Journalists Who Change the World

We talk these days about the future of science journalism, by which we usually mean its migration from traditional habitats – printed words on paper, radio stations on the dial, television networks – into the 21st century landscape. Most of us see that landscape as a technological one, transformed by blogging and webcasting, Twitter and Facebook, and possibilities to be yet invented.

But as journalism evolves into a product of new media, it’s important to also consider not only what will change – also what we should keep. Lovers of language, who can turn an ordinary event into a compelling story, are still needed. Talented science writers who make a complex experiment accessible to those without science training remain invaluable. And investigative reporters provide an essential service that, I hope, will never disappear.

I was reminded of the last point during last month’s World Conference of Science Journalists in London, where I moderated a panel called “Four Journalists Who Changed the World.” It’s an ambitious concept, don’t you think? Yet, the journalists on the panel – from Nigeria, Canada, Japan and the United States – lived up to the billing.

Alex Abutu Augustine, science correspondent for the News Agency of Nigeria, conducted several meticulous investigations of scientists making exaggerated claims about their research. He looked into others who had concealed the risks of pharmaceuticals. He continued doing so even though the subjects of his stories repeatedly tried to scare him off, using tactics that ranged from lawsuits to death threats. His stories kept unqualified candidates out of government positions and stopped the distribution of unsafe products.

Andre Picard wrote a series exposing tainted blood supplies in Canada and government attempts to cover up the risks. He was also vilified in public and threatened with legal action. But again the stories were published and they led to a complete overhaul in management of his country’s medical blood supply system, undoubtedly saving many lives. Yukiko Motomura of Japan explored the status, training, and career paths of scientists in her country. She startled her readers with the realization that far from embracing those with science training, the country’s culture often made it difficult for them to advance. Her newspaper series led to a best-selling book and prompted the Japanese government to begin seeking reforms to better support its researchers. And Shannon Brownlee, a freelance writer based in the Washington D.C. area, spent years investigating the costly and risky operation of the American medical system, exposing flawed treatments based, in some cases, on shoddy science.

I have other examples beyond the panel. Here’s one from my country, the United States. In mid-July, the Los Angeles Times published a detailed report on the board that oversees nurses in the state. The board had ignored problems and allowed incompetent or even criminally behaved nurses – some had lost their tempers and injured patients – to continue working. Within the week, the governor fired a majority of the lax board members and replaced them with people determined to improve the situation.

One of the interesting aspects of the California story is that the investigation was done in tandem with a non-profit investigative reporting center, ProPublica. The center was funded to insure that investigative journalism remains a priority in the United States. At the University of Wisconsin where I teach investigative reporting, we host another such center, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. In the fall, one of my classes will collaborate with the center in investigating access to health care.

Ask any committed journalist about this emphasis on investigative journalism and he or she will tell you that there is no democracy without a watchdog media, that governments cannot be held accountable without journalists dogging their actions. But the same principle holds true for science. It works best in a clear light of accountability.

Science is, after all, a human enterprise, which means that it’s subject to the usual human failings. Researchers are not always honest. Money can skew the process. So can politics. We need good, well-trained, curious and skeptical journalists to explore science in all its dimensions. We need coverage not only of the exciting and innovative aspects but the troubled ones. Such scrutiny not only keeps our readers, viewers and listeners intelligently informed, it protects them. It’s only by finding and highlighting flaws in the system, that they are corrected.

We need more, many more reporters, exactly like those who participated in the London conference panel. They remind us about what’s best in what we do. We all hope they’ll keep doing it. And I’d like to take this moment to salute my London panelists but, also, all of you out there who are chasing a story that will help change the world.

The future of Science Journalism

It was one of the big issues at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists: where is science journalism heading? At the first day of the conference, Ben Hammersley of Wired Magazine expressed the controversial opinion that there are simply too many science journalists. According to him, there will be a process of natural selection in the next few years, which only a few of the best science journalists will survive. Other participants were more optimistic, pointing out that even though journalism in general is in crisis, science journalism is still extremely important. Some, like Google News founderKrishna Bharat saw lots of possibilities for science journalism on the internet. Bharat talked about the revenues to be gained by media working together instead of competing, for instance by linking to each other’s stories. More detailed reports on the WCSJ sessions can be found on www.wcsjnews.org (see news -> session reviews).

But the topic ‘the future of science journalism’ wasn’t just a point of debate at the WCSJ conference. Some leading scientific journals also joined in. A month before the conference, the journal Nature Biotechnology reported on a workshop on the future of science communication & journalism, which was attended by leading science communicators from the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Australia. And in the week before to the conference, Nature magazine itself published a special issue which was partially focused on science journalism.

After briefly discussing some of the main problems of science communication and science journalism today, the article in Nature Biotechnology lists eight recommendations. But these are mainly meant for scientist and science communicators. The only two recommendations that concern science journalism are the call for journalism schools to teach students about science policy making, and the call for alternative funding (e.g. by foundations, universities or governments) to ensure quality science journalism in a perishing media environment. The authors also see possibilities for science journalism in the form of web portals offering both professionally produced content and user generated content, thereby stimulating public participation.

The special issue of Nature, dated June 25th, carries an editorial, news feature, three opinion pieces and a Q&A on science journalism. All these can be found via www.tinyurl.com/sciencejournalism. This web page hosts both articles from the special issue and some articles on science journalism from Nature’s archive.

In its editorial on science journalism, Nature calls out for scientist and scientific institutions to help proper science journalism survive. For example through learning how to best talk to journalists; by helping them gain access to information; and by helping them find the right people to comment on the subject they’re reporting on. The news feature ‘Breaking the convention?’, even though it carries the label ‘science journalism’, isn’t truly focused on journalism. It is more about the way scientists open up what happens on meetings and conferences than on the benefits and drawbacks of this newfound openness for science journalists. More interesting things, that do directly concern science journalism, are written in the opinion section.

Here, Toby Murcott, former science correspondent for the BBC, argues that science journalists today can be compared to priests. For the most part they just take information from a source of authority and communicate it to the congregation. To best serve our audiences, we as science journalists should also provide depth, context and criticism. But this isn’t easy when you are working under constant time pressure. Murcott thinks one way in which this priesthood model of science journalism can be toppled without too much effort is to report more on the process through which science is produced and reviewed. Also, Murcott asks for press officers at universities and research journals to help journalists by providing them with more background information and context on new findings they do at the moment.

Probably having witnessed some of the changes himself, Boyce Rensberger, who has been a science reporter for 32 years, writes about the way science journalists changed from cheerleaders to watchdogs during the past century. In the first half of the 20th century science journalists hailed everything scientists did. When in the ‘70’s and ‘80s it became clear that science and technology also sometimes have adverse effects and can be controversial, science reporting became increasingly critical. At the moment, so says Rensberger, we are again facing changes in the role of science journalism. These are mostly due to digitalisation. It is for instance hard for the public to see which of the numerous online sources are reliable and which aren’t. So if science journalists are to regain relevance to society, they should learn how to master new media.

At the WCSJ conference, some criticism could be heard that the focus was too much on science journalism in the Western – and especially Anglo-Saxon – part of the world. But the special issue of Nature also hosts an opinion article by Nadia El-Awady, the newly elected president of the WFSJ, who writes about science journalism in Arabic countries. The Arab world has in the past few decades seen a vast growth in the amount of scientific research being done and also in the interest in science by the audience. Science journalists have gained a fairly stable position in Arab countries. But El-Awady also sees some challenges. Quantity is not necessarily the same as quality. Science journalists are not always able to provide critical coverage of claims made by the institutions that pay them. Also, science journalists in the Arab world often have deep reverence for scientists or are working as a part-time scientist themselves. This can make it hard for them to maintain a critical perspective in their journalistic work. El-Awady argues that we should pay attention to these weaknesses; or the rise of science journalism in the Arab world may be the harbinger of its downfall.