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An interview with Stern Fellow Madhumita Murgia

Madhumita Murgia, FT’s European tech correspondent, was recently awarded the prestigious Stern Fellowship at the Washington Post. Murgia, who is based in London, will move to Washington, DC to spend three months in the Post newsroom, joining an impressive list of alumni, including FT editor Lionel Barber and Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. Murgia was chosen from a competitive pool of applicants, in part because of her unique background in the fields of science and technology — she studied as a scientist before working at Popular Science, Wired UK, the Telegraph, and, finally, the Financial Times.

We spoke to her about her background, her interests, and her hopes for the fellowship, which starts this June.

Q: In school, you studied Biological Sciences and then Clinical Immunology. How did you decide to move from studying science to becoming a journalist?

A: I was always fascinated by complex concepts and how they work, which is why I decided to be a scientist. But after working in a lab for a year or two I realized that the actual practice of science was a far more frustrating experience than I had expected–it’s littered with failure and involves looking at a microscopic part of the larger picture. I was much more interested in the big ideas, and what I loved was communicating it to other people who didn’t understand science or didn’t work in it. I moved to New York and enrolled in NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, which is a specialised program for former scientists and doctors, teaching them to explain really complex topics and get people to care about everything from biotechnology to computer science and big data and pollution and climate change–all of these big, world-changing problems.

My first job, at Wired in London, was where I developed my expertise and interest in technology. I was never really a gadget geek, but my interest in technology is more around the social aspect, how it’s transforming different parts of our lives and touching every single person. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mum or a student or an older person or a professional, technology has changed your life in some way, and that’s what I’m really interested in looking at, the social impact. I also became interested in the business impact, how it’s transforming businesses and readership.

Q: You’ve now written in this vein for Popular Science, Wired, Telegraph, FT. Why is it important to be writing about science and technology for a non-science audience?

A: Technology and science always are the stories of our times. I think it’s really important that as our lives undergo this fundamental transformation, we understand who the companies are that are driving the change. Who runs them and what their motivations are. So not just, “here’s what’s happening with Facebook’s latest update”, but what kind of company is Facebook, what responsibilities should they be taking on, how have they changed things like news dissemination of political campaigning? We need to not only be aware of the changes going on around us but who’s responsible for them and how they should be regulated and held to task. At the same time, these advances in digital and technologies are helping to accelerate scientific research. One thing I’m interested in is biotechnology–how we can use different technologies to actually change biology and make advances medicine and health.

With the current political situation in the US, where the new government doesn’t seem to be very positively predisposed to scientifical and medical and environmental research, it’s particularly important to explain to people what the fundamental importance is of this kind of research. And separate from the research itself, science is about evidence-based truths, and there’s this huge epidemic of fake news and a lack of trust in traditional media. So at this particular time understanding how science and scientific process works is important because it reminds people what a fact is and what the truth is, because that’s what science is based in. Neil DeGrasse Tyson did this really amazing 5 minute video about this about the importance of understanding the scientific method and what that means about facts.

Q: Do you think your scientific background has given you a unique point of view when you’re approaching stories?

A: I’d hope so. It helps on the reporting side in that I find that scientists and technologists, especially the people actually building stuff, tend to trust me a bit more or are able to open up and even be a bit more honest. Often there’s a disconnect between scientists and the media, and engineers and technologists may feel that what they say is misconstrued or changed because they’re such sticklers for exact facts and how they’ve said them. They don’t really understand changing something so that’s it’s easier to convey a point. There’s these fundamental social differences between the two communities, and I think the fact that I’ve been on both sides helps me bridge that gap.

On the writing side, I’d hope that my understanding of how scientific processes work means that I can convey that better as well. I don’t think that means that writers who aren’t scientists or technologists can’t do it, because ultimately, being a good writer is about understanding large amounts of information and then distilling it and explaining it in simple words.

Q: What’s one topic or trend that’s obsessing you right now?

A: Always different things. One thing that I was thinking about a lot and then wrote a couple of pieces about for FT was gene editing. It’s such an amazing coming together of biology and technology, and it’s literally transforming human life because it’s going to change how we understand infertility, reproduction, and IVF. Ultimately we might even be able to edit out harmful or diseased traits from the human population. And the fact that it’s literally happening now is just amazing to me. In 10 years we’ll be able to edit genes so that people who otherwise couldn’t will have healthy babies. It’s really fascinating.

In the tech world right now, I’m really interested in, as I was saying earlier, the crossover happening between the social and technology. I’m writing at the moment about how social media impacted the election and how people are convinced to make certain decisions or think in certain ways based on what they see online. I’m really interested in understanding the effects of internet media on how we perceive things. I’m writing a piece about children and their relationship with the digital world, and I think the same thing applies for them–how does the fact that they’ve essentially lived in this online space since they were kids, how has that impacted their brains and who they are and does that make them different from any generation of people before them?

Q: Congratulations again on the Stern fellowship. What are you hoping to achieve at the Washington Post?

A: I’m really excited about it. I think that the most valuable thing will be having a totally different perspective. Being in a different country, which is undergoing its own political earthquake–it’s a very exciting time to be there to see what this new White House will be prioritizing and just how that is going to impact US society over the next years. I’m really excited to travel around the US, to go places that I wouldn’t otherwise visit, and to learn what issues are most important to Americans at the moment,to absorb that new culture. There’s so much turmoil and transformation at the moment.

And as a journalist I’m really excited about being trained in a totally different newsroom to the FT, but one that’s equally legendary. To have a fresh set of eyes, and different editors and become a better writer and a better reporter for it. And hopefully to come back and apply that to my job here. I think it’s really important to constantly try to absorb new perspectives, it keeps your writing and reporting fresh, and I think this will definitely be one of those amazing learning experiences.

Q: What’s one thing you learned at the FT that you’re taking with you?

A: I think our two source rule is really emblematic of what I’ve loved and learned here: you come up with an original story, and then you have two sources to verify it. Part of that is about verification and truth, being absolutely sure of your facts when you report them. But more than that, it’s about the value of originality. I love the fact that we’re so focused on getting new stories. Not just rewriting what other people say, but really finding and telling the stories that should be told, that aren’t already out there. I think that’s really important in today’s world, where media is essentially people rewriting other people’s stuff, and you never have any idea where the story came from or even whether it’s true. And what I’ve hopefully learned and will take with me is this emphasis that we place on veracity and truth, but also on digging out stories that aren’t very obvious, but still very important.

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