Thursday, 7 July 2011

Just back from the World Conference of Science Journalists

I have just returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha. Sadly the conference had to be moved from Cairo earlier this year because the revolution was literally exploding on the streets when conference centres, hotels and flights needed to be booked. But the spirit of the Arab Spring ran through the conference and it was exhilarating to be surrounded by people who had just changed the world. The Egyptian conference organizer, Nadia El-Awady, joined others at a plenary session to talk about the tension between their professional roles as objective reporters and their growing passion for the revolution. Nadia and Mohammed Yahia, the young Editor of Nature Middle East, who were part of the daily demonstrations in Tahrir Square described the exact moments when they each decided that they could no longer be neutral observers and must take sides.

Yahia closed the Conference with a plea to journalists in Egypt, Tunisia etc to fight to define a new form of free journalism. Echoing others he said the revolution was 'the easy part' and now science journalists must play their part in fighting for a new form of independent journalistic enquiry; "It can’t be the passive science journalism that was taking place in many of the state-run agencies. It needs to be more active – we need to push for more freedom."

These brave young science writers should make us all feel just a little less comfortable in our safe, easy lives as journalists and press officers and it frustrated me that more UK science journalists were not there to be inspired.

Restrictions on scientists speaking out

Talking of being slightly shamed, one of the themes of this conference for me was a growing tendency amongst western countries to prevent government funded scientists from speaking out. Editor of Research Fortnight Ehsan Masood cautioned early on in the conference about assuming that restrictions on free speech for scientists come only from authoritarian regimes. This point was graphically illustrated in the session on 'Secret Science' at which talks from Russia and China were followed by one from democratic Canada. Veteran science reporter Margaret Munro shocked the audience with the revelation that almost all the government environmental scientists she has relied on in in her 30 year career are now prevented from speaking directly to her under new government rules. Munro described the rapid rise of the 'wrong kind of press officer’ who see their job as controlling scientists and ‘corporate messaging'. The new restrictions have at least caused a stir in Canada and even made front page news. While there are no blanket rules restricting government scientists speaking out here in the UK there are some worrying signs. People still cite the now notorious sacking of Prof David Nutt, an independent government drugs adviser, but few have commented on the fact that more recently several government funded agencies with useful scientific expertise were told by government not to do media interviews throughout the Fukushima crisis.

Inaugural meeting of SMCs

The subject of restrictions on scientists speaking out became a hot topic at the first ever meeting of the rapidly growing collective of SMCs held to coincide with the conference. Present at the meeting were the established SMCs from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada, with Denmark due to open its doors soon. But we were also joined by representatives from possible new SMCs in Norway, Italy and China. While none of us have lived through a revolution, the sense of being on the brink of something new and exciting marked the meeting where we discussed the huge added value of being part of a truly international collaboration. Obviously there are threats as well as promise and probably the most important item on the agenda was the drafting of a Charter of Principles governing the establishment and running of SMCs. The challenge for the meeting was to get a Charter which does not restrict different national models of SMC while also ensuring that there are core values around independence that all SMCs must subscribe to to be part of the Collective. The first draft of the Charter should be ready soon and will be one of the first things to appear on the new international SMC website being created by our colleagues in New Zealand. By the way, any ideas for a name for the new Collective are welcome – perhaps the lack of easy access to alcohol in Doha can be blamed for the lack of inspiration so far!

SMCs challenged

The SMCs had a session in the main programme using the Fukushima crisis as a case study for the way we operate in different countries with very different media landscapes Given we were at a journalism conference we decided to invite a journalist onto the panel to critique the SMC model. BBC science reporter Pallab Ghosh had agreed but had to pull out at the last minute, so we got the wonderful Connie St Louis instead. Connie is Chair of the Association of British Science Writers and runs the new masters course in science journalism at City University. Connie took on her role as critic enthusiastically and told the audience that the SMCs are actively encouraging the trends towards lazy 'copy and paste' journalism, are becoming too powerful and are vulnerable to being hijacked by maverick scientists, campaigners and funders alike. Connie told us that she teaches her students to do real journalism - to 'dig out' original stories, ask the tough questions to mainstream scientists and to keep a distance between themselves and the scientists they report.

I was first to respond to Connie and said that I tended to agree with much of her characterization of the problems within journalism. I also conceded that by adapting great science to the needs of a media the SMCs can be seen as part of the problem. But I countered that we are Science Media Centres and not Journalism Media Centres. It is not our role to fix the problems of journalism but to ensure that a media under pressure is still able to report science well. The notion that if the world’s SMCs disappeared tomorrow all the science hacks would become 'diggers' rather than 'churners' really does credit us with way too much influence. It also misses the point that the SMCs have a wide variety of contacts with journalists and actually often help them to do the kind of original reporting that Connie and I so admire.

Many of Connie’s comments on that panel were echoed in her interview with Martin Robbins for his excellent blog post on the lack of original and investigative reporting which became a talking point at the conference. While I stand accused of denying the extent of the problems with science journalism I have always argued that there is a shocking lack of investigative reporting in science – a point that came out of my report for Government last year which recommended that the scientific community should fund a science strand at the new Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

However I baulk at the assumption that anything short of original investigations is 'not really journalism'. Running 2- 3 science press briefings a week puts me at very close quarters to the process of science reporting and the truth is that journalists do interrogate the scientists on SMC panels – so much so that we warn scientists to prepare for every claim they make to be pulled apart. They do use their years of specialist reporting to put studies in context and they often add comment and information even when the briefing has been about an extremely in depth and complex piece of science. The briefing I ran just before leaving for Doha was a case in point – ask the UEA and Cambridge authors of the paper on polypharmacy if they felt that journalists failed to challenge their claims during the hour long SMC press briefing and they would probably choke on their tea – I think Channel 4’s Tom Clarke alone asked about 4 times in different ways how the scientists could prove that the effects they saw were not caused by the illnesses themselves.

Both Connie and Martin would have enjoyed the WCSJ conference session on global health reporting with London’s very own Andrew Jack from the FT and Maria Cheng from AP, joined by American science journalist Jon Cohen and chaired by Martin Enserink from Science. Maria Cheng started by showing heart wrenching photos of African children – but only to warn us of the dangers of giving public health stories an easy ride. She also objected to the use of celebrities and hype around global public health and called for a higher standard of interrogation of some of the claims in this arena. Andrew Jack showed us a succession of FT stories – primarily exclusives – that had exposed problems and ultimately forced companies and governments to change policies and withdraw products. Jon described his role as a 'miner' and then showed how journalists can exploit the new openness of institutions like Gates Foundation and WHO to mine the figures and reveal inconsistencies. They also mocked some of what passes for investigative reporting on global health with Enserink lampooning a story that sought to blame Bill Gates for the worldwide obesity epidemic because he invested in McDonalds. Enserink also revealed his pet hate when newspaper articles open with 'We have learned that……' when all they have actually 'learned' is how to read a university press release. But there was no sign on any 'churnalists' on this panel and it was a refreshing reminder that we don’t have to look too far to find great reporters doing proper journalism

All in all, it was a great conference and a great opportunity for science journalists and those like me who care about their trade to reflect on our role and challenge ourselves. The next one is in Helsinki in 2 years. I am taking bets on how many new SMCs will be up and running by then, and hoping to persuade one or two more British science journalists that they would love this conference. Plus, I hear the Finns make excellent vodka…

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