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Image credit: WCSJ 2013

Speed read

  • Science journalism is going entrepreneurial

  • Critical questioning is intrinsic to science journalism

  • Public needs quality, independent science journalism

[HELSINKI] The future of science journalism may lie in a mix of funding sources, delegates at the four-day eighth World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) last week heard.
 
Connie St Louis, director, science journalism, City University, London, told the closing plenary on 28 June that "the future (of science journalism) is entrepreneurial" because "precious jobs in newsrooms are disappearing." 
 
An added concern, especially in the United Kingdom, she said, is the "paucity of investigative science journalism".
 
She suggested a funding basket that draws from scientific institutions as well as private funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
 
Some delegates pointed out that reliance on scientific institutes, business or other agencies could compromise the impartiality and objectivity of news reporting.
 
Several sessions at the conference addressed the related issues of maintaining journalistic independence and integrity amidst attempts to influence coverage through press relations officers, industry and by manipulating scientific disputes.
 
The sessions reiterated journalists' responsibilities in criticism of public policy and alertness towards manipulation by vested interests such as tobacco companies, diet and nutrition supplement makers, climate change deniers as also scientific misconduct and the cherry-picking of data.
"Relying on science is not always easy — in whom, or what kind of research can we trust?" Tuula Vainikaenen, a Finnish science journalist asked at a workshop on evidence-based health journalism on 24 June.
 
Helen Branswell, a medical reporter with the Canadian Press, observed that "sometimes emotions overrule evidence and scientific experts' statements go against public beliefs," challenging objectivity — such as when reporting on pandemics.
 
A statement issued at the conclusion of the meet urged the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) to promote freedom of expression, access, transparency and better communication among public and private organisations involved in scientific research and policy.
 
The statement, read out by Vesa Niinikangas, outgoing president of the WFSJ, highlighted the critical role of science journalism in objectively examining scientific evidence and communicating its implications to society.
 
"Different audiences and the general public as a whole need high-quality, independent science journalism that thoughtfully analyses research and puts it into the larger societal perspective," the statement said.
 
Some of the discussions are being carried forward to the next conference in Seoul, marking the second of the WFSJ's initiatives in Asia after the 24 April launch of a mentoring project for Asian journalists. So far, the federation's activities were confined to Africa and the Middle East and North Africa region.
 
The Korea Science Reporters Association (KSRA) — a surprise late entry — won the bid to host the 2015 conference, to the anguish of the two rival bidding delegations from Kenya and South Africa.
 
The Seoul conference is expected to point the way towards future WCSJ funding options, an issue that the federation is grappling with especially after science journalists, at a meeting in April in London, mooted alternative funding for investigative science journalism. 

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