World Federation of
Science Journalists

Science Journalism: Good and Bad News

March 23, 2009 posted in Sci.Journalism
The worldwide status of science journalism is a mixture of good and bad news. While a recent Nature article focuses on the decline of science journalism in Europe and North America, science journalism is making headways in Africa, in the Arab World, in Asia and in Latin America.

Below is some complementary information on the World, outside Europe and North America, from members of the Board of the World Federation of Science Journalists. Several of them were interviewed for the Nature article, but their comments were not included.

WFSJ presents the viewpoints of key world actors in science journalism, below. We hope that Nature will do a follow-up article on the whole world.

Half-full or half-empty?


AFRICA

Diran Onifade, President, Federation of African Science Journalists and Vice-President of the World Federation of Science Journalists

“If we are talking about science journalism in the context of a world of diverse time zones, it may indeed be dusk in the western hemisphere. But in Africa, it’s just the dawn of a promising day.”

“In 2001, says Diran Onifade, organizers of a scientific conference on HIV/AIDS in West Africa held in Nigeria had hoped to draw journalist from the sub-region. They asked us in Nigeria for help to reach our colleagues in other countries but even we didn’t know who to call as, strictly speaking, there were no science journalists that we knew of, no associations, no network and we had no proof that people even understood what science journalism was.

“As of today however, African journalists now write for western media such as Nature online and SciDev.net as well as make programmes good enough for the BBC to transmit. We have a formidable continent-wide network and have been collaborating on transborders stories. There are now journalists equipped with the how-to of science journalism who are also influencing editorial directions in favour of science journalism. Some have affected public policy. That’s not my own understanding of decline.

“We may not be able to bandy the figures just yet but we will get there at some point. For any diligent reporter, there are evidences such as those I cited earlier. And there are living witnesses too - WE!”

LATIN AMERICA

Valeria Roman, Science Journalist, Clarín newspaper (Buenos Aires) and member of the Board of the World Federation of Science Journalists

“The science journalism in Latin America is emerging. During the past three decades, there were some individuals trying to work in the field. They worked isolated. During past years, there were more opportunities to get training. So, there is a new generation of science journalists. Some of them can work as full time science journalists. Or there are people who work for media or for universities at the same time. There are also several LA science blogs by journalists, not by scientists. The mass media editors and directors in LA are appreciating more science and health news now than 10 years ago. Also, the scientists are recognizing more the role of science journalists.

“Of course, the current global crisis is affecting science journalism in LA. But we should remember developing countries have been always facing chronic crisis. Maybe, this global one is a good opportunity for developed countries to go out from their own problems and help to build an equal and sustainable world for everybody.”

CHINA

Jia Hepeng, Editor of a recently launched Science News Bi-weekly magazine in China, China Correspondent for SciDev.net and member of the Board of the World Federation of Science Journalists

Basically, science journalism in China was not in a satisfactory status in recent 10 years, with main media reducing science pages, former science journalists changing their focus and focused S&T media (China has more than 30 S&T dailies and a couple of new science popularisation magazines) threatened by the market, but in the past two years, things have been improving apparently.

The key improvements are below:
  1. Science journalists' networking and capacity-building have been greatly strengthened. There are at least 20 workshops nationwide on topics like reporting climate change, treating GM crops rationally and disaster reporting, mainly for science journalists. The networking, through China Science Reporting Network, is improving.
  2. Many new media, especially magazines, appear in the field. Some have quite good market revenues. While most magazines are science popularisation ones (namely, done by science writers rather than journalists) and often based on translated versions of world's popular ones such as Scientific American and Popular Science and Focus (a German magazine) , more sought reporting styles, which can better reflect local demands. Among them, Science News Bi-weekly is the most recent one and has formed a stable team of up to 10 professional science journalists. While serving science community (those doing science and formerly doing so), Science News Bi-weekly has created more readable sources from scientists to the public and engage more and more scientists to deal with public affairs. For example, we investigated a village with extremely high cancer occurrence and then collected the environmental samples to call for free testing by scientists, and there are several labs offering free help. Some of the professional science journalists in the magazine are the first batch of science journalists who have a PhD in science. Although far from commercially successful, the magazine, and science journalism as a whole, has been stepping out of the marginalised situation.
  3. Another striking feature, like the Nature article has revealed, is the formation of a group of professional science writers (if interview is a key to judge whether to be journalists, they are not) through a collective blogging site -- songshu.net. Many of the group of writers have natural sciences PhDs and have vivid styles of writing, so that their articles now supplies not only science media, but many fashion media, such as a column called Science in Kitchen, and another called Science in the cosmetics. The informal group has a name called Squirrel Team, meaning to break the hard shell of science.

I call the above as a great progress because jointly, these changes mean science journalism (in a wider sense, not certainly reporters) goes to those who need it, rather than works for propagandising the government's science achievements. The popular science magazines go to young white-collars who love science while my science news bi-weekly goes to scientists. In case of Melamine scandal which polluted food intentionally, there are huge science reporting, covering various aspects of the case, from the poor testing methodology (my magazine for professionals) to the chains of scandals (popular media) and to the polluting history of melamine (popular science media).

Still there are big challenges. Market and the reluctance of scientists are among them. But things are improving and we are confident on it.

ARAB WORLD

Nadia El-Awady, Science Journalist, Past president of Arab Science Journalists Association, and Treasurer of the World Federation of Science Journalists

In Chicago, on 15th February 2009, within the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Ms. El-Awady, presented the results of a survey amongst science journalists in Africa and in the Arab World.

Ms. El-Awady found that during the past five years, space allocated to science coverage increased in 14 of the media that responded, decreased in 3 (Al-Ahram, Cameroon Radio and TV, New Nigerian Newspapers), and did not change in 3.

Over the same period, the number of specialized science journalists increased in 4 media (Grand Lacs Hebdo, News Agency of Nigeria, IslamOnline, Egypt radio), decreased in 2 (New Nigerian Newspapers, Cameroon radio and TV), and did not change in 13. The number of freelance science journalists contributing to media organizations surveyed increased in 2 , (Grand Lacs Hebdo, IslamOnline), decreased in 4 (Al-Ahram, Al-Masry Al-Yowm, Al-Manarah TV, New Nigerian Newspapers), and did not change in 12; while 11 freelance science journalists said that opportunities increased compared to 3 who said they had less opportunities to place stories.

The full presentation is available online: Science Journalism in the Arab World and Africa: How Do We Compare?

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