Invisible Science: Why Are Latin American Science Stories Absent in European and U.S. Media Outlets?

This story was originally published at The Open Notebook and is part of TON‘s Diverse Voices in Science Journalism series, supported by Science Sandbox and made possible through a partnership with the National Association of Science Writers Diversity Committee. The author is Federico Kukso, he is an Argentinian independent science journalist. He writes for Tangible (Mexico), Agencia Sinc (Spain), and La Nación (Argentina), he is a member of the WFSJ among others. Find him on Twitter @fedkukso.

In the 21st century, science is mostly a global activity. Consider, for example, international collaborations such as the Human Cell Atlas, which connects researchers from all over the world to learn more about the thousands of different cell types in the human body; or the 17,500 researchers from 70 countries that collaborate at CERN in search of fundamental particles of matter; or the ALMA astronomical complex in Chile, with participants from 22 countries. However, most of the science published in specialized journals is authored by researchers from the developed world. Among the top 100 scientific institutions cited by NatureINDEX 2019, a ranking of the centers that dominated research in natural sciences during 2018, there isn’t a single university or center from Latin America.

The same occurs in the global ecosystem of science news. There are regions of the planet that are completely absent in the coverage of most of the international and English-speaking outlets. A clear example was the epidemic outbreak of Zika fever. In Latin America, stories on this topic began to appear in local media in April 2015, almost eight months before the virus arrived in the United States and coverage of the topic began in U.S. media, using as sources mostly U.S. specialists. Something similar occurs when reporting paleontological discoveries in Patagonia: If an investigation involves American and Argentinian scientists, testimonies and even the contributions of the South American researchers are usually omitted, as I exposed in an article published in Undark in 2016.

Recently, I carried out a conversation via WhatsApp with six science editors and reporters from the region, to discuss biases and journalistic dynamics outside and within the countries of the so-called Global South, and what could be done to reverse the situation.

The editors who participated in this conversation were:

The other reporters:

  • Valeria Román, science journalist from Argentina who writes for Infobae, SciDev.Net, Tangible, and Forbes, among others.
  • Ángela Posada Swafford, a Colombian science journalist based in Miami who has written for National GeographicAstronomy,  WiredNew Scientist, The Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald, among others.

Federico: Why is there a lack of stories about Latin American scientists in international English-language outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, New Scientist, Wired, Nature, Science, Scientific American, Popular Science, and so on?

Valeria: One factor is geographical proximity: News is reported mostly on what happens within the country of the publication, or in its area of greatest reach.

Daniela: It also has to do with readers. The region is not of much interest for the English-speaking audience, perhaps because [the audience] does not know a lot about Latin America. This is when one of the famous criteria of newsworthiness in journalism comes into play: It’s not newsworthy if you don’t understand it or it’s not relevant to you.

Federico: And when something is published about research in the region, it’s usually done from a paternalistic perspective. Many times, instead of requesting an article from a local science journalist, the story is assigned to a journalist who does not know the subtle internal cultural differences of each country. Mexico is not the same as Argentina, Chile, or Bolivia. You end up noticing many mistakes.

Pablo: That happens often. However, it is difficult to demand visibility [for Latin American science] when, for example, in Colombia the media has been unable to cover local science adequately. It is possible that poor visibility has some Eurocentrism or other nationalist bias, but before considering those explanations, I would attribute it to a problem of local management, to a weakness of our own institutions.

Valeria: There is an interesting case: Argentina developed the SAOCOM 1A satellite. It is the first of its kind, and made in a developing country. The international media outlets didn’t cover the news about this new satellite. When it was launched from the United States in October 2018, several English-speaking media focused on the SpaceX rocket that took it into space, which was made in a developed country, and didn’t even mention the work of the Argentinian researchers.

Ángela: Many researchers in developing countries feel trapped in a vicious circle because of the barriers that are imposed on publishing their research. Third-world scientists are not cited enough. This is like a catch-22. There are structural obstacles and subtle prejudices that prevent researchers from poor countries from sharing their discoveries with the industrial world. And this invisibility is not only bad for those countries, it can also deprive the industrialized world from critical knowledge. According to Richard Horton, former editor of The Lancet: “The only way to understand the Ebola process and its effects is to publish the work of local researchers.” It is vital that third-world researchers communicate their science to each other. Which also does not seem to happen in Latin America.

Pablo: In addition, there is the investment factor: The money that all of Colombia invests in science is approximately the same amount as the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine  invests. It would be naive to think that the science of our countries is at the same pace as the U.S. It is true that some groups achieve the highest quality level, but the production volume is much smaller.

This story is part of the Diverse Voices series, which aims to examine the experiences, expertise, and perspectives of science journalists from communities that are underrepresented in science journalism. The series is a partnership between The Open Notebook and the National Association of Science Writers’ Diversity Committee, and is supported by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. Read other stories in the Diverse Voices series here.

Federico: Do you perceive that many English-speaking media outlets prioritize where a scientific discovery was made over the relevance of the discovery?

Iván: The big outlets tell stories about developing countries or third-world countries when it’s about tragedy, violence, crisis, poverty, a coup…. That is the reductionist image that enriches and reinforces stereotypes.

Federico: And they end up reproducing common images: Argentina as a land of gauchos, meat, and tango; Colombia as a country of coffee, “narcos,” and music; Brazil as the land of the Amazon, soccer, and carnival.

Valeria: It also occurs quite frequently that if a study is the result of a collaboration between scientists from developed and developing countries, journalists from the international media have a bias in identifying and making the co-authors visible. This means that co-authors from developed countries are cited in the news coverage, but the ones from developing countries aren’t. The institutions of developing countries that contributed funds to the research aren’t mentioned either.

Read more at The Open Notebook (English version) for the Spanish version click here

Videos and photos of some of the WCSJ2019 sessions are now available

This year at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ2019) in Lausanne, the sessions, workshops and luncheons were video recorded and are now available to view on YouTube.

Throughout WCSJ2019, photographers took hundreds of pictures of the sessions, networking and social events, workshops and the exhibition. The WCSJ2019 is happy to share these photographic memories of the conference with you. For the album, click here.

If you whant to discover what the WCSJ2019 Fellows tought about the conference, click here.

Grants provided to WFSJ members to attend the World Science Forum Budapest

Dear colleagues,

A number of grants are being provided to WFSJ members to attend the World Science Forum (Budapest, 20-23 November 2019), as follows :

  • 10 accommodation packages: They include hotel from 20-24 November, registration and media accreditation for the event as well as catering onsite.
  • 3 full travel grants for European-based journalists:  They include economy air-fare from a European airport, hotel from 20-24 November, registration and media accreditation for the event as well as catering onsite.
  • 2 full travel grants for journalists based outside Europe: They include economy air-fare from an airport outside Europe, hotel from 20-24 November, registration and media accreditation for the event as well as catering onsite.

Journalists receiving one of the above grants will be expected to attend the daily media briefings and cover the event through at least one article (print/electronic) or a broadcast.

This year’s World Science will address “Science, Ethics and Responsibility”. Speakers will discuss the most pressing issues related to the impacts of the new technological revolution on human life.  The Forum is a good opportunity for Journalists to meet scientists, policy-makers, members of Society as well as industry and NGO representatives. 

The World Science Forum ( https://worldscienceforum.org/ ) is co-organised by:

  • UNESCO
  • The International Science Council (ISC)
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
  • The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP)
  • The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)
  • The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC)
  • The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA).

Should you wish to apply for one of the above grants, please send an email headed «WFSJ/Budapest World Science Forum Competition» to cbourillon@wfsj.org , no later than Monday 7 October 2019, with the following:

  1. A copy of your CV.
  2. Do indicate which Grant you are applying for.
  3. Include a brief letter highlighting your interest in attending the WSF. Your application should include yourname, media, country, the name of your national member association, your e-mail address, your mobile telephone number.

Applications will be reviewed between 8-11 October 2019 by a committee with representatives from the WFSJ Office and from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Why do scientists still think we are stupid?

Written by Pallab Ghosh, Science Correspondent for the BBC News and Honorary President of the Association of British Science Writers.

The claim by the team at UCL about the habitability of a distant planet, K2-18b drew fierce criticism from rival astronomers over Twitter.  They claim that it is too hot, too great a pressure and too poisonous to support life. And they say that it’s us science journalists and press officers to blame for the way they allege has been misreported.

It was reported as “potentially habitable” by all mainstream media because that is what the UCL team said several times and are continuing to say in response to the criticisms. 

The lead author, the respected astronomer Prof Giovanna Tinetti told me in direct response to the criticisms:

‘’K2-18b cannot be classified as a mini-Neptune,” (as many critics were suggesting on Twitter. “It is more likely to be a planet with an interior of rock and ices. These types of planets, [are] sometimes called ‘ocean planets’.”

“Now, whether this planet really has an ocean at the surface or rock, we cannot tell with current observations, but having water in the atmosphere is a good start.”

She also asserted that habitability was a more complex issue than finding another Earth.

“The Earth really stands out in our own Solar System. It has oxygen, water and ozone. But if we find all that around a planet around a distant star we have to be cautious about saying that it supports life,” she said.

“This is why we need to understand not just a handful of planets in the galaxy but hundreds of them. And what we hope is that the habitable planets will stand out, that we will see a big difference between the planets that are habitable and the ones that are not.”

Many of the critics have blamed science journalists or the press officers who wrote the press release with a GIF of people bashing their heads with their hands in exasperation.

And there were plenty of suggestions in the Twitterstorm that science journalists had misunderstood or misrepresented what the UCL team had said.

But we have not misreported, we are not stupid and nor are we deliberately hyping things up to make our stories more interesting. Nor are the excellent people in the press office, who have accurately represented the view of their researchers.

As responsible science journalists  — which most of us are  — our job is to report what credible authors say as well as what is in their paper published in a respected peer reviewed journal. 

We also have to reflect the critical views of the community to the research- which we have done and also going back to the UCL team to ask them what they think about the points being raised.

One source who wished not to be named told me “if there are concerns about the composition of the planet and discussions about what constitutes ‘habitability’, it is best discussed in a scientific forum such as through papers and conferences and not mudslinging on Twitter.”

Astronomers hitting their heads with their hands about the state of science reporting is an easy reaction but possibly not the right reaction.

Perhaps a little more respect all round might be in order.