It is almost time for WCSJ 2009

An old saying states that birds of a feather flock together, but the science journalists’ fauna, at least the one I’m more familiar with, tends to be made up of individualists rather than of team workers (with the exception of a few groups, such as the one in the Science Divulgation General Direction, at the UNAM). But aside from those few bunches, the rest of us operate, tsk tsk, from quite personal trenches.

Given the fact that we envision future problems for science writers (gulp), there’s been long and sometimes even deep thoughts in different forums about the urgent need of opening our minds to collaboration, of finding strength in numbers, of grasping the power of the mass or, as they say nowadays, of crowdsourcing.

That’s why I’m as happy as a worm in an apple because soon I’ll be on a mission to London. Starting next monday, some 700 journalists from all over the world will gather in the british capital to argue long and loud (and hopefully bright) about the nuances of our hardy craft.

Part of the charm comes from the fact that the trip will be supported by european foundations that offered many travel scholarships so that people from developing countries such as myself could participate in the Sixth World Conference of Science Journalists.

The program is bursting with everything but the kitchen sink, and even breakfasts and meals will have dialogue and discussion. There will be some five plenary sessions, 31 parallel sessions, 11 practical workshops and a bunch of post-conference trips to several meccas of european research. It will be, yes, an odyssey filled with activities.

The speakers list is filled with important names, starting with Nobel prize winner Rajendra Pachauriand also includes some of the great names from science journalism, such as the American Deborah Blum, winner of the Pulitzer prize, and Andrew Revkin, environmental writer from The New York Times(I’ll happily add here british author Ben Goldacre, from Bad Science). We’ll have of course many british academicians but also journalists from Asia, Africa, the arab world and Latin America.

Aside from listening to the planet’s main experts in the journalistic coverage of science, this gathering will give us the opportunity to see each other face to face, instead of just through email or printed references.

I do hope to morph into an able sponge so that, getting rid of my ancient age cowwebs, I mercilessly squeeze the most of this opportunity, which will also give me a chance to show my fellow journalists some of the work we do here. I’ll keep you informed about my adventures.

This blog post originally appeared on http://www.notasdeciencia.com/en/contenido/en/note/journalists-conference.

Science in society: reporting on emerging diseases

What a dramatic time for science journalists from developing countries! The first epidemic of dengue fever hit Argentina in March. Then, the new flu virus, called A H1N1, was detected on April 24th in the country. It is still affecting more and more children (there were 470 confirmed cases last Friday). Dengue and A H1N1 virus are emerging diseases in Argentina, but they are different.

The dengue fever was a tropical disease and affected mostly poor people. The flu virus is affecting middle and high class patients.

I think these emerging diseases are a big challenge for journalists. We have to learn about them: their diagnosis, their treatment, the epidemiology, etc. But they also give us an opportunity to open our eyes to environmental and social aspects of illnesses.

The mosquito, which is the vector of the dengue virus, had been erradicated four decades ago. But it came back in the 80´s. Mosquito populations increased to reach the center region of the country. Scientists had warned about the potential outbreaks but they were not heared by the health authorities and the people. When the outbreak happened, a lot of doctors, citizens and, of course, journalists did not know how to deal with this disease, which affected the more poor people. There were 25,897 confirmed cases from March to June 11.

I had to go to Catamarca province, located in the northwest of the country, to cover dengue fever (although the epidemic affected most of the provinces, including Buenos Aires city). The disease showed structural problems: health authorities were recommending to throw out waste, but Catamarca´s city did not have good waste plant. Or the local Catholic church insisted on carrying out a big pilgrimage, despite doctors reccomending against it because it would promote the transmission of the virus between people. So, it was challenging for a science journalist to hear the opinions of priests, policemen, and doctors.

Moreover, the most difficult thing is to keep the balance between how to inform about emerging diseases without contributing to panic. I try to be clear with my words. I try to explain what scientists are doing and discuss the uncertainties. But is it enough?

Fight for it

Standing firm for science journalism is not an easy task. But some of the seasoned and upcoming environment and science journalists in Kenya believe it is something worth doing – and they are doing it.

One of their most considered desirable way of doing this is by coming together. That’s why the formation of the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association has been hailed as a revolution in Kenya.

“The coming together of Kenyan practicing science journalists to form an association was indeed a good happening to our country this century as it gives us a platform for sharing and setting standards for bringing to the readers and listeners well-researched and simplified stories concerning science”, says Duncan Mboyah, the organising secretary of the association.

Secondly, formation of an association is good because science is not taught, only mentioned in the Kenyan journalism colleges, and through the association science journalism is set to be lifted through collaborations and partnership to enable journalists to gain more knowledge through mentorship and fellowships.

Mboyah has qualms with politics being given exceptional prominence in the media, yet it is not the only life segment that affects the common people. “This is the only way out to help mainstream science issues in the mainstream media.”

Standing firm for science journalism, he continues, will help in educating the public on matters that touch their daily lives and are not being given prominence currently due to lack of commitment by journalists and lackadaisical attitude by editors.

Again, if you want to wet the appetite of upcoming journalists to take up science writing seriously, mentoring through an association is a good catalyst. The World Federation of Science Journalists, he argues, has shown the way and KENSJA is the future platform for hosting talks on crucial debates in Kenya.

By coming together, journalists are in a position to promote science journalism as they will develop resource centers that could avail the much needed tools of the trade. They will share ideas and may even jointly decide on story angles.

Science journalism needs to be taken seriously to help inform the masses on the goings-on in the science world and also deserves support from the government and other organisations since it is key to understanding better the universe, something only possible through concerted efforts of the journalists.

Here journalists are a fundamental link between scientists who speak in very difficult language to most of the masses. Since some are semi–illiterate, they will not understand.

“Bringing together journalists to form KENSJA was the best move that has ever happened in this country, especially for those with passion for it”, says Mary Wangari, a member.

To her it makes them learn the real world and how they are being affected by real things such as climate change, new emerging health issues and new technologies, and, of course, passing the information on to the public.

Science journalists need to come together and create a platform for sharing their experiences, new things; to interact and to further the development of reporting on new advances, setbacks and controversies in science.

Dealing with a specialised kind of writing it entails research, interest and a lot of concentration to break the usually jargon laden language into simple language for the readers even though it is not being given the priority it deserves in our print and electronic media. Fight for it.