Q&A With Communications Expert Neil Hrab

Raywat Deonandan and Neil Hrab, National Press Club, Washington DC, Dec 31 2001

Raywat Deonandan and Neil Hrab, National Press Club, Washington DC, Dec 31 2001


Feb 9, 2015 — Had a great conversation with my old friend Neil Hrab today, which was broadcast live on Youtube for the blogger-journalists of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Health Sciences.

For the event, I had made arrangements with the business centre of the Royal York Fairmont Hotel in Toronto, explaining to them that I needed a private room with good internet connection.  I agreed to pay their price.  However, when I got there I discovered (a) their hardwired computers don’t have sound boards or webcams, so a youtube broadcast is impossible, (b) they don’t have ethernet plugins for me to use my own laptop with their high speed internet, and (c) their wifi was down, and none of their staff seemed to know the first thing about network connectivity.

So, in a huff, we ran across the street to Starbucks to use their free wifi.  Starbucks wifi is adequate for checking your email and tweeting your lunch, but just sucks for rich media.  You can see/hear the result here.  Or maybe not.

Luckily, I was recording our conversation on the audio recorder of my smartphone.  I wish now that we had just miked the phone and not the broadcast, since the audio recording includes the background noise of Starbucks.  I tried to filter out the noise in post-production, but I was not able to.

But at least we have that.  So I’ve streamed that audio as a podcast, which you can listen to below.  (I’ve edited out the lengthy segments of me struggling with the internet feed; those edits may manifest as sloppy, jagged audio cuts). As well, I’ve asked Neil to submit answers to the questions viewers had added to the Youtube comment feed.  Those appear after Neil’s bio below.

Here’s Neil’s bio:

 “Neil Hrab began working in journalism as an editorial writer for the National Post (1999-2003). He won two journalism fellowships with think-tanks in Washington, DC for his writing at the Post. He has also worked as a sub-editor with the business section of the Dubai-based Gulf News.From 2008 to 2010, he blogged for the National Post’s “Full Comment” section. He also blogged for the online opinion sections of the Washington Examiner and San Francisco Examiner (2010-2011).  Beyond journalism, he has been a speechwriter for three corporate CEOs and as a spokesperson/communications advisor for two federal ministers. Today, he works in corporate communications in Toronto.”

Raywat Deonandan and Neil Hrab, National Press Club, Washington DC, Jan 1 2002

Raywat Deonandan and Neil Hrab, National Press Club, Washington DC, Jan 1 2002


Here are Neil’s answers to the questions that were shared in the Youtube comments:

Q – How do you think the expansion of who is able to disseminate information has impacted public perception of “expertise”? Do you think there is an argument to be made that the ease of setting up a blog or youtube channel has led to a delegitimization of expertise, where anyone can be considered an expert. This could contribute to problems like climate change denial and anti-vaccination.

A I’ve thought about this myself from time to time, and I wish I had a more articulate answer to share!

Social media has definitely made it easier for anyone with a particular point of view to publicize that point of view, and then build create powerful networks by cultivating people with similar views, potentially on a global level. On the other hand, social media also gives the same power of amplification to experts and other authorities, which in turns means they too can build similar-sized networks and reach similar-sized audiences.

But I am not sure if this has led to a complete “delegitimatization” of experts, however – I think the mainstream media, for example, continues to respect, seek out and publish the views of people with academic/scientific credentials, regardless of how many people follow them on Twitter. Same with governments.

From my admittedly limited knowledge of the history of science, it appears to me that the dialogue between scientific authorities and those who doubt them goes back a long timeand with social media and the beliefs you identified in your question, I think we’re just seeing the latest chapter in a long-running story, rather than something completely new.

Q – How do you envision the continuously expanding role of technology impacting professional and amateur journalism over the next few years?

A One development I think we’ll see is that journalists take more advantage of opportunities not only to blog events as they happen, but also to “vlog” and integrate more video into their online posts.

As the bandwidth available to all journalists increases, so do the skills one needs to make the most of the bandwidth – people will need not only how to write and how to interview, for example, but also how to create and edit videos and podcasts. It’s exciting to see how many additional ways technology allows us to present and share stories and information. The best, I suspect, is yet to come!

Q – What would you suggest to a student/new graduate hoping to gain experience and eventually work as a (medical) journalist?

A Even if you are “new” to the field, don’t be shy about networking with people who are already established in medical journalism (or any sort of journalism). Many are eager to

share their experiences. Get in touch with them and try to meet face to face if possible, even if just for a brief coffee, to talk about how they got started. Get involved with groups like www.caj.ca to assist in your networking. And if you haven’t already, start trying to pitch and sell some freelance pieces – start building up your clips file.

Q – How do you strike a balance between formal vs. informal style when writing a blog?

A Good question! A blog needs to be “formal” in the sense that it’s a piece of writing you’re going to share with other people and needs to be checked for spelling and grammar, formatted into paragraphs so the reader can follow your points, etc. At the same time, it isn’t an academic paper, so it doesn’t necessarily need, for example, the elaborate “introduction-proof 1/proof 2/proof 3/conclusion” format that a typical liberal arts undergraduate paper follows. A blog can be more conversational in tone and less formal that way.

And I don’t think there is such a thing as a mandatory minimum length for a blog. Is there a maximum length? I suspect there is; my own totally unscientific hypothesis is that the average reader’s patience wears thin after the first 500 words or so, because reading for a long time on a screen is hard on the eyes. (I must confess I have not often observed this limit myself!) So one trick to good blogging could be to break up an idea for a long blog into a series of shorter pieces, as a courtesy to your readers.

Q – Do you think it’s important for journalists to nurture a social-media presence?

A You’re asking me a tough question here – because I don’t actually have a blog of my own, and I don’t even have a website! 🙂 If I was still working in journalism these days, I think I’d probably need to have my own website as a place to archive my work.

Q – Where do you get your ideas for blog posts?

A Since high school, I’ve enjoyed reading a variety of magazines and newspapers – including those with points of view that I don’t necessarily agree with, but which are well written and cover interesting topics. The greater the variety of publications that you regularly read, the more ideas you’ll have for blogging. I have to imagine that, for someone who wants to be a science-oriented blogger, the vast number of lectures and panel discussions that get posted to YouTube and so on would probably be a fruitful source of blog ideas.