World Federation of
Science Journalists

Science Media Centre could help non-science reporters out of a jam

March 16, 2009 posted in Sci.Journalism
In a world of shrinking newsrooms and newsroom budgets, science is often covered by political reporters, lifestyle reporters, or general assignment news and feature writers.

The results are sometimes good, but often not pretty at all. Those not-pretty stories can do public damage, and it’s not because the perpetrators don’t care. It’s because they have nowhere to turn for scientific expertise except Google, Wikipedia and the colleague at the next workstation.

Help is on the way for some. A group of Canadian scientists and journalists is planning a Science Media Centre to have backgrounders and experts on call whenever a science story breaks.

One of those planners is Peter Calamai, a science columnist for the Toronto Star, the country’s largest newspaper, and an adjunct professor of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. He says, “the whole premise of this is we’re going after general reporters. The Anne McIlroys [the science reporter at the nationally circulating Globe and Mail] of the world aren’t going to need us. And in any case, when expert reporters like McIlroy retire they aren’t being replaced any more.”

photo credits:, World Health Organization

Calamai cites a big Canadian story from December 2007 when a nuclear reactor producing medical isotopes was shut down as a safety precaution by the country’s nuclear safety regulator. At that point a cabinet minister threatened to fire the supposedly independent regulator, and after a noisy public row, she was fired by the Prime Minister himself.

“This whole episode drew entirely speculative and inaccurate reporting, among other things about a ‘meltdown.’ This reactor can’t have a meltdown. But the people reporting it were Parliamentary reporters who didn’t know the difference between alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Most of the reporting was dreadful.”

To bring help to those political reporters, and others thrown ill-prepared into a science story, the Science Media Centre is being planned by a committee headed by the communications vice president of the Centre’s parent organization, the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The planning group includes communications honchos from corporations, the media and universities, one research scientist and Jean-Marc Fleury, the executive director of WFSJ. A six-person advisory committee to the planners is all research scientists.

Calamai, who teaches science reporting as well as writing it, has a long list of horrible examples. One was a recent outbreak of listeriosis traced to a major meat-packing plant in Toronto. “In the bulk of the stories it wasn’t clear that listeria [the bacteria causing the disease] is all around us. If you walk down the street, you’ve got listeria on your shoes. The risk is getting it into something and allowing it to grow,” Calamai says, but that dimension of the story was largely ignored in the reporting.

“Stories on the ‘threat’ of radiation damage from cellphone towers are written by people who don’t know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation,” he says. “Most reporters are arts and social science graduates,” ill-equipped to ask questions about control studies or the influence of context on statistics.”

“The average reporter can be flim-flammed by any protest group or government spin doctor.”

Once the Science Media Centre is up and running, it would have staff – and bring in outsiders – to provide background, and “suggest the obvious angles” that should be covered in a breaking science story.

Top of mind among those planning the Centre is the very practical matter of “an introductory workshop on handling numbers and statistics.” Not free, but on “a cost-recovery basis,” it will be offered to media outlets and any group of reporters who request it. Follow-up workshops would provide tools for interpreting more complex scientific data, “especially where competing claims are being made.” The future could also hold courses on reporting scientific, medical and environmental topics.

If a story suddenly blows up, says it could respond within half an hour with contacts for key experts, URLs for reliable web-based information, pointers to YouTube sites or blogs of individual scientists. Also, “We plan to have concise, plain-language fact sheets already prepared for many hot topics or issued within 24 hours,” the website says.

When a significant science story breaks or is scheduled to unfold, the Centre plans media briefings with experts “streamed on the web in real time and archived online” along with teleconferencing, Skype, and videoconferencing from universities and research institutions across the country.

Similar science media back-up organizations are already operating in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The Canadian ground was prepared in part by a management consultant firm which surveyed a large sample of journalists, scientists and science research managers in approximately equal numbers. To no one’s surprise, almost everybody thought a Science Media Centre was a good idea.

The Centre will be the topic of a workshop and panel discussion at the Sixth World Conference of Science Journalists in London this summer. Reps from all four centres “will look at the nuts and bolts of setting up a centre and running it,” Calamai says.

Besides bolstering reporters, the Centre is also mulling “Journalism 101 for Scientists,” a course to help bridge the frustration gap from both sides of the divide, a “chance to really understand how the media thinks and operates, warts and all,” the website says.

And of course, “A desirable corollary would be ‘Science 101 for Journalists.’”

Science Media Centres


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