IN THE FIELD

Portrait of a singular discipline

5e Conférence mondiale sur le journalisme scientifique – Melbourne 2007 The 5th World Conference of Science Journalists – Melbourne 2007

How can science be better liked by the general public? Working in close proximity to a research community that at times shuns and at times seeks the spotlight, science journalists must engage in a continual process of self-questioning if they are to preserve an art linked directly to the world that surrounds and often transcends us. Tim Radford, former Science Editor of The Guardian (UK daily), helps us understand the magic but also the difficulties of the singular profession of propagator of science.

There are as many scientific converts to the art of communication as there are journalists bitten by the research bug or teachers seeking a wider audience. There is no standard profile for the science journalist. Some would say that it is a job that can only be learned in the field. Having ended up in journalism by chance after leaving school at 16, Tim Radford is living proof of the fact. “We learn on the job. You may have your degree in science communication but once you are out there a journalist, this adds to the fascination.” like the scientist who asks questions and keeps asking them until they find the solution to their problem, so too is the journalist engaged in a continual process of questioning.

“With the difference that the journalist has just one day to come up with the answer and must build a story that interests his public… Sometimes the story has been there for a long time but nobody has told it. The challenge is to bring it up to date and make it come alive again.”

No ready-made recipe

There is no ready-made recipe for this kind of journalism that must take into account a multitude of factors that are not always easy to combine.

First of all, the journalist must remind their audience of the rules of the game. While nobody needs to be reminded of the rules of football or of the subtleties of politics, science has to be constantly placed in context so as to remind the public of certain essential prerequisites. What is an enzyme? What is the basis of string theory? How do genes function? “But there is no need to re-explain everything. Today anybody who owns a washing machine or a microwave oven knows more about computing than 20 years ago. Similarly, the term DNA no longer needs to be explained, fortunately.”

What is more, explaining the process of arriving at a scientific truth – without being an apologist for it – implies taking a certain distance and above all making an in-depth analysis of the information. Because simplification must not distort the facts. Excessive popularisation can engender mistaken interpretations, which in turn fuel researchers’ suspicions of journalists. More than in any other branch of journalism, the science writer must investigate to the maximum in the shortest possible time. In the process, the journalist themselves becomes a kind of “mini-researcher”, thereby moving even closer to their principal interlocutor, the scientist. But in an age with an excess of press releases, blogs and other wikis, nobody is immune to getting things wrong, particularly when it comes to science.

Informing or advertising?

In the scramble for research funding, the researcher’s future is in part dependent on the media impact of the research project. Very often they will tend to go to the press office or their institute’s spin doctors rather than a journalist – unless, that is, the latter is able to convey the desired message. So where then does the border between journalism and communication lie? That is the eternal question asked of and by a profession that is in the sole service of the public that it informs.

Communication praises the progress of science even if it does have to take some shortcuts to better promote it. Whereas the journalist “pragmatises” it while also rendering it more human. They must therefore adopt a more neutral and critical stance, remain aware of their own choices and perspectives, and inform the public of the implications of the discovery, both positive and negative. In short, they must remain independent as much as possible.

“We are here to help people form an opinion. That may or may not be a well-informed opinion, but that is always better than no opinion at all. As a rule, journalism is much healthier for this world when it is ready to challenge authority. People pay for science that is dependent on the political decisionmakers for funding. In this respect, scientists must also expect a critical press. That is perfectly legitimate.”

The caprices of information

Science journalism is often one of the “poor relations” of general information. Before being able to arouse the interest of the audience or readers, the journalist must first convince the editor of the pertinence of the subject and the attention it deserves. In a general media with no specific science section the priority goes to covering the latest events in a tumultuous world, while science news is set aside until later if not indefinitely. It almost takes a discovery that is going to change the face of the world before editors really show an interest, which is no guarantee of the quality of the media coverage that results. If one looks at the present media, it seems that the more the news is in line with the “sensationalist” mainstream, the more superficial, if not botched, the coverage.

But the growing interest in such major issues as global warming, health or the Internet presents science journalism with some excellent opportunities. In an ever more uncertain media world, these global issues are becoming of major concern to the general public. Accessible and directly relevant to people’s everyday lives, they allow science to slot more often into the editorial line of a magazine, television network or radio station.

“There is a problem of inertia in media management. We grew up in a generation that still regarded science as boring, of no interest to anybody except a few bearded wonders with large spectacles and absorbed in their own world. That is a perception that must change and it is why we need extremely enthusiastic journalists able to train the spotlight on the great stories that lie behind science. If science turns you off, that is because nobody has yet managed to give you a taste for it. We are there to take up this challenge.”

Diffusing in partnership

This brings us to the real talent of the science journalist, but for which there is one precondition: they must have the trust of the researcher. “Nobody can replace the scientist who speaks of his own discoveries, but if the first person he addresses is a journalist, that is even better. We need partners to tell our stories. And in the world of science our best partners are the researchers.”

Even if its status remains ambiguous and it is continuing to operate on the fringes, the community of science journalism remains united by this desire to transmit a universal knowledge. Because unlike politics, these stories are the same all over the world. It is to be hoped that, in an age in which research and innovation play such a key role, future generations of journalists – and citizens – will remain just as hungry for knowledge.

“When I write an article on nuclear physics, I think of the person in the next room who is writing a piece on a footballer caught cavorting with call girls in possession of a mountain of cocaine. Given the choice, the reader is clearly going to opt for the scandal story. Love, sex and death have always been the most popular subjects. But science too is also often close to these subjects. Which makes for a great opportunity to tell a story…”

Carlotta Franzoni

  1. All quotes are by Tim Radford.


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Federations in unison

Founded in 2002, the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) currently represents 36 journalist associations from every continent. Its aim is to promote science journalism as a bridge between science, scientists and the general public. The WFSJ believes this to be a profession that must play a key role in the service of civil society and democracy and is seeking to improve the quality of science reporting by organising regular exchanges between its members. Its website offers a wealth of resources (books, links, documents, events) and even an online course in journalism (www.wfsj.org/course/).

At the individual level, the ISWA (International Science Writers Association) is the oldest international association of science journalists. Founded in 1967 to respond to the growing popularisation of science and technical communications, the ISWA is particularly useful for journalists with no local or national association, offering members access to the benefits of an international professional organisation, in particular by facilitating foreign travel or exchanges with scientists.

www.wfsj.org

www.internationalsciencewriters.org



The Internet hope?

What media for science? More accessible than the written press, television can serve as a springboard to more specialist media. But with its showy presentation and technical constraints, its message remains relatively limited.

As for radio, the impact depends largely on the charisma of the person interviewed and their ability to express themselves and transmit knowledge. A scientist with an engaging personality and genuine presentational skills will certainly find a place on the radio, but not everybody can lay claim to such qualities. “The researcher is sometimes surrounded by a wall of ice and radio does not find it easy to break through it,” is the view of Tim Radford.

That leaves the written press, the natural home for science in a sense as it is more easily able to expose the reader to sometimes very complex subjects. István Palugyai, a journalist on the Hungarian daily Népszabadság and former President of the EUSJA (European Union of Science Journalism), believes that “most science journalists work on so-called ‘quality’ newspapers as opposed to the tabloid press with and go, the printed word remains…


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