JAX Alumnus David Brancaccio brings the scientific method to business reporting
By Joyce Dall'Acqua Peterson
Let's do the numbers
David Brancaccio, host of Marketplace Morning Report, brings the scientific method to business reporting.
If you listen to National Public Radio when you’re pouring your first cup of coffee in the morning, or in the car on the way to work, you know that warm, familiar voice, and that unique combination of insightful reporting and sly wit.
David Brancaccio is the host of American Public Media’s Marketplace Morning Report, a brisk, informative and entertaining summary of the day’s business and financial news. In about eight minutes, Brancaccio and his colleagues cover the expected interest rate predictions, pharma mergers and so on, but also aspects of the economy you’ve never thought about: a black market for maple syrup, the environmental impact of avocado farming, the technology used to determine the winners at this year’s Olympic Games.
Brancaccio started his distinguished broadcasting career at Marketplace in 1989 as the program’s European editor based in London, becoming senior editor and host in 1993. He left Marketplace in 2003 to join Bill Moyers on the PBS program Now, and to contribute to many other broadcast, electronic and print media, returning to Marketplace in 2011. He has earned the highest honors in broadcast journalism, including the Peabody, the Columbia-duPont, the Emmy, and the Walter Cronkite awards.
His 2000 book, Squandering Aimlessly, accounts a pilgrimage across America to learn how people apply their personal values to their money, and his 2012 feature documentary film, Fixing the Future, explores sustainable options for the economy.
Brancaccio credits his ability to condense complex, unfamiliar topics into jargon-free radio reports in part to the scientific training he received almost four decades ago, when he was a 17-year-old high school junior participating in The Jackson Laboratory’s Summer Student Program.
Fresh from the morning’s broadcast, and relaxing in the coffee lounge of the newly renovated Marketplace offices in midtown Manhattan, Brancaccio recalls the summer of 1977. “Plunging into the deep end of immunology” in the laboratory of Marianna Cherry, Ph.D., he says, emboldened him to communicate about complicated subjects.
“If I could get enough of an understanding of something at the professional level, in a short amount of time,” he says, “and not embarrass myself in front of a senior staff scientist at The Jackson Laboratory, I knew I could probably acquire whatever it is I need to know.”
Brancaccio, who in the last week interviewed a Nobel laureate and several government officials and scientists, says he always questions the sanctity of expertise. “You often have these high priests of a subject communicating, either with body language or directly, that this isn't for the unwashed. I never accept that.”
During the months before the great economic crisis of 2008, he recounts, “We knew that bubble was going to pop, but there were these very smart people saying to me, ‘Oh, if you had an advanced degree in economics, you’d understand that all this stuff is hedged and it’s very sustainable.’ Partly because of my experience at the Lab those years ago, I can learn enough about something so that I can ask educated questions. I think that really did help me a lot in the work that I do.”
Growing up with radio, travel, biology
By the time Brancaccio came to The Jackson Laboratory’s headquarters campus in Bar Harbor, Maine as a summer student, he was already a world traveler and experienced radio professional.
Brancaccio was born in New York; when he was three years old his family moved to Waterville, Maine, where his father was a professor of American literature at Colby College. (Today pronouncing the word odd like awed is the only audible trace of northern New England in his diction.) His mother taught at the junior high Brancaccio attended, and was an actress and theater director. The family traveled extensively, including a year in Italy and summers in Europe for his father’s research.
The radio bug hit Brancaccio early. “My Uncle Sam was an amateur radio operator, and when I was three, he let me talk on the air,” he recalls. “I still remember the call sign, WB2EZL, Easy Zanzibar Lover.” By the time he was in high school, Colby College had started a 10-watt FM station, WMHB; when no college students signed up for the Saturday 6 a.m. block, Brancaccio stepped in to read the news off the wire.
In the spring of 1974, the Brancaccio family moved to Madagascar, funded by his father’s Fulbright fellowship. “It was this amazing place, with beautiful tropical beaches and lemurs everywhere. We survived a cyclone that ruined the town, and there was a coup d’état and martial law, with shooting in the streets. But if you read my letters home to my friends, they’re all about radio! Who’s in and who’s out at the local station.”
In high school Brancaccio had an interest in science and participated in science fairs, which, he observes, is how many American kids come to science. He recalls being “not the swiftest card in the deck in some of the math classes,” but clicked with biology in his sophomore year with the support of a great Waterville High School teacher, Jane Abbott.
“I could just see biology visually; math was a little more opaque to me. I was fascinated by how things work, which is probably the key concept of science,” he says. It was Abbott who encouraged him to apply for the summer program at The Jackson Laboratory.
Science and science literacy
After four decades Brancaccio can recite verbatim the title of his 1977 research paper: “The effects of certain parameters on agarose suppression of the non-specific cytotoxicity of rabbit serum complement.” Handed a photocopy of the paper from the JAX library, he thumbs through it and immediately critiques the writing style: “Pompous. Passive voice.” He notes that although his research that summer failed to prove his hypothesis, “it wasn’t pointless, and it advanced the cause of human knowledge, one part per quadrillion.”
He says his experiences growing up, including the tumultuous year on Madagascar, had led him not to be physically afraid, “But this experience at the Lab allowed me to never be intellectually afraid. If you give me a little bit of time, I'll be able to crack the basics of something so that as a reporter, I can ask some decent questions, and kind of understand the answer, and hopefully write a decent story.”
Brancaccio did not pursue science in college, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in African studies and history from Wesleyan University in 1982 and a master's in journalism from Stanford University in 1988. But he is an eloquent supporter of science and science literacy.
“I’m aware that journalists are generally horrible at science,” he says. “And that often, scientists are aghast or outraged, justifiably, by some coverage. I'm also aware that some scientists aren't very good at communicating this stuff. And you'd hope that our elected officials would get expert advice, and sometimes they do. But we all have to sort of move in the direction of better science communication. Otherwise, these decisions are left to closed-door discussions, and I'm not sure that serves society.
“Also, we have an economy that needs people who think scientifically. We're desperate for young people to graduate in the S.T.E.M. fields, and that means science education needs to start early, so that younger people are not afraid of learning science. “
In 2000, Brancaccio came to Bar Harbor with his wife, poet and educator Mary Fortkort Brancaccio, and their three children to attend a reunion of JAX summer students. He gave a talk to the full auditorium in which he recounted how his summer of research had helped him to be a better journalist and citizen. He completed his talk by challenging The Jackson Laboratory to “take on a science writing summer student,” to increase the pool of young writers who are able to grasp and communicate the complexities of biomedical research.
Since then JAX has hosted seven science writing summer students, who have produced a wide range of print, broadcast, web, photo and video projects. The 2016 student, 17-year-old high school yearbook editor Tamsyn Brann, had the opportunity to interview Brancaccio (see sidebar), after which he shared with her his interviewing tips and walked her around the Marketplace offices to introduce her to his journalist colleagues. “He was so great! I’ve heard his voice since before I was born,” Brann exclaimed later with a big grin.
Asked what he would tell people about The Jackson Laboratory, Brancaccio replies, “I would tell them that there is this world-class medical and scientific research lab at the front doors of Acadia National Park, in Maine. It's a much more high-profile institution than it was when I was there, and I think that's good, because the work being done there is solving some of the great problems.”