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The World Conference of Science Journalists 2013 kicked off in high spirits yesterday in Helsinki, Finland. Following a range of pre-conference workshops on Monday — which covered issues such as investigative science journalism and making news out of foreign aid — the first day offered an equally rich selection of sessions, with six running in parallel at times.
The turnout is great, with some 800+ journalists from 77 countries. Early fears of a purge of developing-world sessions due to both a lack of funding and organisational issues now seem unwarranted, with several sessions looking at issues such as reporting on TB, indigenous people, foreign aid and regional science, to name but a few.
The main criticism so far appears to be that not all sessions have lived up to their advertising. Additionally there have been a few technical glitches, for example issues with microphones, as well as the somewhat abrupt conclusion to some sessions — even though the rooms in which they were held were not being used afterwards.
That said, we have seen some highly engaging plenary sessions, involving real-time surveys of the audiences' thoughts as well as great discussions on the future of science journalism. The debate seems to finally be shifting from 'Is science journalism in crisis?' to 'What can we do to do ensure funding for better, and more investigative, science journalism?'
Amidst the great programme of events, we also saw bids for WCSJ 2015 from Kenya, South Africa and South Korea. And the winner is … South Korea.
Mićo Tatalović, news editor
Covering science in totalitarian countries
It's been more than 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the impact the totalitarian government had on the way science journalism is done remains a current issue.
At a session entitled 'Science Journalism in Totalitarian Countries: The Impact to a Current Time', Blanka Jergovic, a journalist at Croatian Radio, analysed the criteria used back then.
"The government used to say that it was socially responsible to spread the so-called successes of the socialist ideology about science. It was a way to make propaganda and try to convince people of the idea of development," Jergovic said.
We also learned that during oppressive times, science information could be a vehicle for freedom. While growing up, Marina Huzvarova, current editor-in-chief of Academic Bulletin (Czech Republic), listened to a scientific show on the radio that would find creative ways to avoid the censorship controls imposed by the Soviet Union.
“We need to build better networks that help us put some pressure on these repressive governments.”
While the majority of the speakers were from Eastern Europe, there are many other examples in the world that can fit into this model of struggle. The shadow of government oppression against science information can be also felt today in many countries around the globe. For example, in some nations in Latin American and the Middle East, freelancers and journalists have reported having a hard time gaining access to official sources and documents detailing investments in science and technology.
One of the reasons for this is that science news can make a government look good or bad because of its connection to the notion of progress.
So what can we do today? That was my question for the panelists at the end of their discussion.
"We need to build better networks that help us put some pressure on these repressive governments. I believe the World Federation of Science Journalists should have a stronger influence in these cases," said James Cornell, president of the International Science Writers Association. "Together we can make a louder voice against these abuses."
Science journalists of the world, unite. Governments with a tendency to interfere in scientific coverage are, unfortunately, not yet a thing of the past.
Andrea Small Carmona
Reporting on pandemics from afar
For a journalist, reporting on sensitive health matters and — worse so — pandemics can be a real challenge in today's world, what with so many interests at play. And let's not forget the many spin doctors that are deployed, especially where outbreaks are involved, to jealously guard certain interests.
It gets even trickier when you are attempting to report hundreds or thousands of miles away from where the disaster is happening, relying on telephone, email interviews and Internet research in a bid to get the facts correct.
“Talk to as many people as possible, rely on experts and compare all the information you are getting from the different sources”
Journalist Helen Branswell, a medical reporter at the Canadian Press, shared her experiences of doing just that — writing about the H5N1 pandemic in East Asia from her country.
At a session on outbreaks, pandemics, rumours and regulations, Branswell said that the most important things in such a situation are to "talk to the right people", talk to as many of them of as possible and know your subject in-depth.
"You can report from anywhere so long as you know what you are talking about, make sure you talk to as many people as possible, rely on experts and compare all the information you are getting from the different sources. Also, explain to your sources why the story is important and you will get the right information," she emphasises.
This strategy was given weight by Martin Enserink, a contributing editor and journalist for Science based in the Netherlands — but with a huge caveat.
Do not trust politicians where huge public interest health stories are concerned, he warned. Their statements may make headlines, but they will most likely be misleading or just plain PR work.
You can rely on experts and scientists, he said, but you must know how to pick the right ones — scientists have their agendas too. It is also important to independently gather data and use your own judgement, and — crucially — confront your sources with your own views. That way you will not be far from getting the correct information.
This situation resonates well with the African science journalism landscape where, more often than not, journalists have to cover pandemics in far-flung areas from their urban newsrooms due to scarce resources.
Do you "believe" in climate change?
Does being objective always mean including both science and anti-science opinions when covering stories such as evolution or climate change?
"Ten years ago I was covering both climate change and anti-climate change campaigns, but then I stopped because only one side is scientific," said Valeria Roman, a science journalist from Argentina, at a session entitled 'Roots of Denial: Covering Evolution and Anti-science Movements around the Globe'.
She explained: "Most of the journalists usually include both sides in covering such issues, but they gave a false balance — they don't mention the negative impact of [the denialists'] position or how they don't base their opinions on scientific evidence and facts".
Roman added that she is concerned that more science reporting in South America is being done by writers who don't have a solid background in science.
“Instead of asking: 'Do you believe in climate change?', you can rephrase it: 'Do you think that climate change is going to happen?”
Cristine Russell, a science writer and former president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, said that there is a lot of confusion when it comes to what's science and what's not, especially when the blogging era started — "Some of the sceptic blogs have been winning [awards for] the best science blogs".
Russell urged journalists to stop using the word "believe" when talking about science, as "science is about evidence not beliefs".
"Instead of asking your interviewee: 'Do you believe in climate change?', you can rephrase it and say: 'Do you think that climate change is going to happen?'"
So what should journalists do when reporting on a controversial science issue in his/her community? "Just find a scientist who is specialised in this field of science and let him talk about it," says Russell.
She ended her talk saying: "We have to do our job, which is writing about science issues and training writers to do so".
Rehab Abd Almohsen