People I met at the World Conference of Science Journalists

I wondered what I was going to do with the stack of business cards I gathered from the World Conference of Science Journalists in London. Then a friend of mine, Coturnix from A Blog Around the Clock gave me the idea of interviewing partcipants. So kicking starting off, what I hope will be a series of posts, is Deborah Blum, a fellow WFSJ blog member, and one heck of a writer. I’m a huge fan of her book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Science is not nearly as interesting as the people behind it (or writing about it). I give you Deborah Blum.

Please tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?

I’m a freelance science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m also a past-president of the National Association of Science Writers (US) and a board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. I’ve written five books, the latest, The Poisoner’s Handbook, will be out in February. Whew! I’m the daughter of a biologist and grew up with science. I’ve just always liked telling stories about science, trying to get people to see what a fascinating and human enterprise it is.

Why did you decide to attend the WCSJ?

I moderated a panel and I needed to attend as a board member. But more than that, I’ve learned to really love the connection with science journalists around the world. It’s made me really think about how stories are told – or need to be told – from many different perspectives.

What was the most interesting aspect of the conference?

I went to some great sessions on investigative reporting and on the changing role of the media. But what made them exceptional was the different contexts from different cultures.

What did you learn?

It made me think about what a western perspective I have. I’ve been trying since to read and listen to science reporting outside my normal culture zone.

What types of science media do you read/watch/listen? What would you recommend?

I’m a reader. So I read a lot of news websites so that I can get different approaches to the same information. I find that different sources are good on different stories.

Where do you go from here?

I’m program chair of the next World Conference of Science Journalists. It’ll be in Cairo in June 2011. I hope you’ll be there!

Does science sell?

Time to take a deep breath – this is going to be hard. As a journalist, I’m about to do the unthinkable and praise a rival newspaper.

Earlier this month, The Times published Eureka, a monthly magazine boasting coverage of “Science. Life. The Planet”. The 60-page launch issue included: an article on “Fifteen ideas to blow your mind and shape your world”; reports on bacteria in your intestines and on when Usain Bolt and other athletes will reach their limits; and a giant picture of cotton bales that looked more like a field of cauliflower.

The London-based newspaper used the launch of the magazine to remind readers of its track record in covering science, enlisting the ghosts of Alfred Nobel, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and even HG Wells to present its case.

There’s no arguing that “The Thunderer” has an impressive track record when it comes to science coverage – but what’s even more important is where the newspaper appears to be going next.

Standing on a platform at London King’s Cross underground station, my gaze wandered to the giant advertising hoarding on the curved wall. At least three of the posters featured the newspaper under its “Be Part of The Times” slogan.

In a nutshell, the paper is presenting itself as a purveyor of serious news. So one poster pictured a Japanese man dancing with a robot, with an exploration about the number of automatons in the country’s workforce, while another showed sheet ice on a dark sea, illustrating the melting of the polar icecap and the opening up of new water lanes to private shipping and public debates over sovereignty and access.

But one in particular caught my eye; it claimed that The Times has more science and environment correspondents than rivals The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail or The Independent. Now, I have to hold my hands up and admit I’ve not poured over the pages or websites of these publications to tot up the number of journalists each title can muster.

But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if the claim is true or not – the point is that The Times is selling itself on the basis of its science coverage. The newspaper is recognising the desire out there in the real world to read about science; a thirst for stories to inspire your imagination and make you go “Wow”.

Other posters boasted about the number of foreign correspondents and its “oceans correspondent”. While the wee boy inside me still sniggers at the mad idea of having the job title “oceans correspondent” on your business cards, there’s a serious point in there about selling your science coverage.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists in London over the summer, we heard from journalists from throughout the United States and Europe who told stories about their colleagues’ jobs being axed. While I’m sure that the science staff at The Times would moan along with the rest of us about their lack of time, lack of staff and lack of resources, at least their title has realised that science can sell papers.

I recently interviewed Professor Anne Glover, chief scientific advisor to the Scottish Government, for my newspaper, The Scotsman. As a business reporter, I was keen to talk about the interface between science and commerce, but our conversation soon turned to enthusing the public about science.

Professor Glover praised The Scotsman for its coverage but said she worried about the lack of dedicated specialists writing about science in the broader Scottish media. While I don’t think journalists should be cheerleaders for science, I do recognise the importance of a scientific-literate populous – and it’s good to see that some newspapers are even prepared to use their science coverage as a selling point.

Science journalism in the Entertainment Age

In his essay ‘Science journalism: Too close for comfort’ (Nature, 25 June 2009) the American science reporter Boyce Rensberger analyzes the history of science journalism and distinguishes three ages: the ‘Gee-Whiz Age’, the ‘Watchdog Age’ and the ‘Digital Age’.

About the first two there can be little disagreement. However, to call the third age – our present time – the ‘Digital Age’, tells only something about the technology used to convey science journalism, but nothing about its character. I would call our age the ‘Entertainment Age’. Before I come to explain science journalism in the ‘Entertainment Age’, let’s first go back into history.

What is the ‘Gee-Whiz Age’? ‘Gee-whiz’ means something like amazement or enthusiasm and is thought to originate from the exclamation ‘Jesus Christ! – ‘What a surprise!’ The two decades immediately following the Second World War were, at least in the Western World, years of general reconstruction, industrialization and strong economic growth. Almost autonomously, it was thought, fundamental research would produce a stream of technological innovations – an idea that created a kind of scientific paradise where researchers were given a large degree of freedom and substantial financial support.

Science journalism in the ‘Gee-Whiz Age’ put an emphasis on the wonders of science. Underneath the idea was that science brings progress and prosperity. This is true, but only till the point when our basic needs are satisfied. Simply said, when we have food, housing and clothing, our happiness is more determined by social relations, self-fulfillment and the absence of dramatic changes in life than by owning a new mobile phone or a flat screen TV. There is no evidence that people in the Western World of today are happier than thirty years ago, although we own more ‘stuff’ and have longer life expectancies.

From the end of the sixties both the public and politicians started viewing science in a different way. The optimism of the post-war years made way for a more critical attitude, with research coming under greater scrutiny than ever before. The shift began with the movement to democratize society in general and the universities in particular at the end of the 1960s. It was subsequently reinforced by the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the Club of Rome report Limits to Growth and the awareness of environmental problems. Science journalism entered the ‘Watchdog Age’, as Rensberger calls it: science journalists scrutinizing scientists in the way political journalists scrutinize politicians.

However, what Rensberger doesn’t write is that in the Watchdog Age there was still a lot of Gee-Whiz science journalism (may be even more than watchdog-journalism), simply because the majority of people are more interested in knowing, let’s say, what black holes are than in knowing how much money goes into black hole-research and in scrutinizing black-hole-scientists. And this is valid up till today. ‘Gee-Whiz’ science journalism never dies because of people’s natural curiosity about how ‘it all’ works and where ‘it all’ comes from.

And now our present day. Sure, we live in a digital age. Science journalism is moving online. But what about its character? In the Western World, I think that more than ever before the entertainment character of journalism is prominent. We live in an Entertainment Age and science journalism has also moved into the Entertainment Age. We have busy lives, we have all the material requirements for a life without too many worries, and in our few free hours per day we want to be entertained. Science for fun: A magician showing how he tricks our minds; a documentary imagining the disaster after a super volcano explosion; a story about time travel. The Entertainment Age is characteristic for wealthy, stable societies where technological progress doesn’t contribute anymore to increasing happiness.

Is it a bad thing that science journalism is now in the Entertainment Age? Not at all. Or at least, not necessarily. Entertainment can be a great way to convey the messages of science journalism. Entertainment brings emotion and we tend to remember information in an emotional package better. The challenge is to find the right combination of Gee-Whiz-, Watchdog- and Entertainment-journalism, either apart from each other or combined, because a good science story or documentary can combine all three.

Science journalists on science journalism

Scientists often blame science journalists for being superficial and being sensationalists. But how do science journalists themselves look at their jobs, and at science journalism in general? Is it true that the main thing they want is to score with their stories? Or do they prefer balanced, in-depth reporting, that can arguably be more boring for the general public? And what’s the judgement of science information officers, who’s job it is to try and make sure information about their university or institution reaches the media as much as possible?

This was the theme of a joint meeting of the Dutch societies for science journalism and science information officers last September. In preparation of this meeting an online survey was held amongst the members of both societies to see where individual members stood within this theme of scoring versus in-depth reporting. The response of the questionnaire was quite high: eighty out of the approximately four hundred members responded, half of them journalists, half public information officers, with an even spread amongst different age groups. The survey consisted of 25 statements; respondents could indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each of them.

The first somewhat surprising outcome of the survey was that half of the science journalists thought science journalism in The Netherlands is often too superficial. As much as eighty percent said they are often annoyed by the way general journalists report on science. Fellow science journalists also don’t get away that easily: little over half of the journalists claimed they are also often annoyed by the work of their colleagues.

Differently from what you might expect, Dutch science information officers are more positive about science journalism in The Netherlands. They judge the reporting of both general journalists and science journalists more positively. Also, they are friendlier towards their colleagues: while a majority of the science journalists think that science information officers don’t report critical enough on the organisations they work for, and that they too often only pick the easy subjects for their press releases, science information officers themselves tend to disagree with these claims.

Another surprising outcome was that quite a few of the Dutch science journalists admitted that they don’t always practice balanced reporting. Almost a quarter of the respondents who work as journalists said they don’t always report on the different sides of a story, or call other scientists to ask what they think about a certain subject. Eight percent of the journalists always check whether news they report really is newsworthy, with another almost twenty percent responding ‘neutral’ to this question. And even though most science journalists said that they do point out possible flaws in the research they report on to their audience, half the journalists also admitted that they sometimes omit information that could weaken the central message they are communicating.

A possible explanation for the fact that not all science journalists practice balanced reporting is that a lot of the respondents indicate they’re often working under too much time pressure. And it seems this feeling of too much pressure increases with age: this was the only question in the survey where there was a clear distinction in response between different age groups. Of the youngest science journalists (as well as science information officers), little over forty percent indicated that they often can’t do their job as well as they want to because of time pressure. This number increases to more than sixty percent for those older than 45.