Q&A: Science journalists face challenges of fake news era

science journalism
Mohammed Yahia is president of the World Federation of Science Journalists and vice president of the Arab Science Journalists Association. Copyright: SciDev.Net

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  • Mohammed Yahia is president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)
  • He says science journalists face new challenges including fake news, anti-science views
  • The WFSJ, representing over 10,000 members, trains journalists in developing countries

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As the 11th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) approaches in Lausanne, Switzerland, the head of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) says the role of its members has never been more important.

Thousands of science journalists from Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and the Middle East will gather for the five-day conference starting 5 July.

In an interview with SciDev.Net, WFSJ president Mohammed Yahia, who is also vice president of the Arab Science Journalists Association, discusses the challenges faced by science journalists in an era of fake news and skepticism.

What is your view of the state of science journalism globally?

Like many fields of journalism, science journalism is in a particularly precarious spot today. The field is changing rapidly, but in recent years science journalists have faced new challenges, such as alternate facts, fake news and a rising anti-science climate. While these new realities pose extra challenges for science journalists, they also highlight the importance of our profession. Today, more than ever, there is a strong need for critical, accurate and unbiased science journalism. People are looking to journalists to deliver the real news, and we must rise to that challenge.

How does the state of science journalism differ in developed and developing countries?

Journalists in the global south have to contend with many problems that their colleagues in the West may take for granted. For example, we often need to tread a line of being critical and performing our jobs adequately even under authoritarian regimes that are not particularly friendly towards journalists. Journalists in developing countries also face ever-shrinking budgets and increasing workloads. This can often mean they don’t have enough resources and time to give a story, which can lead to less critical or analytical stories.

However, our colleagues in the developed world are, unfortunately, starting to face similar realities and can learn a lot from what we have been doing for decades. The rise of authoritarian and nationalistic governments in the West mean that journalists there need to fight with extra vigilance to protect their hard-won rights, and maintain the important role they play in their societies. Journalists in the developing world have been doing this day in, day out, for so long, so there is a strong opportunity for knowledge sharing in the opposite direction, from developing to developed countries.

How does the WFSJ support science journalism in developing countries?

The WFSJ was founded to bring science journalists from around the world together based on the simple notion that together we are stronger. I believe that the federation has a strong role to play for science journalists all over the world. But with a specific focus on the developing world, there is a strong need for training, and the WFSJ is best placed to offer that. Through our expansive network, we have some of the best science journalists from around the world, who are willing to help fellow young science journalists learn the ropes, become better writers, and address the needs of their communities.

These training opportunities range from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and on-ground training to the WCSJ held every two years, where science journalists from all over the world discuss issues that are relevant and important to our field.

How do you measure the impact of the federation’s work over the years?

The Federation was formed nearly two decades ago. Since then it has managed to grow to represent 59 associations with more than 10,000 members – a huge number. After such a long time, however, it is healthy to do some soul-searching and think about the future. What do we want to be in the future? What can we offer our members better? These are the questions we are asking now as the federation enters its next growth phase.

I often see new, young faces at the WCSJ and many of these go on to become prominent science journalists doing amazing work all over the world. This is the real measure of success: that we are able to create new generations of science journalists who can continue our work, and grow and evolve to do even better than us.

What are the barriers facing the WFSJ?

The biggest barrier we currently face is our need for more funding in order to achieve all the projects and ideas we have. We would like to revisit the idea of SjCOOP, which was one of the biggest science journalism training programs, and see how we can adopt it for new generations. We need to think of new models for the federation that allow us to continue to serve our members the best we can. And most importantly, as membership continues to grow, we need to find ways to continue to be engaged with people so we know we are delivering exactly what they need. The WFSJ is a federation directed at science journalists, and we must fight to make sure that this is who we continue to serve into the future.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk and has been edited for brevity.