In Perspective: Meeting local needs in science journalism

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Copyright: Lana Slezic/Panos

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  • Topics such as investigative reporting tend to dominate world journalism debates
  • But journalists in developing nations focus more on education and solving social problems
  • These topics would be better covered in a dedicated event

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The idea that, to be successful, a technology must meet local needs, conditions and resources, has gradually superseded 'one size fits all' approaches to technological development.

Has the time come to realise that the same idea applies to science journalism? This would mean recognising that science journalists in developing countries have different needs, working conditions and resources than those in the developed world.

This thought was triggered by debates during the biannual World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ 2013), which took place in Helsinki, Finland, last month (June 24–28), and was attended by more than 800 delegates from across the world.

Much time was spent debating topics such as the tension between investigative and promotional science journalism, and the growing challenge to traditional journalism from science blogs.

But in both cases, there was little input from science journalists from developing countries. This may reflect the fact that, for a variety of reasons (and with notable exceptions), neither issue is a high priority in their parts of the world.

The issues that are of concern to them — such as difficulty accessing scientists, the absence of helpful press officers, or a lack of training — did not figure nearly as highly in Helsinki.

Indeed, the issues of concern in developing countries would have been even less discussed had a decision by the conference organisers to drop a number of sessions on such themes not been overturned after protests.

Different audiences — and approaches

One way of reacting to this would be to blame the organisers for paying less attention to the needs of science journalists from developing countries than at the previous four world conferences.

But another view is to recognise that, despite sharing the need for common skills, science journalists in developed and developing countries are often writing for audiences with different interests, motivations and levels of science education — and also work in widely varying political environments.

Where levels of scientific literacy are high, there is much need for critical reporting that can assume some familiarity with the way that science operates, and that can lay bare how this process may have been deliberately distorted.

“More attention may need to be paid to the type of journalism that is appropriate to particular social and economic conditions.”

David Dickson

In contrast, where scientific literacy is low, and concerns about the potential application of science to basic human needs (such as health and food security) are more pressing, the priorities of science journalists can be different.

Education and social solutions

Jean Marc-Fleury, executive director of the World Federation of Science Journalists, pointed out in a plenary session that a survey of science journalists in Africa and the Middle East shows their top priority is "educating the public in science". Second is "showing how science can hold the solutions to social problems".

Neither is likely to figure quite as high among science journalists in the developed world, who are less keen to see themselves as promoting science, and are happier to leave that to those who more readily identify themselves as science communicators, such as press officers or exhibition organisers.

It would be naïve, if not pretentious, to argue that one type of science journalism is superior to the other. As Alok Jha, science correspondent of The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom has said, the role of science journalists — as of any journalists — is to meet the needs of their readers, not the scientists they write about.

Nor am I suggesting that critical or investigative journalism does not have an important role to play in developing countries. Indeed in some ways it is even more important, because the relative lack of scientific literacy makes poorer societies particularly vulnerable to the manipulation of science (such as claims for miracle cures for HIV/AIDS in parts of Africa).

But I am arguing that, in promoting science journalism across the world, more attention may need to be paid to the type of journalism that is appropriate to particular social and economic conditions.

Time for a new forum

This helps to explain the finding of a recent survey by SciDev.Net and partners that traditional science journalism is declining in developed countries but seems to be flourishing in the developing world.

It also points to a radical suggestion. Perhaps it is time for science journalists in the developing world to organise their own global conference that focuses explicitly on the issues that affect them most.

Impressive bids from Kenya and South Africa to host the next WCSJ, in 2015, were unsuccessful — but show that the capacity to plan this event already exists in developing nations. The winner, South Korea, may have been chosen partly because it promised substantial support from large companies keen to showcase the country's economic and technological success.

There is no reason to doubt that the South Korean organisers will, as they have promised, include a strong developing country dimension in the 2015 programme. But think how much better it would be if this is the main topic of a dedicated meeting — perhaps held in alternate years to the current world conferences.
David Dickson is a science journalist who has worked on the staffs of Nature, Science and New Scientist, specialising in reporting on science policy. He was the founding director of SciDev.Net.

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