The tricky business of reporting breaking science

With thousands of studies taking place every month all over the world, a science reporter can find ample material to cover. The problem with science, however, resides in the very nature of science.

The very nature of science is that it is ever evolving. It has a tendency of discrediting itself nearly every decade or so. Most of the things that are proven today will probably be disproven in 10 or 15 years (with the exception of the really amazing discoveries).

So how can a science journalist report on new research and not lose credibility when it is disproven?

This is indeed a tricky question, especially for medical reporters writing about new drugs. Imagine the people who reported some years ago about the wonderous new drug Vioxx and how it will solve all the problems that traditional anti-inflammatory drugs had. I bet they didn’t feel very good when it was proven to have some very serious side effects on the heart and was completely pulled off the market!

And then the plot thickens. How can you wade through all those studies to find the ones that are worth covering?

And what is the proper way of going through research to determine how serious is it? There are so many issues to keep in mind. Do you read the conclusion only or do you have to go through the whole paper, which can take much longer? After all, many studies are done and funded by interested parties. This is especially true with new drug research. Most research in these fields is performed by large pharmaceutical companies. Can you trust everything said in the conclusion? Are there any important pieces of information that are buried somewhere within the research?

It is a really touchy issue. No one wants to lose his/her credibility with readers. So the big question is this: How can you cover science research and not fall into the many pitfalls of new, exciting studies?


Countdown is on for EcoHealth Forum 2008

With only days before the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 kicks off in Merida, expectations are running high about the conference end results. The international community will watch how top environment and health experts will meet in the ancient heartland of the Maya civilization to discuss, share and learn from their experiences, in hopes of moving world´s environmental and health agenda ahead. Nations will hopefully understand that the quest for a clean and healthy environment is perhaps the only global battle they share, politics and trade interests aside.

Developing nations, such as Mexico, where garbage burning and dumping trash into rivers are still common practices endangering the health of thousands every day, could learn from the example of green conscious countries like Canada.

One particular issue that begs attention is the contamination of Chapala Lake and the entire Lerma-Chapala-Santiago-Pacific basin, polluted by agricultural runoff and industrial as well as domestic waste. Metal parts were found in fish from here. Although there have been numerous efforts by local environmentalists to put Chapala Lake, Mexico´s largest lake and a natural jewel, on the international agenda, the issue has unfortunately been relegated to the sidelines.

Having lived in both Canada and Mexico, I understand firsthand the huge environmental gap between the two NAFTA partners. I hope this conference will be a defining moment in narrowing that gap with the end result of making not only this continent but the entire planet a safer and healthier place for future generations.

As I embark on this trip to Merida, Mexico, I can only hope to walk away from the conference feeling certain my one-year-old daughter, Michelle, will breathe fresher air and drink cleaner water.

I hope you will use this space to let me know what you think. I can also be reached at diodoraMTL@yahoo.ca

EcoHealth Forum 2008

In a globalized world in which trade agreements and the war on terrorism run the political agenda, equally important issues such as environment and health sadly take a backseat. This is why conferences like the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 are essential in bringing environment and health concerns to the forefront and building global awareness on how these forces are shaping the lives of future generations.

It is the perfect opportunity to move forward the mandate of the Commission for the Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the body created under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to ensure U.S., Canada and Mexico enforce their environmental laws. After all, promoting a healthy environment is what makes this planet safer.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Diodora Bucur and I am a Canadian journalist based in Mexico. I am writing in hopes of convincing you that I am a candidate worthy of covering the International EcoHealth Forum 2008 in Merida this December.

Let me tell you a little about myself. I hold a bachelor in broadcast journalism from Concordia University and I am fluent in English, French, Romanian and Spanish. I am the recipient of several national and international awards. In 2005, I earned an Honourable Mention from the Quebec Community Newspapers Association for a series on waste management and recycling in Montreal.

Since my arrival in Mexico two years ago, I have been doing work for the Canadian Press and English-language dailies The Herald Mexico and The News. Assignments included Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s visit to Ottawa in October 2006, followed by former foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay´s trip to Mexico City. I also covered the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Mexico and contributed to reports on the Merida and Montebello summits in 2007. As a reporter in Montreal, I worked in both print (The Suburban) and radio (940News). Environment and healthcare were among my top beats.

I am currently working on several environmental stories, including a piece on Chapala Lake, Mexico’s largest lake and among the most contaminated natural treasures, assignments that have allowed me to both become acquainted with green issues in this developing nation and learn from the expertise of prominent Mexican environmentalists.

I have a natural ability to work well under pressure and with others, can handle multiple stories simultaneously and deliver them quickly and accurately. I am confident that my skills and experience make me the perfect candidate for the job.

Science journalism in Africa

Many a times I have been asked about the viability of science journalism in Kenya and Africa at large from both journalists – the ones practicing it and journalists in other areas like business and politics – and folks outside the profession.

To many skeptics, science and its products like research, patents, innovations are not yet developed in Africa and could therefore offer very little for one to continuously put his skills and energy on such an area of coverage and also make a living out of it.

Out there, the continent could be well known for civil strife like in the Democratic Republic of Conge, Darfur in Sudan, Northern Uganda, mismanagement of public affairs at the highest levels of leadership like in Zimbabwe, corruption, the HIV/Aids scourge of which Sub-Saharan Africa is the global epicenter – wow! The list is long, but not for scientific advancements in different spheres of life.

The skeptics are not entirely mistaken. True, Africa needs to build her own biological, physical and chemistry sciences and use that knowledge at all levels of life but that doesn’t mean there is nothing going on. Well, a lot in science and research is going on in Africa which remains very invisible. And a lot also needs to be done, still more, which is what makes science journalism even more imperative in Africa, and the rest of the developing world.

But it isn’t easy to ply science journalism in this part of the world. Most news channels – print, audio, visual, online – have very little space allocations for environment and science stories. Worth noting is that most journalists in this segment are correspondents whose monthly monetary gains are pegged on the number of stories published, and very few successfully ‘compete’ for space.

This has in fact forced some to abandon science journalism and take to other areas of the profession that enjoys favours with chief gatekeepers of specific media establishments or opt for more sustaining areas outside the profession.

The research institutions and government departments make life miserable for science journalists by the lack of well defined infrastructure and policies that ensures fast and effective facilitation of the channeling out of information and within the shortest time possible given the high perishable nature of news. How many institutions are computerised and give you access to information only at the touch of a mouse?

In the age of globalisation exacted upon us by the Information and Communication Technology wizardry, there is much new knowledge pouring from millions of research projects and studies around the world that push the boundaries of man’s knowledge to new heights, almost daily.

The changes are frequent and so specialized and difficult if not absolutely impossible for a lay person to understand. As long as science or scholarship remains enshrined in technical language and laden with heavy jargons it will need specially trained reporters who can communicate with scientists and help translate the new developments accurately and clearly for the less erudite readers who need the information most to thrive-or try to – in their day-to-day lives.

For instance, reporting on a research project is quiet often an assignment largely different from any other given to a journalist. He/she will face three challenges; the researcher[s], research project and the accurate and interesting interpretation of the project to the various publics. And such specialised trainings needed for a creditable job are very scarce for science journalists in Africa and most of the developing world.

The first audience of a journalist is the editor who he/she has to explain his story line to hoping for a hearing and objective evaluation of the intended piece[s]. You will explain your lead, tie-back and additional features and details to the lead paragraph. But in most cases the editors’ themselves have scanty grasp of the various scientific issues unfolding in their societies and the world at large. They, therefore, become the bulwark against the practice of science journalism.

A problem facing most science journalist also involves the “necessary” cooperation of the scientists and some of their organisations with the media. Some are extremely sensitive to criticisms from the media; they often shun journalists and institutions decline to provide information needed for accurate and balanced reporting.

At the Land Ocean Interaction in the Coastal Zones [LOICZ] Open Science meeting in Egmond aan Zee in The Netherlands a professor in coastal science, after listening to my presentation on The Media and Environmental Protection, declared it was not their duty to disseminate information but to do research and they have absolutely nothing to do with media. This clearly illustrates some of the dilemmas faced by science journalists all over the world.

The inability to make enough money from the practice of science journalism accounts for the dearth of what have become basic tools like laptops among this lot of people. These are just but a few. The hurdles are many but despite these science journalism still remains an exciting practice.

A lack of investigative science journalism?

The latest issue of Research*EU, the European Union’s research magazine, contains a special report on science journalism. In his editorial, Michel Claessens states that when it comes to reporting on science, the conditions are not present to encourage investigative journalism. Read his full editorial below and tell us: is investigative journalism underdeveloped in the field of science journalism? And if so, what could and/or should be done to encourage its development?

This issue opens with the first European Forum on Science Journalism, held in Barcelona (see special report p.6). Although scientists often speak of a “necessary” cooperation with journalists, essential to my mind is the “distance” between them. A distance that guarantees the independence and critical analysis of the media that the general public needs if they are to be able to form their own opinion. Investigation, the primary characteristic of a quality press, is also a democratic requirement in the field of science. All research is based on choices and brings implications that must be clearly stated and openly faced.

Yet the conditions are not present to encourage this investigative journalism. First, because researchers often regard journalists as spokespersons. Secondly, because the system does not encourage criticism of studies published by researchers: how can a journalist, even a “science” journalist, begin to call into question the operating mode and postulates validated by the leading scientific authorities?

The leading international journals and the press services of research organisations have become professional communication bodies that control a large proportion of information. Stamped with the scientific establishment’s seal of approval and disseminated under embargo, the press releases are often relayed as such by the media. How, given these conditions and the time available, is it possible to conduct an in-depth investigation into the hypotheses, options and choices of researchers? The vast scientific production, the hyper-fragmentation of research fields and the precarious status of science journalists – the highest level of freelancers in any section of the press – are all factors that limit investigation, encourage mere announcement and institutionalise information. What is more, the information increasingly often concerns a research project or component that is already completed. Information on research in progress and science that is not being commercially exploited remains vary patchy.