Science journalism must keep a critical edge

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The success of last week’s World Conference of Science Journalists augurs well for the future of the profession. But it needs to maintain its independence, and avoid becoming an extension of the public relations industry.

Australia’s science journalists have a hard act to follow. Last week — somewhat to their own surprise — their Canadian counterparts managed to attract a full house of 500 colleagues from across the world to Montréal for the 4th World Conference of Science Journalists. There they were exposed to three days of stimulating talks, debate and discussion about the state of their profession.

At the end of the meeting, a decision was taken by representatives of national science writing associations that the next of these biannual meetings should be held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006 (or perhaps early 2007). The choice was itself something of a surprise; a number of strong competing applications had been received, in particular from China and Italy. But the Australian delegation had come with a well-prepared bid stressing, among other aspects, the country’s links with South-east Asia, a region in which science journalism remains relatively weak.

For many of those attending the Montréal meeting, its most significant message was contained in the way that a series of speakers underlined the importance of their role as a channel of communication between scientists and society — and the challenges they face in carrying out this role effectively. Maureen O’Neill, for example, the president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (one of the main sponsors of the meeting) emphasised this point in her opening address, placing particular role on the need for this task within developing countries (See ‘Science journalists play critical role in decision-making‘).  

For the experienced journalists present, the message was a familiar one. But for those relatively new to the profession, particularly those in many parts of the developing world struggling to establish their professional identity as science writers in a media world dominated by a reporting of politics and sport, the message provided welcome reassurance about the importance of their chosen path.

External pressures

Yet the meeting also provided several warnings about the narrowness of this path, and the pressures that can knock off balance those who seek to go down it. Many such pressures come from those with a vested interested in seeing their activities reported in a particular way. Sometimes such pressure is explicit and obvious. In other cases, the origins may be less clear (for example, when political pressure on a newspaper becomes transformed into an editorial judgement about news values imposed by senior editorial staff on junior reporters).

Difficult as such pressures may be to resist, each can conflict with the responsibility of a journalist firstly to remain as faithful as possible to the facts, and secondly to use his or her best judgement of what is significant about such facts. Neither of these requires objectivity about the issue being described; the best journalists are those who can be passionate about the subjects that they cover. But they do demand that, however strong the passion, journalists retain a critical edge in their reporting that is sufficient to ensure the independence of their personal, informed judgement.

Several warnings about ways in which this independence of judgement can be threatened were presented to the Montréal conference. One speaker, for example, warned journalists of the need for caution in reporting on the results of clinical trials of new pharmaceutical products, however well dressed up these may be in a cloak of scientific plausibility. For example, supporting papers from scientific journals may be provided with an inadequate interpretation of the data contained in such papers (See ‘Journalists warn of helping drug giants ‘market disease’‘).

In another session, SciDev.Net’s Beijing correspondent, Jia Hepeng, spoke of the difficulties facing journalists in China as the government seeks to control the distribution of information about sensitive topics such as the spread of the SARS virus. Criticism (much of it from outside China) about an initial lack of openness had helped to overcome the first hurdle faced by Chinese reporters, namely a sheer lack of information. But, said Jia, that had now been replaced by an equally daunting challenge, namely discovering the reality behind the facts and figures being presented in the name of an apparent transparency.

In South Africa, a similar issue faces journalists who seek to report on the spread of HIV/AIDS. As Tamar Kahn, another SciDev.Net contributor, told the meeting, the task has become easier as a result of the government overcoming its previous reluctance to acknowledge the size of the AIDS problem it faces. But the tendency of government officials to play down the problem remains reflected in the difficulties faced by individual journalists in getting their stories accepted for publication. Kahn reports on her own difficulties in persuading her news editor to give a story about South Africa’s AIDS epidemic reaching record proportions more than two short paragraphs on an inside page (see ‘Controversy and science reporting in South Africa‘).

The need for independence

In such instances, it is usually relatively clear what the proper function of the science journalist should be. Equally important, however, is to retain the same independent stance when writing about science itself. There has been a tendency in recent years to assume that science journalists should, almost by definition, be part of the ‘science promotion’ business. This is particularly strong among those who argue that the low esteem in which science is widely held is primarily the results of a ‘bad press’ — and that science journalists have a responsibility to help reverse this situation.

It is certainly true that what often distinguishes science journalists from their colleagues is greater knowledge of — and respect for — the way that science operates. Indeed one of the main reasons for promoting science journalism around the world is precisely to ensure that when science is written about, it is done in an informed manner.

But that is not the same as endorsing everything that is said or done in the name of science (any more than an art critic is expected to endorse everything that is done in the name of art). In other words, science journalists should not be seen, or see themselves, as part of a public relations effort, however much those responsibility for promoting a particular scientific activity or programme seek to recruit them their cause.

Blurring the line

If there was a criticism to be made of the Montréal meeting, it was the extent to which some of those who had generously provided sponsorship to cover the travel and accommodation costs of foreign participants (particularly from developing countries) appeared to feel justified in subsequently using the conference as a promotional platform. In principle, of course, there is no reason that they should not do so; after all, no-one complains when the sponsor of a sporting event demands that a company logo be prominently featured in television coverage of that event.

The danger lies in blurring the line between journalism and public relations. When that happens, a journalist is denying his or her responsibility to exercise a personal judgement of what is significant by substituting for it the judgement of others (who may have their own financial or political agenda). One response of the profession must lie in an insistence on editorial independence as a guarantor of journalistic integrity. A second lies in the need to ensure that a political commitment to the freedom of the press is adequately reflected in practice.

Hopefully, the Australian organisers of the next world conference will bear the need to address these in mind when planning their programme. There certainly needs to be space on the programme to explore ways in which science journalists can ensure that the media adequately acknowledges and reflects the role of science in modern societies, both developed and developing. And the meeting will obviously be a useful vehicle for creating a greater global awareness of Australia’s scientific and technological achievements.

Equally important, however, is that the meeting should address in detail some of the key challenges faced by science journalists around the world as they strive to create the conditions under which their profession can flourish. The Montréal meeting made a good start, and provided some important openings in this direction. The baton has now been passed to others to find ways of ensuring that this work is continued.

Related SciDev.Net pages

WCSJ4 coverage

Previous editorials on science communication