The Problem with Science Writers

The problem with science writers is that they are losing their jobs, according to Chris Mooney, a freelance writer, author, and blogger, at Beyond Belief 3 held at The Salk Institute. Mooney cites in 2005 that only 7 percent of the members in the National Association of Science Writers is made up of full-time science journalists at media outlets.

Mooney also referred to a 2008 Pew study that found if you watch five hours of cable news, one minute will be devoted to science and technology.


Mooney begins talking about the media around 12:20 into the video.


How would the markets respond to the Science News Index?

“It is not economic prosperity but peace that guarantees press freedom.” That is the main conclusion that Reporters Without Borders draws from its 2008 version of the Press Freedom Index that was published on Wednesday. It is comforting to know that money is not the most important driving force that enables journalists to do their jobs without censureship. Especially in these times of economic turmoil.

Economic prosperity and science have a strong link. Science is a driving force for technological innovations that can lead to economic growth. But does that mean that economic prosperity has a positive correlation to good science coverage in the national media?

The answer appears to be no. Just look at the rate at which science journalists at newspapers in the USA, the country with the highest GDP, are loosing their jobs and have been for years. Fuelled by the financial crisis. Whereas in fact science, innovation, and specialized science journalists reporting on both, could help us battle the financial downward spiral that holds us captive.

We need a Science News Index to investigate the influence of science journalism on society. This index could relate the number of science stories to the total number of journalists, or to the total number of specialized science journalists, or per capita even.

What would be the result if the number of science stories is related to GDP? Even though science, and consequently science journalists, are the driving force of the economy, it might turn out that science journalism is considered a luxury article.

What do you think would be a really useful Science News Index?

E-volution of science journalism

At a recent Science Communicators of North Carolina meeting, journalist Cathy Clabby spoke on the status and future of science journalism. Clabby, now an editor with the American Scientist, was the last full-time science journalist in the Triangle-area of North Carolina before becoming a Knight Science Journalism Fellow in 2007.

Clabby is interested in new opportunities available for science journalism on the web. “I find myself looking up a little and not just seeing what we’re losing but I’m seeing more of what we’re gaining,” she said.

A sampler of sites provided a good example of where science journalism is heading. While the names are familiar, the formats have evolved for electronic media and are focused more on breaking news.

One of the newer elements of science journalism is the blog. Most of the traditional media and newspapers have incorporated blogs. One aspect that impresses Clabby is the diversity of subject matter and voices. Some blogs that were highlighted were:

On a local level, Clabby highlighted the Durham Museum of Life + Science that has created its own media outlet to take advantage of the wealth of resources in the region.

Other institutions, such as Duke University, are experimenting with new media to highlight their research to a larger audience.

The philanthropic sector is also encouraging new media. The Knight Foundation offers its News Challenge to support and fund new ideas in media.

How do you think reporting for new media changes the way science journalists do their job?

A counter-productive association: science journalism in the developing world

According to my blue-and-orange, dutifully annotated business card, I’m a “freelance science journalist.” And judging by the the number of business cards I’ve “lost” over this past year alone, I’ve made this claim about 200 times.

My understanding was that nobody really bothered much about what is written on business cards (I myself look blankly at business cards given to me, and often see amorphous colours that I scarcely try to decipher when I go home).

I was wrong.

Some people actually read whatever scribbling is there on business cards — often to my own detriment. With their keen eyes and fact-check-ready minds, they look at my blue-and-orange artifact and questions start to bubble up. “So you’re actually a science journalist? Hmm … And you live in Doha? Good, good.” A minute later: “So what do you actually write about?” I start about my oft-repeated (and thus well-rehearsed) story about Doha being a “very exciting” place now with all the collaboration projects with American academia. The following line of questions is often more direct, especially if the questioner is a colleague: “Thought there was not much going on in the Arab world in terms of science and stuff. But do you think these [latest] projects are for real?” Or, “So do you work on something else? I mean, do you work solely as a freelance science writer?”

Instinctive human curiosity aside, one widespread, intuitive (though inaccurate) idea underlies most of these questions. That notion is that science journalism is only interested in reporting about the products of science (research, inventions, patents, etc.). Therefore, the Arab world, which is evidently lagging behind in science and research, is no place for science journalists (much less a place for freelance writers to make a living, or as an American colleague put it, to “make a non-living”).

Science and science journalism have evolved, but the images of the products of science have lingered: laboratories and binoculars; choke-full blackboards with chalked-up mathematical formulas end-to-end, colorful 3D renderings of galaxies and orbit systems. The problem is that these images reinforce the “paradigm” from which they are derived — and this paradigm is becoming in fact counter-productive.

If science journalism is restricted to covering products of science, that would pretty much exclude most of Asia and Latin America and almost all of Africa. These would be regions where, according to the limiting definition, science journalism could hardly, or could not, exist.

My understanding of science journalism, for better or worse, is that it is a much broader umbrella (particularly in countries where science products are nearly as rare as the freelancer’s paychecks). First, it may be true that, like politics, all journalism is local. But the definition of local, in the era of globalization, is different. Local is increasingly defined not by geography, but by interest. So a typhoon in Florida or Texas is of interest to the inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt. The reason: global warming, which is believed to contribute to severe weather phenomena, is very much on the minds of Alexandrians who have heard gloomy reports about what climate change might do to their coasts.

Second, science journalism is not only about “what is,” but also about “what could be” and “what should be.” This is where science policy comes into play. After all, even in countries lagging in science, there are always attempts to turn things around. The kind of stories that result here are not “hard-core” science, but they might still be highly informative and useful to readers.

Third, science journalism can inspire universal hope. The example that comes readily to mind is the two bright young men who turned a basic — but brilliant — idea from the realm of academic publishing into one of the greatest inventions of our time: Google. Tell their story to an Egyptian or a Haitian engineering student, and you are guaranteed to get a very positive response.

So what I’m trying to say is that, with a little bit more serious thinking, science journalism in the developing world (where science is not at its best) can actually thrive. To achieve this, most of the burden would fall on the shoulders of science journalists, especially in not allowing the lack of “products of science” derail their careers.

As for me, my hope is (besides following what I preach) that my blue-and-orange artifacts will less and less land in the hands of people with those keen eyes and fact-check-ready minds.

Essay: Why I should win the opportunity to cover the International EcoHealth Forum 2008?

I believe I should win the opportunity to cover this event because I could give important visibility to current research on health and environment both in the website where I work and in other publications I regularly write for. Furthermore, I can act as a multiplier of my experience covering this forum by sharing information and contacts collected during the event with colleagues.

I work as the editor of Ciência Hoje On-line (www.cienciahoje.org.br) – the electronic version of a monthly magazine published by the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). Ciência Hoje was created in 1982 by a group of researchers intending to enhance the public visibility of Brazilian science. It features articles written by both scientists and journalists and aimed at the general public. Besides reproducing texts from Ciência Hoje, CH On-line has its own exclusive news stories published in a daily basis. The team of these publications includes ten journalists and three journalism students interested in developing their skills for science reporting.

Our website and magazine give considerable importance for environment and health issues, covering mainly (but not limited to) themes of national interest. Among the issues most frequently covered in our articles, are the way Brazil is facing climate change and its impacts; the role of the Amazon in the global warming scenario; the challenge of finding a model of sustainable development and fighting deforestation driven by the pressure for more land for agriculture and cattle; the challenge of maintaining Brazilian energy policy heavily based on ethanol and other biofuels, without affecting native vegetation and food production; and the recurrent epidemics of diseases linked to poor basic infra-structure and to the expansion of cities over areas of natural vegetation areas.

Not surprisingly, these issues will be addressed in the main conferences of the International EcoHealth Forum. I am convinced that covering this event will allow me to keep updated with the latest tendencies in research and policies regarding health and environment, and this will improve my every daily work as the editor of CH On-line. Moreover, the forum is especially relevant to Latin American journalists, because important questions of regional interest will be discussed by specialists.

I can give visibility to the debates of the forum by publishing in CH On-line several news stories inspired by conferences and contacts made during the event. A feature article or a longer report could also be published in Ciência Hoje print version. Finally, I could propose news stories about the forum to two publications I regularly write for as a free-lancer: Biofutur, a French magazine on biotechnology, and SciDev.Net, a website focused on science issues relevant for the developing world.

Essay: Why i should win this competition

Firstly, I am a science journalist. I am still improving my professional skills in science writing with the online course offered by the World Federation of science journalists (WFSJ) and the mentoring program which is associated.
Since 2004, i was specialized to environmental issues in my newsroom. Before de mentoring program, i didn’t know how to write science stories to make them understand to the public. And now my writing skills are increasingly improved and i can now compete with other science journalists and made it.

Secondly, in our African countries, health and environment are our daily preoccupation. We have for example malaria who kill more than HIV and we also know that malaria has a link with environment. Dust, forest, non respect of public health advices for using the nets impregnated with insecticide have negative effects on the heath of people.
Many diseases afflicting the African peoples in the south of the Sahara are linked to their immediate environment. In my country Cameroon, there are serious diseases which are related to the environment. These include malaria, Onchocerciasis or river blindness, Buruli ulcer. The last two diseases have a link with water. Indeed, the Onchocerciasis which causes lesions on the skin and cause blindness in Cameroon has its area of choice in the centre of Cameroon, around a large river that hosts flies whose bites cause the disease.
As far as Buruli ulcer is the water of the river Nyong which houses the bug responsible for ulcers, the female Anopheles, the malaria vector lives in pools of stagnant water and rivers with low speed. I should win this competition because I have proposed articles show how the immediate environment of man may pose a threat to his health. I am also confident of having my articles written in compliance with the rules in writing scientific stories.

Finally, I really want to win this competition because it will give me the opportunity to meet with leading scientists worldwide, and interview them. As science journalist, it is an occasion for me to enrich my knowledge on the relationship between health and the environment and also see what experiences of other countries i can report to health my country to do the same.

Essay: Why I should have the chance to interview the world’s top experts on health and the environment

very week, my inbox brims with e-mails from Québec, West Africa, and the Maghreb. Almost one year ago, the Institut de l’énergie et de l’environnement de la Francophonie asked me to contribute to Médiaterre, an international Web portal on sustainable development [ www.mediaterre.org ]. This initiative is spearheaded by the Organisation mondiale de la Francophonie and attracts some 8 500 visitors from 108 countries daily. Every week, I write news stories on climate change, water contamination, air pollution, and other environmental issues. And every week, I receive e-mails from readers suggesting topics on which they would like more information.

The same question often arises: what is the impact of a given environmental issue on my health or the health of my family? Readers are concerned with the intimate link that exists between ecosystem and human health. And though the connection is clear, there is little information available to help them better define it.

Taking part in the International EcoHealth Forum next December will give me the opportunity to learn more on the leading research underscoring the linkages between public health, ecosystems, and social and economic conditions. Médiaterre readers would greatly benefit from this information, and the special focus on developing nations will be of particular interest to the vast majority of readers in the francophonie.

The EcoHealth Forum will also provide me with ideas and material for other publications to which I contribute. In fact, as of October, I will be penning a monthly environmental column in Châtelaine – the most widely-read women’s magazine in Québec – and the issues discussed at the Merida conference will probably turn out to be valuable content for future articles on original and relevant topics.

Québec Science, L’actualité, and Protégez-Vous, the other publications for which I write on a regular basis, would also most likely be interested in publishing articles on the links between health and the environment.

Relying on my knowledge of French, English, and Spanish, I hope to make many new contacts in Merida. Through this new network, I will be able to remain abreast of the latest research and information in the environmental health field long after the Forum.

Essay: Why I should win the competition

I am a development journalist-photographer with a special interest in health and environment. I have been closely following these issues for over 20 years. Most of my reports are from South Asia, but I also have field experience in Europe and other parts of Asia. This year, I was fortunate to win an international award which offered a field trip to Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. The trip allowed me to see first hand the reality of access to health care for most people in that country. Following my Haiti visait, I wrote several reports for an Indian news agency, and a special report in the Lancet (UK) – Haiti’s Forgotten Emergency (23 August)

Currently, I live in Delhi, India’s capital city, and freelance for national, international, specialist and mainstream publications. Over the years, I have got increasingly interested in the ‘global’ dimension of many of the issues I have been following, because I am convinced that in the inter-dependent world of today, there is no such thing as a purely ‘local’ environment or health issue.

To me, one of the most telling illustrations of the link between a changing environment and exotic diseases, and the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ is a story which is familiar to Indian readers and others across the world. It broke in the summer of 2007 in Castiglione di Cervia. This village in northern Italy acquired international infamy because of its dubious distinction of playing host to the first outbreak in modern Europe of a disease that had previously been associated with the tropics. Panic gripped the residents as one person after another fell ill with weeks of high fever, exhaustion and acute pain in the bones. The mysterious malaise stalking the village sparked a hundred rumours: people pointed fingers at river pollution, the government, and most of all immigrants.

At the end, the mystery was solved. Italian public health officials disclosed that the people of Castiglione Di Cervia were, in fact, suffering from a tropical disease, Chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever, normally found around the Indian Ocean.The much-maligned ‘immigrants’ suspected of spreading the disease were tiger mosquitoes who had begun to thrive in a warming Europe. Its presence in Italy was the result of the Italian climate growing warmer, and more humid, favouring the proliferation of these mosquitoes. Chikungunya made its way into mosquitoes in northern Italy though no one in Castiglione Di Cervia had been abroad, because one of the first men to fall ill in the Italian village had a visitor in early July. That visitor, a relative, an Italian, had previously travelled to Kerala in India. The epidemic in a rural pocket of Italy established that tropical diseases were no longer necessarily confined to the tropics and that tropical viruses are now able to spread in new areas, far north of their previous range.

The link between degradation of the environment and resultant human diseases is known and reported in the Indian media, but forms a small percentage of the overall reportage on environment. From my personal experience, I feel that the ‘health’ angle, in a way, has made it easier to ‘sell’ environmental stories to gatekeepers in the media. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that infectious diseases do not respect geographic boundaries, and can cause sudden panic, as the Chikungunya flare-up in Italy demonstrated.

I am keen to cover the International EcoHealth Forum 2008, in Mérida (Mexico) early December and hope to be selected as one of the 5 journalists for this honour because the event offers a fantastic opportunity to interact with international experts on key issues underpinning the relationship between environment and health and to consolidate the field experience I have accumulated for over 2 decades. This would equip me to write on these critical issues with greater depth and understanding for the Indian media as well as for my international clients such as The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the Bulletin of the WHO in the future.

Essay: Application

Science is the key to the progress of our nations. In Latin American has been hard understand it, specially governments and mass media. Science journalists have to figth daily in order to that science and health information have an favoured place or first page. It’s a constant war that we only can win with preparation and a correct update of knowledge.

During my career I’ve tried to improve the way I do science journalism. It’s a challenge with myself. But, at the same time, it’s a commitment to my readers. Every word I write and every article I prepare could become a hope of more and better life for people who reads me.

Venezuela’s crisis has influenced our journalism. The politics is the favorite source for editors and even journalists, despite even our contry history as being a pioneer in Latin America’s journalism. For example, Arístides Bastidas was an world icon of this area. He won Kalinga Prize on 1982. This award is considered as the Nobel Price of science popularization.

I would like to have the chance to cover the meeting of the world’s experts on the relationships between health and the environmentt. I would
certainly take advantage of this experience.It would be a golden oportunnity to learn how can I write with a higher impact by knowing more specifics details, statistics and information about science’s world.

Venezuela needs to rescue its science communication and I really to wish be a part of a new generation ready to do it.

The engineering journalist

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Substitute ‘technology’ for ‘financial product’, ‘nature’ for ‘economy’, and we have formulated the cause of the present day global financial crisis: “For a successful financial product, reality must take precedence over public relations, for economy cannot be fooled.”

This quote ends the report of physicist Richard Feynman to the Space Shuttle Challenger inquiry. TheChallenger exploded shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986, killing seven people. Engineers had warned before the launch that the so called O-rings were unreliable at low ambient temperatures. And on January 28 the launching site had low temperatures. Despite the warnings, managers didn’t want to postpone the launch any longer. They tried to fool nature, the O-rings broke and what follows is tragic history.

Building a Space Shuttle is an art of engineering. And engineering differs from science. Scientists want to understand the world. They simplify a problem until they can solve it. Engineers devise solutions to real problems, thus changing the world. Often they fix a problem without knowing why it works. Trial and error. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what you have to do when the world is too complicated. Engineers deal with a real-life problem with all its dirty traps. Planes not only have to fly when the sky is clear and sunny, but also when there is storm and thunder. The science of a flying plane is long known. But engineering a plane improves every year. It’s the engineer who has to incorporate all the safety aspects in the design of the plane, not the scientist.

The global financial crisis would not have happened if all those innovative financial products were designed by engineers instead of by scientists-trying-to-impress-their-managers-with-fancy-mathematical-money-models. The Americans call them ‘quants’, the quantitative analysts. The ‘quants’ were too much scientist, too little engineers. They had too little feeling for the risks involved.

Of course, not only the scientists-trying-to-impress-their-managers-with-fancy-mathematical-money-models are to blame. Consumers were greedy to buy products they couldn’t buy, and bankers were greedy for selling products and getting high bonuses. But those innovative financial products were clearly very poorly engineered.

We, science journalists – as the name suggests – concentrate mostly on science. But we too should pay much more attention to the engineering side in our science reporting. It would prevent misunderstanding on the side of the public. A few attention seeking pseudo-scientists claimed earlier this year that the world’s biggest science experiment – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva – might produce tiny black holes that would eat the world in a fraction of a second. They have received more attention then all the LHC-engineering work from the last twenty years all together.

Why did we give a bunch of silly pseudo-scientists so much attention? Because predicting a disaster sells, even if it’s utter nonsense? Why not explain the difficulty of building this highly complicated accelerator? Think about it: Twenty years of engineering work before the science can start. Can you really expect it to work perfectly from the start?

On September 10 a few hundred science journalists were invited to Geneva to glorify the LHC before it had even proved to work as a collider and detector. Protons raced around once in the 27 kilometre loop. There were no collisions, and the energy was much lower than the collider is designed for. Do we glorify something that looks like a plane, but can’t yet fly? No wonder the public was confused to hear that a week after the big launch that the machine showed some serious problem.

There is much more engineering we, as science journalists, tend to overlook: climate models are engineering models. Here too: there is nothing wrong with that, as researchers have no other option. Let’s just explain it honestly to the public. Climate models are full of empirical rules, and buttons that can be turned left or right, to fix scientific details that we don’t yet understand. But you don’t have to understand everything to produce sound results. That’s what we can learn from engineers.

There is much more engineering in science than we think. And we should better report about it.