Science Journalism Crisis: It Was Bound to Happen

At the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago this February 2009, journalists held a special press briefing titled “Science Journalism in Crisis?” to discuss whether recent cuts of science news staff in some of the larger American media organizations are representative of a possible worldwide trend.

The impression given was that although there do seem to be problems in the US and the UK, this might not necessarily be the case in other parts of the world – especially the developing world.

An informal survey I conducted among Arab and African colleagues seems to support this.

Twenty one fulltime journalists and 14 freelance journalists working in 11 Arab and African countries responded to the survey. The fulltime journalists worked for 20 different media organizations while the freelance journalists worked for several more. Detailed results of the survey can be seen in the powerpoint presentation or by watching the video of my presentation at the session below. But here are some of the more interesting findings:

  • More than half (57%) of the fulltime journalists who responded to the survey said their media organizations have specialized science sections. The remainder said their media produced science news dispersed among other news coverage.
  • Media organizations in Egypt in particular have had science sections for many years – as early as the 1950s and 60s in two cases. New science sections appeared in media in Benin and Cameroon while two of their staff were being trained by the World Federation of Science Journalists. Whether there is a direct correlation is not clear.
  • Media organizations in Africa and the Arab world – if this survey is an indication – are dependent mainly on their staff for science news as opposed to depending on freelance journalists. Some Egyptian media organizations (Al-Manarah Satellite Channel for Scientific Research, Al-Ahram Daily and IslamOnline.net) have relatively large numbers of fulltime science staff (40, 20, and 8 respectively) while the majority of Arab and African media organizations depend on smaller numbers (1 – 3).
  • Freelance journalists in both regions feel that their freelancing opportunities have increased in the past five years. This was supported by the fact that respondents said that although the numbers of fulltime staff and freelance journalists used by their organizations in the past five years have roughly stayed the same, the amount of space dedicated to science by those organizations has increased.
  • Many reasons were given to explain this increase. These include: an increased interest in science by the countries themselves; more training and networking opportunities provided by the World Federation of Science Journalists and local science journalists associations such as the Arab Science Journalists Association; and more international attention to science issues such as global warming.

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Why do things seem to be going so well for science journalists in the Arab world and Africa (during the session Valeria Roman from Argentina noted similar trends in Latin America) while they seem to be deteriorating for science journalists in the US and the UK?

The logical assumption is that the developing world is still catching up with the developed world in terms of science journalism. We’re witnessing a phase of our science journalism history that the rest of the world witnessed more than four decades ago. Our countries have finally realized the importance of science in their national development and stuff to report on is actually happening! And as this happens there are more training and networking opportunities for Arab and African science journalists and this is resulting in more importance given to the profession.

But if this is the case, how do we prevent a future crisis from affecting our part of the world as well?

Well for one, let’s hope that we don’t have another economic crisis anytime soon and that we manage to get through this one unscathed.

But what concerns me is that the real problem lies in an increasing trend towards topic specialization in journalism and that this could actually be the death of us.

There is no doubt in my mind that audiences are interested in reading about science. I worked as a science editor for several years at IslamOnline.net and our website statistics attest to this fact (our science pages were better read than our political pages, believe it or not).

But as we journalists become better trained – sometimes with advanced degrees in science journalism – and thus better equipped to cover complex science issues and communicate them to the public, are we also stabbing ourselves in the back because we are at the same time becoming more expensive for our media organizations, which for the most part are pretty poor to begin with?

Scientists themselves are recognizing how hyperspecialization in science can sometimes result in a loss of the big picture and there are now trends towards interdisciplinary collaborations to make up for this defect. Are we also becoming too hyperspecialized as science journalists? I’m still amazed when some science journalists tell me that they are specialized in covering physics or geology, for example. How is this hyperspecialization then perceived by the media organizations that pay them? And along with this hyperspecialization, is it perhaps now the time to admit that our story choices for the general public are gradually going astray? Heck, the titles of some health stories I see in the media scare even me away they are so specialized and I have a degree in medicine! Are hyperspecialized science journalists writing more about the science stories that interest them rather than the science stories that interest the general public? And as we become hyperspecialized, are we losing our ability to recognize what information really needs to be simplified for a non-specialized reader?

Consider me the devil’s advocate. Rather than completely placing the blame on media organizations that are making drastic staff cuts in their science news staff or blaming the current economic crisis, let’s own up to our own roles in the problem. What do we need to do to keep science in the news? And what do we need to do to continue making a decent living? That’s what it all boils down to, right?

This topic is just a taste of what will be discussed at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009, to be held in London this summer. (FN)

Establishing space for science journalism

One of the potentially off-putting experiences for a science journalist is establishing space for science journalism. This, in most circumstances, is more discouraging to those budding as freelancers and folks in mainstream non-specialised media. Often it requires one to be an intelligent, tough go-getter.

But there are several ways, I reckon, with which this can be overcome, though not overnight. Science journalists need to have a discussion with senior editors to learn how the existing media covers science. No doubt, for a journalist, they are the first audience of any story idea or a written piece.

The science journalist needs to convince editors that most science stories are in fact stories about people, society, politics or the economy.

They also need to have meetings (introducing themselves) with the key persons at the leading science based organizations. This does not necessarily mean that you have to report the way they want, but in so doing you get credible sources of stories.

Top officials at the government ministry responsible for science and technology should also be in the loop. The researchers and the government officials will, for example, keep the journalist updated on the latest development or upcoming meeting.

Equally important is the creation of opportunities for scientists and journalists to meet, learn about each other and understand how each works. This guarantees new story ideas for a science journalist.

Persuading editors, scientists and authorities to appreciate the role science plays in economic transformation for the betterment of the country is critical to creating the much needed room for science journalism.

For instance, a science journalist in Africa should find it imperative to clearly explain that the bulk of current initiatives aimed at lifting the continent out of the backwaters of development require research and development as a tool to overcome poverty and disease, among many other ills choking it.

Only through appreciating the potential that science has in socio-economic development can owners of publications and authorities understand why science journalism needs space in the media.

Collaborating with key persons at the leading science based organizations makes the journalist trustworthy and reliable. It helps create a good environment for covering science as both parties see each other as key partners in sustainable development.

The benefits of collaboration are enormous; you do things as a team and the need for collaboration between journalists, researchers and government officials cannot be emphasized enough – it is of paramount importance to achieve development.

Society at large can benefit from the fruits of science but for this to happen people need to understand and support science, and journalists act as a bridge between science and society. This does not only inform the public but creates interest and respect for science. An association of like-minded individuals is critical in the fight for space for science journalism.

But in all of this a journalist has to strive to remain independent and must not be sucked into becoming a handmaid of those in the science world.