Who and where are the science journalists?

Is being a science journalist different in Beijing or New Delhi? There are many unanswered questions. Copyright: Flickr/World Agroforestry Centre

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We need more information about science journalists in the developing world, and what they need to develop their skills.

Who are the journalists covering science in the developing world? How many are there and which countries do they work in? Do they have full-time jobs or are they freelance?

Are most of them young or older professionals, and are there more men or women? And what are their views on science journalism?

The truth is, we have no idea. There are a couple of studies that have surveyed science journalists, but only in the developed world. Without global information, initiatives that aim to strengthen science journalism in the developing world lack guidance on where, and how, they could make the greatest impact.

Now, a worldwide survey is underway to help answer these questions. The first phase was conducted by Martin Bauer and Susan Howard at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) during the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in London two years ago. [1]

And last June, at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Qatar, I presented the preliminary results from a part of the project that focused on Latin America, carried out in collaboration with the Ibero-American Network for Monitoring and Training in Science Journalism (which covers ten countries in the region).

The results from the 179 responses received provides a first take of science journalism in Latin America.

Patterns and puzzles

It turns out that science journalists working in the region are mostly female (60 per cent), aged under 40 (60 per cent) and have full-time jobs (60 per cent). The majority said their outlets are newspapers, magazines and the Internet — the media most likely to cover science.

Does this mean that there is not much coverage of science on television or radio? This may signal a missed opportunity — these mass media can have a key role in making science more accessible in the developing world, as even poor households have televisions and radios.

Putting together the regional picture is like a puzzle. Studies show that in some countries, such as Brazil, science has been on the agenda of mainstream television, which reaches 25 million people every day. Science can also inspire soap operas, such as the Brazilian production ‘The Clone’. In other countries, such as Ecuador, science has a low presence in television news.

And some of the answers raise even more questions. For example, most Latin American journalists who have responded to the survey so far, have been working in the field for less than ten years. Does this mean that others give up their science journalism career after a while? Or is it that science journalism has only recently begun to flourish in the region?

More passion than criticism

For the Latin American journalists, the role of science journalism is to inform people about science and to translate complex information. Only a few respondents (3 per cent) say science journalists should provide a more critical perspective.

An explanation of why this figure is so low could be that science communication in Latin America has its origin in the scientific community.

For example, in the 1920s, members of the Brazilian Academy of Science launched the first radio station, Rádio Sociedade, devoted to education and communication about science. And several years later, a partnership between scientists and journalists led to a monthly 12-page supplement in the Folha da Manhã newspaper, Ciencia para todos (Science for all), which ran from 1948 to 1953.

Another explanation is that science journalists in Latin America are so passionate about science that they enjoy talking about its importance at the expense of being critical. This is in contrast to the United Kingdom, for example, where many science journalists have a more journalistic tradition, where you are expected to question everything you are told, not just repeat it.

A particular concern is the lack of a mechanism for science journalists to have regular feedback about their stories to help understand their audience. We need to know more about our audiences and what media and approaches work best for them.

Another finding from the survey is that Latin American science journalists say they are happy with their career, and would recommend science journalism to others. This is intriguing, as Martin Bauer says the starting point for the survey was a sense among science journalists in the United Kingdom and the United States that science journalism is facing a crisis.

Evidence for better practice

But the Latin America survey is only the first step towards tackling the big puzzle — understanding science journalism across all developing nations. There are so many other questions.

How different is it to be a science journalist in Beijing, Cairo, New Delhi or Rio de Janeiro? Does the local context have a significant impact on how they work, or how much local science is covered?

Science journalism does seem to be flourishing in some countries, despite the lack of statistical data. But knowing more about who is covering science worldwide can support efforts to improve our journalism — such as gathering evidence of its benefit, which would help raise funds for more training.

Significant efforts have been made to deliver more training for science journalists in the developing world, where there is often limited access to such opportunities. SciDev.Net, for example, has been carrying out workshops in Africa, Asia and Latin America — training sessions in Latin American countries have attracted hundreds of journalists and scientists.

SciDev.Net has also published dozens of practical guides with tips on how to improve skills in covering different areas of science, and the World Federation of Science Journalists has been working on a system of matching senior journalists as mentors to younger reporters.

Having a better understanding of science journalism will help media organisations design activities that reinforce skills where they are needed most. The evidence so far from the ongoing worldwide survey is a start; but there is still a long way to go. This is a map under construction.

Luisa Massarani
Latin America and Caribbean regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

If you are a science journalist, please help us think about these issues by participating in this worldwide survey! It takes only 10 minutes:

Questionnaire in English: http://www.psych.lse.ac.uk/surveys/WCSJ_2011_Questionnaire/

Questionnaire in Spanish: http://www.psych.lse.ac.uk/surveys/WCSJ_2011_Cuestionario/

Please don’t complete the survey if you have already done so, either at the London WCSJ or by participating in the Latin American survey.