks.” I immediately applied for the post and received an invitation for a job interview in Cambridge the next week. I got the job, and was looking for a place to live there. But the days after I came back to Munich I decided against making the move. My boyfriend still thinks it was the wrong decision, but I felt I couldn´t go back to being a scientist. Yet, ten years later, I wish I had a similar opportunity again. An opportunity to get involved with a research project for a couple of years, and then switch back to journalism. I have so many research ideas now that I have a broader overview. But the way the science world works right now, there is no room for a part time researcher from the outside. In case I´m wrong, and somebody is looking for a research fellow with my background, give me a call.
MC: What would you like to research?
FH: Well, for example, are humans able to smell the social class of another person just by the smell alone.
MC: I know there was a point when you were working as a science journal editor, and you decided to become a freelancer.
FH: When you are at the university and you do research, you become spoiled. You can basically do whatever you want to. You wake up in the morning, you have a topic you want to research, and you go ahead and do it. When I finally started this nine-to-five job at an editing company, it was difficult for me to work on something that someone else wanted me to do every day, from the moment I got there until the moment I left. This kind of work made me antsy; I lost my focus and didn’t know what I was really interested in anymore. Maybe what was on my table was interesting, but since I didn’t chose it in the first place, I felt it’s not my own, and for me it’s very important to have the feeling that what I do is inwardly motivated. I couldn’t pursue that as an employee. That’s why I decided to become a freelancer.
MC: What were some of the difficulties you found at the beginning?
FH: I think this is a personal thing. I see the kind of problems that other freelancers who have just started out encounter, how they feel about it, and I see it’s different for each of us. The one thing that everyone who is starting out knows is that you have to deal with financial insecurity at the beginning. There is usually also financial insecurity as a scientist, but I underestimated how difficult it can be when you don’t know whether you will be able to pay your rent the next month. I underestimated the amount of stress that puts on you.
MC: Were there any positive occurrences that you hadn’t expected?
FH: Because the situation was not easy, it was clear to me that I had to do a lot of jobs that might not be directly up my alley. Over the years, I saw that actually I could decide the direction I wanted to go in, which topics I wanted to work on. With every year I feel I have more and more freedom in choosing what I want to write about. At the beginning I had my doubts whether I would reach that point ever.
MC: What are some of the other advantages in being a freelance journalist?
FH: I have a network of colleagues which I didn’t have before. This is something I really enjoy. I work together with graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, other journalists, programmers. This is like having a small company, but everybody has the freedom to say yes or no and also be very open with criticism, praise, or whatever. This is a very comfortable working situation for me. At one point I and five other freelancers started a “success team”, talking about our professional goals, and what kept us from achieving it. After a couple to months we stopped, which bothered me, because I don´t like to give up anything in the middle. But when I now look around, I´m surprised to see that everybody reached their goals. But it took a year or two. I´m definitively too impatient sometimes.
MC: Did you reach your goal?
FH: Yes, but I won´t tell you what it was.
MC. OK. Let´s change the subject. Are there particular magazines or newspapers that you enjoy writing for more than others? Particular subjects that you prefer writing about?
FH: I don’t want to pick out any particular publication. My preferences change over time. I feel that I can change my writing interests every couple of years if I want. This is the advantage compared to science. I can change the topics, and my interests can wander. Right now I’m going back to my roots; I’m interested in what’s happening in neuroscience, so I’m writing more about it. Since I feel at home with the subject, I wanted to choose something that is really challenging, something that I feel I may never totally understand, so I’ve begun exploring the field of cognition.
MC: How has the internet influenced the freelance profession, and how do you relate to it personally?
FH: I was trained as an online journalist; I don’t feel the change that a print journalist moving to online journalism might have. I´m intrigued by everything the web has to offer. I jump on every new train that is coming along. Now I have my own podcasts, one on neuroscience, another one on public health. Plus I started a blog, and my own youtube channel. I feel I can double as an editing company.
MC. What about copyright laws? Do you have an advantage as a freelancer who at least theoretically controls the copyrights over your work over someone who works and writes for a particular firm and contractually signs away the copyrights?
FH: This is a big ongoing issue. I don’t have the energy or power to have full copyright control over my pieces. The fight for better rights is in the hands of the Organization of Freelance Journalists and the writers’ union. I´m a member of both. Right now the situation is very difficult. I am not allowed to sell what I have written to another client, and I have to sign a “buyout” contract. The contract specifies that they can do whatever they want with my text, and apart from the initial payment, they have no obligations to pay me if they sell my text to a third party. I don’t know of any company either in or outside Germany who does not insist on a buyout contract as a precondition for work. This is a complex issue, and please let´s not get into this. It wears me out.
MC: Where and how do you find your information?
FH: I check the international scientific and medical literature. I interview scientists. I keep my ears and mind open to every channel of information, be it radio, TV, social media or gossip I hear from scientists. I read a lot of books, which I often become aware of for example through the New Yorker, the New York Times, but more and more through twitter.
MC: Do you ever feel pressure, for example political pressure when you do interviews, or write something that might be construed as controversial?
FH: No. Absolutely not. I know from talking to journalists from other countries that this is something of a luxury. I feel the pressure from the press agencies, especially when I talk to politicians. They would like me to write positively about what the politician has to say in the interview. But in the end I can write what I want. My editors back me up with this.
MC: You make it a point to send the interviews back so that the interview subject can take a look and OK the interview. What do you do when the person interviewed doesn’t want a particular answer used in the final article because he feels it might embarrass him, or get him into hot water?
FH: I want to be fair. Before the interview, I tell my interview partner…
MC: Sorry to interrupt, but isn’t your primary responsibility to your audience?
FH: I want to be fair to both. I want to get the topic I’m writing about right. I write critically about what my interview partner has to say when it is warranted. First I want to be fair. I tell them they can say whatever they want to about a particular subject because they will see their citations afterwards. That way they know they can say something controversial or “politically incorrect”. They can show their anger or say something extreme that they wouldn’t say when they would know this could be used as a quote. For me it’s important that my interview partner speaks openly. Because they know they will get the citations back before it’s published, they often say something that helps me understand the topic, whether I am allowed to use a particular quote or not. Maybe they say “could you write what I said there a bit differently”, and I’ll do that for them. The quote is imbedded in a longer text and every text has some sort of assertion, some sort of point of view, and I can get an overview through interviewing a number of experts in a particular field, especially when they don’t feel under pressure. Although I may not be able to use a specific quote, I can still weave that information into the fabric of the article.
MC: What could be done to make the job easier, more effective, more profitable?
FH: There is an answer that takes care of all these issues. There should be a correct pay scale. The bad pay has always been a complaint of freelance journalists, and I don’t think the situation will change. Like art and music, there are too many of us, because it’s a fascinating job.
MC: You talked about some of your interests in the beginning of the interview, which I assume have continued throughout your life.
FH: Not everything – acting for instance – but I’m still involved in the arts in different ways. I continue to paint, and I have gotten involved with installation art. I still play the clarinet.
MC: There is a movement in journalism that has begun to combine different forms of media. For instance, print journalism is now being linked up on the internet with photo and video journalism as well as interaction between the journalist and the general public through twitter, facebook, etc. Is this the future of journalism, and how much are you involved with this trend?
FH: I enjoy the technological advances, so yes, I am involved with these ideas, but I don’t believe these cause any essential change in journalism. There has always been a message at the heart of journalism. You have to have something to say. It doesn’t matter whether it is a text, an audio or a video report, or whether you combine everything and make it a cross-media presentation; there needs to be a message.
MC: Is there anything you would like to add?
FH: It’s fascinating for me to be on the other side. I so often do interviews, and it’s important to feel what it’s like to be interviewed – you feel insecure, you are afraid of saying something stupid. It’s a good lesson, and just reinforces my belief that it is important to help the interview subject feel at ease.
Interview: Marty Cook
Photo: Christiane Kappes