AAAS Kavli Lecture: Nsikan Akpan on Digital Science Video

Emily Hughes

Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for the PBS NewsHour, shared his tips for creating engaging and informative science news videos in a Nov. 7th lecture at Florida A & M University (FAMU). The talk, which took place at the university’s School of Journalism & Graphic Communication, was the last of three 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lectures this fall.

Akpan discussed how, with funding from the National Science Foundation, he and his colleagues worked with social scientists from Knology to study how younger generations interact with digital science news video content. “The main attempt was to learn what millennials and Gen-Zers desire from digital video,” Akpan said.

Nsikan Akpan

Noting that “the news cycle is crazy,” Akpan said he wanted to start by finding out “where does science news fit in that giant mess?” Unsurprisingly, the team found that politics was the topic most frequently consumed by those viewers surveyed. But science news was viewed and shared almost as much as entertainment news, he said, and more than sports.

The researchers pinpointed three essential aspects of successful digital science news videos – self-identity, aesthetic appeal, and relevance (or morality). “We found that if you can hit on these three things within the first 10 seconds of a video, it goes a long way” toward convincing someone to view and share the content, Akpan told his audience at FAMU, a public, historically black university in Tallahassee.

Regarding self-identity, the researchers found that “people often consume science news content but they’re afraid to share it,” Akpan said. Consumers worry that identifying with the science content they share could lead to further discussion or questions they are not able to answer.

“The solution is to target the inner nerd of everybody,” said Akpan. He said everyone has a “baseline of curiosity,” and tapping into this natural curiosity will help consumers identify more with the videos they share.

Akpan also suggested giving viewers one or two clear concepts that they can easily explain. He showed an excerpt from the PBS NewsHour short “Folding pizza makes it easier to hold, and here's the proof.” The video focuses on explaining Gaussian curvature in such simple terms that any viewer could identify enough with the material to view and share.

Aesthetic appeal gives videos a more immediate hook, helping grab the attention of the consumer, Akpan said. “Some science content performs well with audiences just because it’s gross, funny, cute or weird,” he said, adding that a video’s “aesthetic element doesn’t need to be visual, it can be audio.” He showed a short PBS NewsHour explainer video on open office space effectiveness. It starts with the opening movie soundtrack from “The Lion King,” drawing in the viewer with immediate familiarity, Akpan said.

“It’s best to have a broad, open imagination about what you want to put in the start of the video to really grab people,” Akpan said. When asked how he comes up with his pop culture references, Akpan said he often crowdsources ideas for aesthetic elements from his PBS colleagues.

The research also found that consumers wanted to know why a story matters. “We noticed an appreciation for broader relevance or morality,” Akpan said. “Stories which feature deliberate appeals to morality in the opening frame received increased viewership and diligence in viewing.” Akpan noted that appealing to morality is not the same as advocacy. Instead, he stressed the importance of placing stories within a broader context, emphasizing why an issue, such as climate change, matters and why an audience should care early on.

Akpan shared a few examples of video series that, like his own work, try to utilize the three essentials. He cited science content from KQED, a public broadcast channel in Northern California, the Observatory video series from Vox, Seeker videos (formerly part of Discovery Digital Media) and PBS Digital Studios “It’s Okay to Be Smart” series. “All of these outlets do a tremendous job hitting on these three essentials,” said Akpan.

Akpan and his fellow researchers also looked at how science videos fare on different platforms. “One essential thing we learned was that you really need to be making video that’s specific to the platform where you want to show it,” Akpan said. He emphasized this in a workshop after the lecture, advising students to become adept at making content specific to one platform.

Akpan told his lecture audience that digital video requires rethinking how components like logos and text appear on screen. He also cited the importance of a video's shape, explaining that PBS NewsHour has switched to square format for Instagram and Twitter videos. “We found that if people have to turn their phone,” Akpan said, “there’s less of a likelihood that they’ll watch the video.”

The PBS NewsHour has used the suggestions from this research project and is starting to see increased interest from younger viewers and more shares on social media. Akpan returned to the open office video, which currently has over 120,000 views on YouTube. “The thing that we really love,” he said. “is that it hit this core demographic that everybody’s going after – the 25-34 year-olds.”

This bodes well for the future of PBS NewsHour science videos, he said. The millennial and Gen-Z demographic, Akpan pointed out, is not interacting with legacy platforms, such as television and radio, the same way older generations did.

Nsikan Akpan and FAMU student Tiffany Bui

Research is not an unfamiliar practice for Akpan.  He received his doctorate in pathobiology from Columbia University before pursuing science journalism. “I started out as a scientist,” Akpan told FAMU senior Tiffany Bui in an interview earlier that afternoon. “I was a researcher at Columbia University where I was studying drug treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease and stroke. As I was finishing up my PhD I decided I didn’t want to stay in academia for the rest of my life.”

Akpan told Bui that he stumbled upon the science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz – a program geared towards teaching scientists who are interested in journalism. After attending UC Santa Cruz, Akpan worked internships with Science News and NPR before joining the team at PBS NewHour. He shared a 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award with producer Matthew Ehrichs for a short video on “What a Smell Looks Like.”

“After I finished my PhD I thought my research days were over,” Akpan joked with his FAMU audience. Bringing an analytical outlook to science news video helped Akpan and his PBS NewsHour colleagues improve their digital video content. Part of the research included redesigning PBS NewsHour’s legacy content for a digital first platform. “The segment that I run, Science Scope, is part of that idea,” Akpan said. “It’s digital first. It’s a little snappier. It’s a little faster.” The content is built to appear on social media platforms, but the videos maintain PBS NewsHour’s style and brand so they can run on the show too.

Akpan encouraged aspiring science journalists to immerse themselves in experiences across journalism and science, commenting on the value of college science courses and media internships. As the son of first-generation African immigrants, Akpan also emphasized the importance of diversity in newsrooms. He told his FAMU audience that visibility is important, adding that “there aren’t a whole lot of people of color in science journalism.”

Akpan said he tries to give equal weight to segments that focus on “scientific issues related to minority communities.” These segments include stories like PBS NewsHour’s recent piece on the underrepresentation of people of color in cancer trials. “If you see an opportunity to tell one of those stories you try to tell them,” Akpan said. Lectures are an important part of his work, too, Akpan said. “I hope that I can inspire people through events like this one.”

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The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Lecture series, now in its third year, brings winners of the distinguished journalism award to campuses for public lectures and workshops with journalism students. Also featured this fall: Miles O’Brien, veteran science correspondent and 2015 award winner, at the University of Missouri on Oct. 24 and British journalist Angela Saini, a 2015 award winner, at the University of Maryland on Oct. 30.

Photos by Emily Hughes