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.