Q&A: 11th WCSJ sees network of Francophone journalists

Yves Sciama - WCSJ organising committee member.

Speed read

  • For the first time, a Francophone country is hosting the World Conference of Science Journalists
  • Yves Sciama, who sits on the organising committee, believes the future of science journalism lies in collaborations
  • A Francophone workshop held in Lausanne will bring together journalists and researchers from French-speaking countries

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[DAKAR] The next World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) is hoping a dedicated Francophone Day will be a first step towards creating an international network of French-speaking science journalists, according to organising committee member Yves Sciama.
The Francophone Workshop will be on the first day of the July 1-5 event in Lausanne, Switzerland.
It is the first time the event has been held in a French-speaking country, and the organising committee has invested a lot in a promotional campaign targeted at journalists from the French-speaking world, in particular those from sub-Saharan Africa.
They are being encouraged to get involved and be part of an event that is usually dominated by the English-language media.
Sciama outlines why Francophone journalists in sub-Saharan Africa should attend this biennial gathering, and what steps the continent needs to take should it aspire to host this major event in the future. 

What specific arrangements have been made for WCSJ 2019 which is being held for the first time in a Francophone country?

We are very aware of the fact that this will be the first time the event takes place in the Francophone world. This is why we are devoting a whole day to a Francophone Workshop on July 1. It will have two objectives. First, we want to bring together, in a professional context, French-speaking journalists from France, sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, Quebec, Switzerland and elsewhere, so that they can establish relationships, get to know each other, and in time, maybe think about cooperating together on projects. It will be a first step towards establishing a network of Francophone science journalists.


And on the other hand, a lot of scientific bodies from the French-speaking world will be represented. It will be an opportunity to get advice on finding people to speak to, locating sources, and contacting researchers who can answer questions on topics as diverse as health, climatology and biodiversity.

Science has become globalised and businesses are increasingly globalised. It's high time journalists followed suit.

Yves Sciama

There were plans initially to hold sessions in French. Why were they abandoned?

The thing is, it's a global conference, and journalists will be travelling from five continents to be there. There will be delegates from Latin America, China, Sri Lanka, Europe and elsewhere. And the reality is that French speakers will only account for a small proportion of the people attending. So it seems to us to be more straightforward to have a number of sessions of particular interest to Francophones translated from English, which will be the conference language, into French. Rather than having sessions in French that would then need to be translated for the overwhelming majority of delegates, we are therefore going to focus on providing a translation service to allow journalists who primarily use French to benefit from the conference.

Why is it so difficult to promote scientific journalism in a language other than English?

It's partly to do with research culture: findings are published in English. As a result, most science journalists have become used to English-language publications. They don't necessarily speak very good English, but they have learned to get by because English has become a sort of Esperanto in the world of science. And then there's the fact it's become the global international language, for similar reasons. It's not easy for us to counter that. I would nevertheless add that there are, within the World Federation of Science Journalists, Spanish colleagues in particular, and also French-speaking colleagues, who are working to develop networks connecting people who speak their languages.

An awareness-raising campaign has been targeted at Francophone journalists, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa. What would they gain from attending?

First of all, there will be this Francophone Day, which aims to give birth to an international community of Francophone science journalists. And we are hoping to be able to put journalists in touch with Francophone media outlets, in particular those based in France and Switzerland. There will be opportunities there to find work and develop collaborations. In the global North, people often write articles about Africa in connection with topics like health, climate science, agriculture and so on. So it would be really good to be able to facilitate contacts and exchanges with colleagues based in these countries.

What can you tell us about the conference programme?

The programme has really been designed to boost the skills and knowledge of journalists from all parts of the world. French-speaking journalists have roughly the same concerns and interests as their counterparts in other countries, so they will find a lot of things there that are of relevance to them. A number of sessions are probably worth highlighting. For example, we have a session on how a freelance journalist in the global South can build successful working relationships with media in the global North. This is a session where there will be journalists from Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa so we do hope they will find it useful. There will also be lots of sessions aimed at improving skills related to identifying topics, processing data and conducting data-led investigations. There are sessions on indigenous knowledge, what uses science might put it to, and how journalists can look at traditional medicine or other kinds of indigenous knowledge. Other sessions will look at climate science, biodiversity, and mental health, which has traditionally been ignored. Essentially, there are all sorts of topics that could help journalists from Francophone Africa to improve their knowledge and get better at their jobs.

When might we expect this conference to be held on African soil?

Decisions on where conferences are held are made by the World Federation of Science Journalists. There is a tender process at each conference and countries who want to host the event are free to stake their claim. Lausanne's successful application to host this year's conference was the first one to be made by a consortium of three countries as France, Switzerland and Italy are jointly organising it.

“If Africa wants to host a conference, it would be a good idea for several countries to get together to pool their expertise. And then they could make the case for their capacity to organize such an event.”

Yves Sciama

My view is that if Africa wants to host a conference, it would be a good idea for several countries to get together to pool their expertise. And then they could make the case for their capacity to organize such an event. I know that the World Federation is keen to ensure it has a global presence and it would certainly welcome an African bid. Having said that, I clearly don't know what the outcome would be if there was such a candidacy. But I do think it would be a good idea for Africa to throw its hat into the ring.

You mentioned that some topics would lend themselves to collaborations. What do you mean precisely by this?

This clearly applies to a number of domains, starting with health, which is now globalised. Epidemics start in one place then spread to another location and vaccines and treatments also cross borders. Monitoring must be transnational too. Let's take the example of Ebola virus disease, which appeared in Africa but was rapidly deemed to be a threat in a number of countries in the global North. This type of pathogen could serve as a focus for joint investigations, with for example, journalists in the global North, where the vaccines are being developed, working alongside their counterparts based in the places where outbreaks occur and vaccines are tested. I think collaborations like this would work well and this applies to all sorts of other domains.
In agriculture, people in the south of France are starting to grow crops associated with semi-arid zones and are using methods traditionally employed there. Sorghum is now found as a matter of course in many parts of southern France. It would be possible to do some good work with journalists specialised in agronomy from the global North and the global South coming and going to compare techniques, varieties and answers that have been found to problems. More generally, I think there is a key trend in modern journalism towards collaboration and transnational and transcontinental work. This is really important. Science has become globalised and businesses are increasingly globalised, including in terms of their downsides, in other words pollution. It's high time journalists followed suit. Our sources, and the scientific and political issues we tackle, are globalised. We need to have the capacity to identify topics and the ability to work together to do them justice.

What can you tell us about the topics that journalists from sub-Saharan Africa put forward for discussion?

We received a total of 390 proposals to run sessions and were only in a position to accept 40 of them. We therefore had the task of ruling some of them out, which was a painful and difficult process as some of these proposals were good. We will publish the programme at the end of the month and will keep updating it until the conference opens, in response to developments. If, for instance, an epidemic occurs somewhere, we will naturally want to include something on our scientific understanding of the epidemic. We received around 30 proposals from sub-Saharan Africa and four or five of them were successful. Overall, that's a rate of attrition similar to other parts of the world. Still, I have noticed that there is a lot of interest in the conference in sub-Saharan Africa and we know that a lot of people, even if their proposal was turned down, will find a way of attending. That will help them to develop an understanding of how to improve their proposals for the next call for contributions.

What does the WCSJ expect from SciDev.Net as one of the partners of this year's conference?

SciDev.Net has access to a network of journalists, many of whom are based in the global South and working in languages other than English. There is no equivalent anywhere in the world. It really is the strongest network from this point of view and we are keen to leave behind the ghetto of high-end scientific journals based in Anglo-Saxon countries, and more broadly in the global North, to forge closer links with journalism in all its forms. We hope SciDev.Net will help raise awareness of the conference among all of these journalists to whom we don't necessarily have access because they are based in countries that don't always have bodies representing journalists, and we don't know how to get in touch with them.
We are also keen for things to work the other way around and for SciDev.Net to let us know what is important to these journalists. We'd then be in a position to take their views into consideration when organising sessions, initiatives or media visits. We'd also like to have a better idea of what they want from these major international organisations that represent journalists. And we're keen to hear about what we can do to better assist them in developing and entrenching scientific journalism in their countries.