How my DNA literally inspired innovative storytelling.

I dreamt of becoming a scientist, even a doctor. This was the tacit condition that would grant me a return ticket back to Britain after eight years schooling in Ghana.

In London, A-levels in sciences and a degree in Applied Chemistry in Leicester would, I fancifully naively thought, get me a ping in science journals — perhaps, something to do with Malaria for which I have bad memories.

By some account, I wasn’t too bad a chemist. Often it’s abstractness bothered me, but soon science would come to us. Our names would appear in science journals and feature on BBC News.

A geneticist in Leicester had uncovered a major discovery from markers in DNA that could serve as fingerprints to identify relations and families. Dr Alec Jeffreys now Professor) agreed to test his theory on our family in a landmark test case to end a battle with immigration. We won. DNA won. Science won. Prof. Jeffrey’s won. We would become project alpha, the first practical test of DNA genetic finger printing.

The experience inspired me. For my final project at postgraduate journalism school in Falmouth, I followed this discovery with a 40-minute documentary on the implications of genetic fingerprinting and the moral questions experts like Baroness Warnock and Dr Alec Jeffreys posed. My first job on leaving school was BBC Newsnight and then I moved to South Africa to freelance for the BBC World Service.

It would go further still. Patterns in DNA can be used to correlate relationships. This conceptual approach could equally be used to group stories, from authors, regions and styles. For my PhD I did just that and by examining storytellers could clump their innovations into interpretive categories that challenged the utilitarian form we see on news.

Years of training in science methodologies, creating hypotheses, testing, and objectively seeking results would become the framework for understanding tech, social and political issues, but more poignantly impact in an immeasurable storytelling, the arts and journalism.

This collocation of left side logic science and right side creativity sounds like a contradiction, but there’s more than enough evidence (read Art and Physics) that good science draws on illogical creative leaps of faith as well.

Knowledge TV
In the 1990s, the first of a couple landmark stories, which I worked on with CNN’s Edward Boateng, who would become a successful business man in Ghana and now is Ghana’s ambassador to China.

The United States of Africa produced between South Africa TV and the Ghana state broadcaster, was a six part morning television series produced almost entirely using videojournalism — unheard of in the world.

Yet, it was also an examination in cultural storytelling and filtering. The teams were prohibited from referencing Western values and perspectives. The result is still worth someone’s PhD.

This would develop into the lab approach and become integral to my lectures, where I have encouraged discovery to create grounded, yet mutable knowledge, elicited through what scientists call ‘Aha’ moments.

And then years later this — a global award for innovation in journalism, Knight Batten Award. I’m reminded of my personal journey and preposterous ambition of that science ping.


This would lead to the creation of a digital storytelling LAB, where the approach was:

  1. Taking a hypothesis (an idea).
  2. Testing it through various assumptions and parameters.
  3. Evaluating and documenting the results to discover whether they align with the initial idea.
  4. If not, try again by altering some of the test’s framework.
  5. If it fails again, it may be useful in providing data nonetheless, otherwise if the idea proves commercially viable (prototype) take steps to capitalise on it.

LAB methods

The lab approach is not entirely new with aspects of it found in modular-run courses. Its heuristic is de facto often practised in humanities, final year undergraduate essays, and through a spectrum of methodologies on PhD programmes and it should not as ethnographers know be confined to the classroom.

Here, I’m near the border of Syria working with young Syrian filmmakers. No, I’m not about to advocate going to high-risk areas, but that testing means getting into the field. So why has it become talked about as a feature for digital contemporary learning, particularly amongst tech- hackathons?

Firstly, the explosion in digital tools and thinking with unmasked links to antecedents and historical epistemologies places a new emphasis on learning. Twitter, once new, had its form in the telegram, where each word was costed. The less words you used, the cheaper the gram. Its use was infrequent compared to the frequency of twitter, but it did have an impact on shaping journalism. The pyramid approach to reportage was in part born from telegrams. Occasionally the lines went down, so journalists learned how to say the most important things first.

In digital start ups, agility, fluidity, and a multipurpose approach, with an emphasis on being lean, has become a template to a company’s success. Today, user testing is now the norm, buoyed by a significant element of in-vogue design thinking. Meanwhile, the cracks in communications as being universal across cultures has been exposed. Different cultures and networks are rewriting their relationship with users, once blithely subordinated to fixed traditional systems.

Secondly, universities generally adhere to a modular system, with knowledge bolted down. This has its merits but also can be problematic, as its rigidity does not allow for swift responses to dynamics of the market. No sooner have you written your syllabus, when a new app, bot or process is making itself heard.

The modern modular approach of ‘chalk and board’ learning by presentations is being replicated by a spectrum of smaller independent learning centres offering cohorts the opportunity to learn a skill with varying degrees of fixed knowledge. This was, until recently, an exclusive ground for universities.

Hence, universities have to up their game. Rather than a general approach of providing students for nominal jobs in mainstream industries, there has to be an onus on entrepreneurial and creative skills and the ability to innovate and become confident leaders in their field. Science meets Art — cue, an example of work as an Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre

The tech industry has revelled in forging its own path, with the creation of a raft of new jobs. Such innovation requires experimenting and a palimpsestic approach rather than a unitary modular one.

Thirdly, you can’t excuse the loop effect of hype. That said a nimble approach to innovation requires a fundamental shift in processing students for exams, and instead rewarding them for endeavours — the process of trying and even failing should be gradable. We should become less risk averse. As Robert Mackenzie, the head of the BBC News Lab says, experiments in a Lab should have the provision to fail. As Ed Catmull, President of Pixar states:

Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new // if you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

The extension of the LAB approach places an emphasis on enterprise, working collaboratively with industry, third parties and competing for commercial deals. We’ve some ideas lined up that will give students that feel. It should be a hub where ambition is welcome and students engage with its lecturers — leaders in their fields and PhD practitioners. May be that fanciful way of thinking isn’t misplaced after all.

So far left untreated in this posts is how science and storytelling reveal gaps in journalism, and cultural cognitive thinking when we report on different cultures. That’s for the next post. But here’s to Dr, now Prof Alec Jeffries and team. Who would have thought?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store