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  SCIENTIFIC JOURNALISTS  -  Changing places

Journalists immersed in a laboratory while researchers feel the heat in a newsroom or TV or radio studio… For four years now, the Association of Scientific Journalists for the Press (AJSPI) – with the backing of the French Research Ministry – has been awarding exchange fellowships to researchers and journalists. Here are some first-hand accounts of their experiences.

One of the newsrooms at the Agence France Presse, in Paris. © AFP
One of the newsrooms at the Agence France Presse, in Paris. “I chose the AFP because it was there that the way of working seemed to be in most marked contrast to the laboratory where the knowledge is produced, slowly, by scientists.”
"More than half of scientific journalists have a science degree and their job brings them into contact with scientists at their place of work. This exchange scheme enables journalists to keep abreast of developments and to broaden their field of expertise, while the scientists are able to obtain a better understanding of the difference between information and communication,” believes Jacques-Olivier Baruch, AJSPI president.

Every year, about a dozen journalists and researchers have the unique experience of spending a full week in ‘alien’ territory so as to understand better the reality of the other’s work. Wherever possible, journalists must actually participate in the research activities while the researchers are asked to contribute to the writing of articles or reports.    

Feeling the pressure at the press agency

It is in this way that Elisabeth Bacon, a researcher in cognition pharmacology and psychopathology at INSERM in Strasbourg, found herself in Paris at the centre of international news, at Agence France Presse (AFP), one of the top three international press agencies (together with the US Associated Press and the British Reuters agency). “I chose the AFP because it was there that the way of working seemed to be in most marked contrast to the laboratory where the knowledge is produced, slowly, by scientists. My visit confirmed this. On the other hand, the rigour applied to transmitting information and checking sources is something journalists and researchers have in common. I was able to see for myself how the results of complex scientific research can be communicated quickly and effectively.”

Time is perhaps the biggest ‘barrier’ separating the media and the research worlds. One has its eyes fixed firmly on the clock and the other does not – or at least not in the same way. The freelance journalist Emmanuel Mounier, a physicist by training, had the opposite experience when he spent a week at the Laboratory for Space-Based Studies in Geophysics and Spatial Oceanography, in Noumea (New Caledonia). “What was interesting was this principle of immersion in a laboratory for several days in a row during which I was able to talk to all the members of the research team.” Emmanuel was given a perfectly free rein, with no article to submit. “That allowed me to be much more relaxed and no doubt enabled links to be formed on both sides without ‘ulterior motive’. The scientists also perhaps benefited from these talks to realise that journalists are people who share some of their questioning and who are there to find the answers rather than to criticise their laboratory or discipline. Perhaps in future they will be less apprehensive when asked for an interview.” 

Scientific writing as opposed to journalistic writing

Changing places
“This apprehension on the part of researchers – for fear their comments will be reported inaccurately or cited out of context, or that their complex research will be oversimplified for popular consumption, for example – is frequent. It is also why exchanges between these two worlds can be an enlightening experience, as it was for Alain Laraque, a researcher at the INAMHI Laboratory of Hydrology (Hybam programme) in Quito (Ecuador), who was welcomed by the team at La Recherche in France. One of his assignments was to write an article on his own research work that would be suitable for publication in the magazine, which has a scientific and non-scientific readership. “I found the exercise very difficult and had a real problem changing my way of writing. I was made acutely aware of just how big a difference there is between scientific writing and writing for the general public. Of course, I find the former much easier. As regards the latter, while I came to understand the notions of taking a certain angle, the use of devices to retain the reader’s attention, the limit on the number of characters in a text and the need to tell a story, there is a big difference between theory and practice. I found the exercise very interesting. The experience made me aware that the press operates under a lot of constraints.”

Exploratory research

In Quito, Alain Laraque was host in turn to the photographic reporter Benoît Decout. “Working together so closely for a full week enabled us to gain a better understanding of the other’s fears and wishes. The differences between our two disciplines at first made us fear the worst and the first benefit of the exchange was that it enabled us to bring these contrasts into focus.” Yet Alain Laraque’s life is in some ways akin to that of a major reporter and when described by Benoît Decout it becomes the stuff of dreams: “Imagine a huge open eye in the middle of the world, an emerald gaze set in the Andes cordillera. The waters of the Quilotoa volcano and the long stone lashes rising more than 4 000 metres above sea level, which brush the equatorial sky. Like a tiny speck of dust in this tranquil Cyclops, Alain Laraque methodically places his instruments in these virgin waters that have never known scientific data. He takes several water samples, measures the pH, notes the salinity (up to 40%), makes filtrations, carries out a bathymetric study, interviews the Quechua Indians and records all he finds on his computer and on paper for more security. Before climbing back on his mule to return to the ridge of the volcano, our ‘water researcher’ takes a final long look at this extraordinary site and counts himself lucky to be engaged in exploratory research.” 

The biodiversity of researchers

While Alain Laraque became something of an ethnologist and journalist, Cécile Klinger was a cellular biologist before joining the team at La Recherche. She did not travel far, just to Grignon, in South-East France, and to already familiar terrain: genetically modified organisms. But she was to approach them from the new angle of the sociological analysis of practices where GM crops and non-GM crops exist side by side. In this new and multifaceted world, Cécile Klinger was fascinated by the ‘biodiversity’ of the researchers (agronomists, economists and sociologists) and of their interlocutors – farmers, seed experts, storage companies, agricultural co-operatives, agricultural institutes, etc. “A whole chain whose functioning is crucial to the co-management of various types of crop and of which I knew next to nothing. My discussions enabled me learn about the investigations of the technicians and researchers. There is certainly a link with our profession as journalists, but I can only dream, at least for certain subjects, of being able to work on the same timescale as the sociologists.” 

This question of time is frequently raised, also by Yves Sciama, a freelance journalist. He spent his week at the Haute Provence Observatory where he concentrated in particular on observing the stratospheric ozone using the spectacular Lidar, a remote-detection instrument consisting of a very powerful laser that emits a beam of approximately 50 km plus a telescope able to capture retrodiffused light. “I was very surprised by the breathtaking beauty of the Lidar’s immense vertical beam as it dissolves into the night sky. It is like the sword of some huge Darth Vader. I was similarly impressed when they opened up the laser for me to look inside. The various optical instruments are all bathed in a green fluorescent light, with a constellation of dust particles turning so slowly it is unreal.” In addition to these instruments, there are also researchers from all over the world, physicists of the stratosphere, astronomers and also trainees. “The informal conversations I had with the researchers and technicians were very different to those within the constraints of an interview. And I much appreciated the freedom I was allowed in moving around and eavesdropping on conversations. This was very useful in understanding how things work in practice. Finally, I must admit that for me – someone primarily interested in biology – the visit reminded me that there is also a fascinating world of science beyond the Petri dishes, the microscopes and the white mice.”

  Getting out of the lab  
  Since 1987, the BA’s Media Fellowship (UK) has given scientists and engineers the chance to spend several weeks immersed in the media world. The aim is to improve mutual understanding between the media and research worlds and better equip scientists for their role as communicators. A survey carried out among participants shows that a majority (83%) obtained increased confidence in the media as a result of their experience, more than three-quarters having a better opinion of scientific journalists. 43% of them subsequently remained in contact with their media ‘host’.  

More than half say they used the knowledge acquired to communicate the activities of their laboratory or their own research work. Nearly three-quarters say they acquired an ability to quickly draft a range of texts – scientific articles, administrative documents, research presentations, etc. 87% believe that the fellowship experience sparked increased interest in the communication of science which they subsequently drew on in activities such as running workshops in schools, organising science festivals and writing books for the layman.

A similar initiative has just been launched in Portugal by the daily Público. The aim of this operation, known as ‘Scientists in the newsroom’, is to increase the quality of scientific communication and give research a higher profile. A jury of scientists and journalists selects the beneficiaries of this grant for scientists that is supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

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