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.