Life Beyond Headlines — CSWA Beyond Writers

Tim Lougheed, President of the Canadian Science Writer’s Association, shares his views on the evolution of Science journalism and its future challenges. 

« This is where the upheaval in media has brought us, to a world where the most engaging and worthwhile information is wherever you happen to find it, rather than being regularly and reliably captured in headlines touted by our most venerable news sources. This is also where the Canadian Science Writers’ Association finds itself in 2016, some 45 years after it was established by members of the media who took such great delight in following the course of science, technology, and medicine that they decide to band together as a means of turning this activity into an organized passion they could share with others.«

A thoughtful article posted on the CBC website earlier this month captured a key aspect of the challenge that has led our organization to take a new perspective on its mandate and its membership. Veteran reporter Kelly Crowe expressed the difficulty of finding the right context for covering what appears to be a game-changing bone-marrow transplant treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). She complained that the hospital and funding agency responsible for this work used the word “breakthrough” in their press releases, along with the tale of a once disabled patient who has apparently been cured of this dread ailment.

Such imagery was bound to conjure up still fresh memories of the similarly touted “liberation therapy” that failed to hold up under clinical scrutiny several years ago. Crowe notes that most media simply stopped paying attention to MS after that disappointment. “We still think about MS as a hopeless disease where patients are doomed to slide into disability and premature death,” she says.

Of course, not everyone is quite so gloomy. People with the disease — as well as their friends and family — have had a front-row seat for new drug interventions that have been making it possible to manage the condition with unprecedented success. This progress has been reported in the medical literature by fits and starts, definitely not using terms like ‘breakthrough” or “cure” but still showing steady gains toward enabling patients to cope with various aspects of the problem to much the same extent that diabetics generally cope with theirs. Sadly, none of it is the stuff of gripping news stories.

“What the headlines can’t seem to convey is that sometimes a scientific paper is reporting a development in a long-running research program,” acknowledges Crowe.

Nevertheless, just because you cannot wring a good headline out of some subject matter is no excuse for abandoning it. The longstanding journalistic rationale for any “beat” is that most news stories unfold in just this way, as a series of inherently dull but significant steps that must be diligently followed in order to arrive at what will ultimately be an accurate, headline-worthy account. It can take months, sometimes years, and there are no short-cuts. That is why reporters traditionally plod through such dreary settings as city council meetings, court cases, and all kinds of utterly vapid scrums, which can make the dense technical literature of science or medicine look downright inviting.

Unfortunately, this road becomes far less travelled in an era where anyone working in media is already drowning in information and reporters are ruthlessly bounced from one unrelated area of coverage to another with little consideration for continuity or even common sense. Beats are an expensive, time-consuming luxury when it is easy enough to extract headlines from the endless assortment of material that fills the many screens of our working lives. Heaven forfend that we should overlook some change in the relationship between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard by wasting our time trying to understand how a new field of scientific or medical research is unfolding. And regardless of whether you care more about Hollywood shenanigans than how your neighbour with MS is faring, this glut of information throws into question the purpose of how and why we share any of it in the first place.

Consider that while Crowe and her media colleagues were apparently soothing their hurt feelings by ignoring the field of MS, the writers of the iconic soap opera The Young and the Restless decided to give the disease to one of their cornerstone characters, Nikki Newman. Was she being written out of the show, her contract expired and the actress seen off to some wheelchair-bound afterlife in dramatic fashion? No, she was shown interacting with her doctor, who prescribed the latest drug regimen for her so that she could carry on much as she did before. In this way, a seemingly ephemeral bit of afternoon TV fluff effectively demonstrated the progress recounted in medical journals that had eluded a mainstream media bereft of beats, such that the audience for the former wound up better informed than the audience for the latter.

This is where the upheaval in media has brought us, to a world where the most engaging and worthwhile information is wherever you happen to find it, rather than being regularly and reliably captured in headlines touted by our most venerable news sources. This is also where the Canadian Science Writers’ Association finds itself in 2016, some 45 years after it was established by members of the media who took such great delight in following the course of science, technology, and medicine that they decide to band together as a means of turning this activity into an organized passion they could share with others.

That sharing now extends to hundreds of members, making our Annual General Meeting a far cry from its earliest incarnations, which might have been held in somebody’s living room. At the same time, the occupations of most latter-day members are an even farther cry from those of the founders, who were employed by companies that had allowed each of them to carve out a practical beat. In the 1970s, that was where the action was; few other avenues existed for directly communicating science to the broader public. In the 21st century, on the other hand, we have witnessed a proliferation of such avenues, even as beat reporting becomes an endangered species.

To be sure, patiently researched, carefully edited feature articles by full-time staff writers can still be found in the actual physical pages of newspapers or magazines sold in stores, something few of us buy and even fewer of us will produce. Meanwhile, as authoritative and well entrenched a publication as Scientific American has mounted a dazzling electronic presence, complete with blogs, podcasts, on-line videos, interactive Web sites, and undoubtedly more to come as virtual reality makes its way into and onto our heads. The people responsible for these products hardly fit the the venerable mould of “journalists”, yet the scope and impact of their work can be far more profound than anything produced along the lines of what we would still consider to be mainstream journalism. Nor is there reason to assume that the individuals responsible for these new modes of presentation take their work any less seriously; as with traditional journalists, the worst of them are in it for short-sighted headlines, while the best of them strive to set professional standards.

CSWA is one of the few bodies ever created to mark such standards with respect to what was originally called science writing. That phrase comes easily to someone who assembles an article in Science or Nature, but less so to someone who assembles an interactive multimedia infographic for an electronic publication and probably not at all to someone who mounts a compelling portrait of a scientific installation’s operational details on a research institution’s Web site. Set in this wider context, “writing” sounds downright quaint, however much it attempts to capture a common element of these diverse forms of communication. More than quaint, though, the traditionally framed concepts of writing and journalism could make CSWA look like a place that excludes these new and exciting forms of expression. For many newcomers, that conclusion has been quickly confirmed by a look at the organization’s constitution, which draws crucial membership distinctions between “journalists” and “non-journalists”, even as the respective meanings of these categories have become thoroughly muddied by economics and technology over the past 45 years.

CSWA’s Board of Directors responded to this situation last year by forming a committee to review the text of the organization’s constitution and update it to accommodate a new reality. At first glance this might look like an exercise in political correctness, driven by a desire to level the playing field and make everyone feel welcome regardless of their particular affiliation to science writing or science communication. As the committee’s work proceeded, it became clear that there was more at stake: the need to position CSWA to confront not just the changes that have transformed the communications landscape over the last 45 years, but to prepare for whatever might happen in the coming decades.

As set out in the constitution itself, these revisions meant each version of the new text was presented to the Board over the course of last winter, with a final draft distributed to the entire CSWA membership in April, which was ultimately submitted to a formal vote at the Annual General Meeting in Guelph on June 6. There was little in the way of opposition voiced to the new constitution until just a couple of weeks before that meeting, when our counterparts in the United States — the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) — got into a slanging match over proposed changes to their own organization’s constitution, changes very similar to ones that were being proposed for CSWA. The most contentious point was the elimination of any specific requirement to become president; where this individual must now be a working journalist, a new constitution would open the position to any member. That prospect does not sit well with the comparatively large cohort of NASW members who count themselves as journalists and do not want to see their leadership compromised by some kind of institutional allegiance, which would include being employed by some public or private sector institution.

The American spat prompted Kate Lunau to reflect on the fortunes of her own career, which had brought her from science writing for such steadfast outlets as Maclean’s and the Montreal Gazette to VICE Motherboard, an outstanding example of the new breed of electronic news outlets with a somewhat murkier journalistic pedigree. As she weighed the dispute over installing a public information officer (PIO) or some other kind of non-journalist as the head of NASW or CSWA, she re-drew the fine line between members of these organizations.

“Communications work is essentially promotional, whereas journalism is, ideally, all about being objective,” she wrote. “It’s a division as clear as church and state. Otherwise, how will readers know that journalists are pursuing the ‘truth’, and not simply parroting the perspective of whoever’s paying them?”

Lunau’s account ensured that question would be front-and-centre by the time CSWA’s AGM took place on 6 June in the bucolic surroundings of Belwood Park just outside of Guelph. Several members had articulated their own clear opposition to some of the changes that had been proposed by the constitutional committee, specifically the removal of membership distinctions that would see the president’s office open to all comers. At the heart of these concerns was the fear that CSWA would lose credibility as  a touchstone of journalistic integrity, descending from an authoritative forum for the defence of free speech into a smarmy club dominated by public relations folk would would never dare to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

By way of example, longtime member and former PostMedia reporter Margaret Munro recounted what she regarded as CSWA’s finest moment, when it mounted a prominent public stand against the Harper government’s muzzling of public sector scientists.

“Former President Kathryn O’Hara stared down deputy ministers, wrote letters and articles denouncing muzzling, and stood up at national and international meetings to do the same,” said Munro. “She and the board were incredibly supportive of journalists like myself in the trenches during the years-long fight for access to government scientists and science. The CSWA also created a space on its Web site for muzzling stories and documents, showing the governments tactics, which helped keep the issue in the public eye. The issue eventually took on a life of its own, but the CSWA support early on was key. Some PIO members cheered us on from the sidelines, but most did so very quietly and sometimes, at least early on, didn’t seem to see what was so wrong with the new communication protocols, media lines, and muzzling.”

The muzzling issue was certainly a perfect storm of politics and principle; less certain is the suggestion that a CSWA campaign against muzzling simply would not have happened had the president been a PIO. Both Munro and O’Hara took it upon themselves to public articles on this contentious subject, something they did not need CSWA approval to pursue. And had a reactionary president attempted to prevent them from using the CSWA Web site to highlight this same subject, the matter would have been put to a vote — as actually happened — and board members would be in a position to override his or her objections.

Nor would the simply fact of having a journalist as president of the board guarantee that any such public outcry have been mounted in the first place. Much as we like to imagine that all writers are firebrands willing to burn any bridge in the quest for a great story, many of the best are more measured and strategic in their approach, aware that you not only have to get the story, you also have to get the next story. And although anyone who has not glimpsed the inner workings of the federal bureaucracy might be loathe to admit it, some PIOs orchestrate campaigns by stealth that accomplish much more than any media outcry. As founding CSWA member Peter Calamai put it for the participants of the AGM: “I think some people are imaging a phoney dichotomy, that the communicators will transfer the CSWA into an organization that spends significant time and resources discussing PR techniques and the like. My experience has been that there is more that unites the PIOs and science journalists than divides them.”

For more on how the very constructive and heartfelt discussion at this year’s AGM played out, the complete minutes of this meeting are posted on our Web site. The upshot was a unanimous vote to defer the formal acceptance of a new constitution until a vote that will take place on Wednesday 9 November at a meeting to be held in parallel with this year’s Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. All members of CSWA will be eligible to participate in this process by proxy and through electronic ballots, all of which will be tallied at that event.

In the meantime, an expanded version of the constitutional committee will revisit the changes that are being proposed and submit their deliberations to the board over the summer. The entire membership will be kept apprised of this process, which will culminate in the distribution of a final version of the text to one and all in August, providing more than enough time for feedback leading up to the November meeting.

This undertaking represents a milestone in the history of CSWA, one that may have been initiated by external events but is being completed by a meeting of like minded professionals. If this step makes us uncomfortable, it is because we are exploring terra incognita, a frontier that we will eventually populate and, with any luck, civilize. We are bound to be nagged by doubt, and perhaps no small dose of resentment from observers critical of what they regard as errand into the wilderness, where we will lose the values that carried us there in the first place. Whether that happens will depend on how we conduct ourselves, the ultimate expression of what we stand for and the true test of our mettle.

Tim Lougheed
Canadian Science Writer’s Association

Article written June 22, 2016


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