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.

Why My Dog (And I) No Longer Watch CNN

In my home office we are boycotting CNN. Of course, my home office is a room at the back of my house occupied by myself and the family dog, a boxer named Dodger, who contributes by snoring musically while I work.

Nevertheless, we take this boycott seriously. We do not checkout the CNN website and we do not watch CNN broadcasts and our protest has spread to the adjoining room, where my husband, a fellow journalist, also now avoids the CNN for fear of being bitten (by the dog, thank you).

We abandoned the whole Cable News Network operation in the first week of December, the day after the organization announced that it was closing down its science, technology and environmental news department, firing its chief science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, six executive producers, and the rest of the science-savvy support staff.

Candidly, the boycott hasn’t been much a sacrifice. The basic news — economy, war, economy, corrupt politicians, economy — isn’t that hard to find elsewhere. But we’re standing on our principles. We will only invest our time in news operations, including the one I’m writing for now, which are smart enough to know that informed science coverage is absolutely an essential part of the news of the day.

Now, you might argue that I’m biased by the fact that I’m a career science journalist, a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, the North American board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. If you thought that meant I had hoped to one day cover science for CNN you would be wrong — they wouldn’t hire me anyway. I’m too short and funny looking. But you would be right that I am completely, irredeemably, biased on the subject.

I believe that science and technology shape, often dramatically, the world we live in today. I also believe such fast-moving changes need to be explained – thoroughly, skeptically, beautifully – to people who don’t work with or normally follow the world of science. So that when health officials urge us to get a winter flu shot, we can evaluate our own risks and benefits. So that the connections between industrial gases and global climate change are shown with clear logic. So that that when the National Research Council announces, as it last week, that the Bush administration has failed to effectively investigate the risks of nanotechnology, we can decide whether or not to worry.

This country has owned the best science communication system in the world. I believe that we should value, maintain and improve our ability to communicate about science, not dismantle it. CNN didn’t even bother to blame its decision to close down the science department on the standard budget cut line. Instead, its spokesperson suggested that all that acquired expertise simply wasn’t needed, that since Anderson Cooper and company were producing the Planet in Peril series, “there is no need for a separate unit.”

We at the home office would really enjoy hearing Anderson Cooper explain the complicated risks associated with exposure to nanoparticles. I would wake up the dog for that, even. But until that day, or until the CNN management gets a clue about the world we live in, this office will continue to get its news elsewhere.

This piece was originally printed on the Huffington Post on 14 December 2008.

How to carry a science journalistic tune in Fez

FEZ, Morocco – This October, in a small restaurant, hazed with the smoke of roasting meat, I learned that American science writers cannot carry a tune. This is in contrast to Arab science journalists who can sing so well that other diners tend to bust into spontaneous applause.

Of course, most American science writers – and this may be because of the talent deficit – don’t actually start singing in crowded restaurants. That Arab science writers do, and do it well, is just one of the sometimes humbling lessons I’ve learned since we at the National Association of Science Writers (US) formed a partnership with the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA) more than a year and a half ago.

Our partnership came about through the twinning project of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which pairs journalists from established organizations with those who are in process of building an organization. NASW is almost 75 years old; ASJA is about two years old. So we were a logical match except – obviously – for the U.S. government’s war on Iraq. That fact alone made us appear the least likely of partners.

We probably wouldn’t have done it all except that the president of the Arab science writers, Nadia El-Awady of Egypt, and I had earlier become friends and colleagues. She persuaded her reluctant fellow members to take a chance on us. I didn’t have to work as hard as she did – my argument was based on two simple points. One, that we as American journalists had a chance to do better than our government at being good citizens of the world. And second, that we could learn a lot from science journalists in the Arab world.

I hope the first has been proved true. I know the second point has. In the time since we became international partners, the five-member board of ASJA has attended our national conference and, while there, organized a panel presentation on science writing in the Arab region. The NASW executive director, Tinsley Davis, and I have traveled to Qatar to conduct workshops. And working with the Arab science writers and WFSJ, four NASW members, including myself, traveled to Fez to participate in panels at the first regional meeting of the Arab science journalists. The other American participants were Craig Duff, director of multimedia for Time magazine, and two nationally known freelancers, Jeanne Lenzer and Kevin Begos. Kevin was also the winner of ASJA award for best English language coverage of Arab science.

The conference was just remarkable. There were science journalists from Egypt and Lebanon, Yemen and Algeria, from Jordan, from Qatar, from Iraq, from Saudi Arab and the Emirates, from across the Arab world. They often sounded amazingly like we do at our national meetings – talking about difficulty in getting access to information, reluctance of scientists to cooperate, the need to help create a more science literate public. We talked about the effects of global climate change in our part of the world, such as thinning lake ice, and in theirs, such as the creep of rising seawater into the Nile River delta. We talked about the different ways we tell stories, the rise of multimedia.

The first and best lesson of the partnership has not been that we are different but that we are alike; that we share the same sense of mission, the wish to illuminate science for those who turn away from it as baffling or unnecessary. Of course, we’re not entirely alike, as I first mentioned. The evening of the conference, we joined a group of the Arab science journalists for dinner. Before the mint tea had arrived, they were singing. Man, they sounded good. They asked us to sing a song for them. None of us knew the words to the same song. Only one of us (that would be Craig) could actually carry a tune. But we tried – which, of course, is my other favorite lesson from our partnership. We get asked to do things we haven’t done before. And we jump in and try. But I do let you know, that we of NASW will be practicing our singing before we next travel to a meeting of the Arab Science Journalists Association.