World Federation of Science Journalists

New Student Science Journalism


May 20, 2009

Focus on environmental reporting

Here’s the deal for a student of science journalism who knows she’s going to be looking for work soon.

She’s been writing stories for her profs for two or three years. She’s onto the game. She’s doing well. But when she goes knocking on the doors of potential employers, they want to see work that’s been published or broadcast or been online. And she has little or nothing to show. Her stories went to her profs, and never saw the light of day.

And there’s another wrinkle. The student phones or e-mails a potential source at Mega Corporation or the Environment Department or the e-coli testing lab. He gets the brush-off because nobody takes him or his story seriously – because he’s “just a student” and the story is just for a class assignment.

Alison Binney, an Australian journalist transplanted to Germany, is hoping to change these equations with the launch of www.newsciencejournalism.net on World Environment Day, June 5.

 
www.newsciencejournalism.net
website preview

The website is planned as a free publishing space for students offering journalism about environmental science.

Binney runs a design and communication business in Freiburg and is simultaneously working toward a PhD in communication studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She plans to use the site as part of her academic project to assess the skills and interests of up-and-coming student journalists. And she’s coming to the World Conference of Science Journalists in London to explain it to anyone who will listen.

The project is intended to provide “a work-experience platform … in the science journalism career ladder” – a chance to publish student work online for all the world to see.

All the world? Well, a lot of it. Its main language will be English, but writers can submit in what Binney calls the “top 20” languages, covering Europe, South America and Asia.

And it won’t just be conventional, written news stories. On launch day, the project will be looking for photojournalism, cartoons and news illustrations, data visualizations and infographics as well.

Binney is focusing “firstly on environmental science,” to give students and readers the chance to “delve a bit deeper … [to] categorize and select their environmental science news.” If this model works, it will be used as a template for life sciences, she says.

Along the way, Binney will be looking closely (for academic purposes) at “styles of journalism and science reportage in Internet media.” She hopes the site will show “how … Internet media are handled by today’s media students.”

The project intends to sell ads and use the revenue to actually pay its student contributors.

Some well-wishers are skeptical. From Monterrey, Mexico, Horaçio Salazar writes that “‘payment’ is an illusion … even Carl Zimmer says there’s no money in blogging, yet. And if he can’t monetize his popularity, what would be the chances for newly hatched journalists writing about things Big Industry doesn’t want to hear.”

“Nevertheless, I think the project’s worth listening to. … I haven’t seen many initiatives in this field.”

Binney’s BA in Journalism was completed at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia in the ’90s followed by six years at Australia’s Northern Star daily newspaper. Then she shifted into graphic communication and web design.

Along her PhD path she’d like to assess – among other things – whether there’s interest in an online source of student-produced science news and “whether global online exposure is (or is becoming) more attractive for a budding science communicators than local or national media.”

And she’d like to know whether students have a restricted focus on “certain environmental and scientific topics. Is there a global trend toward a select few issues and scientific inquiries and if so, why?”

She’s curious about whether data visualization and infographics will outweigh conventional news articles from new online reporters. She notes reporting on this issue in “The Image of Science,” a WFSJ website story by Lucy Calderón in April.

Binney hopes her project will encourage new science journalists to consider whether a cartoon or illustration or some form of data visualization might work better online than a conventional news story.

And jobs. Do job opportunities increase if an applicant has proven exposure to such an international online environment? (Binney says “depending on the growth of the project, an online job portal is planned for down the line.”)

The head of a prominent Canadian university journalism department, Chris Waddell,
says, “Any time students can get outlets [for their stories] it’s usually good for the students.”

Waddell, who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, has some reservations though. “The problem is vetting. If a story has been through instructors and graded, OK.” If not, it could be sloppy, inaccurate or dangerous.

Binney is planning an automatic login procedure to ascertain the identity of the journalist and the type of story to be posted, but material will be essentially unedited. She’s counting on a Wikipedia-style readership response to flag weak or inaccurate stories, but Waddell says that might not be enough.

“I have to push my students to fully cite scientific papers, or other documents, and to identify so-called experts enough so the reader can assess their expertise. Unvetted stories might have similar gaps.”

Waddell still sounds encouraging. “We’re entering into a period where all kinds of people are going to be trying all kinds of things on the Internet. Some will be smart, some goofy. Some will turn out to be the next Facebook, and others will be something where everyone says, “Who’d want to do that?

“So, good luck to her.”