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Science journalism battles stereotypes

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Science journalism battles stereotypesFive days of harmony, presentations, and finger food. Hardly Woodstock 40 years on, but one of the most exciting and important conferences in years — the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists held in Melbourne recently. And the noise of the interaction, between Arabs and Americans, Africans and Chinese, Finns and Canadians, was deafening.

More than 600 delegates from over 50 countries — including the premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, the chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Ziggy Switkowski, noted immunologist, Sir Gustav Nossal, and one of the editors of Eureka Street — met on the verge of a momentous decade for science and the world.

While they discussed how to report climate change, emerging diseases, nuclear expansion, economic development, water restrictions, bushfires, the development and policing of the Web, drugs, war… only a few hundred metres away, the Victorian Parliament was debating stem cell legislation. It was also the week when Australia’s new research reactor was launched in Sydney and the nation’s first synchrotron was opened in Melbourne.

Most big stories these days have science and technology buried in them. Understanding science is often critical to understanding a story and to separating fact from spin.

Yet science traditionally has been treated like a poor cousin in Australian journalism. It loses out to 'real' stories of politics and economics in the serious broadsheets, magazines and current affairs programs, and to crime and celebrities in the tabloids and to infotainment on TV. At the conference itself several of the country’s most important news executives bluntly said as much. And delegates from emerging nations complained bitterly of the same attitudes in their countries. All this, despite the fact that market research continually shows that readers, listeners and viewers consistently rank science and medicine as two of the topics in which they are most interested.

There are two major reasons for the poor status of science in the media, and they are related. With some notable exceptions, Australia has lacked editors of sufficient background and knowledge of science to see its potential as a source of news stories. Most people at the top of our media organisations never studied science, and don’t really understand it.

Science journalism battles stereotypesThat means traditional stereotypes persist — boffins and nerds in lab coats, researchers who communicate in impenetrable language, and technocrats who talk endlessly about things which seem boring to the average punter. And these stereotypes remain unchallenged partly because of the lack of journalists who want to write about science and have the ability and necessary skills to bring topics alive for a general readership.

It’s a vicious circle. So long as editors consider science boring, journalists will recognise it is an area where they are unlikely to make a name for themselves and steer clear of it.

The visitors to Melbourne had a lot to teach us. In Japan, for instance, the Asahi Shimbun, a newspaper with more than 12 million readers, employs a staff of about 30 just to report science and the issues it raises. The New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times consider science important enough to support large and influential science sections. And the same is true of the top media organisations in Germany, France, Spain and the UK. (The 6th World Conference will be held in London.)

In the coming decade we face critical decisions about climate change and our use of energy and water; about stem cells, gene therapy and genetic testing; about minerals and waste disposal; about privacy and freedom of speech; and many other such issues.

If we don’t gain some understanding of the science behind these issues, we allow two unpalatable things to happen to us. We become frightened about and unprepared for the future, and we allow those who are better informed and have monetary or ideological agendas to hijack the debates where critical decisions are made.

We are already witnessing the consequences of the lack of public understanding of what science has to tell us. Parties and governments of all persuasions have been appallingly unprepared to face Australia’s lack of water resources — in the driest continent on earth. We have lost years of time coping with climate change. We have yet to come to terms with our new understanding of genetics. We seem to be unable to keep up with the legal and infrastructure demands of telecommunications.

But, as the scientists who have been preparing the latest climate change reports have learned, calling politicians and leaders to account means doing your homework — and allowing them little wriggle room. You have to get your story right and then put it in terms everyone can understand.

That’s where science journalists come in. And it’s why the meeting in Melbourne was so important. Science journalists have become crucial to our society. They are the translators who can provide the information to guide our future.

Tim Thwaites was co-chair of the program committee for the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists.



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Having read this article and noticed there are not yet any comments I feel compelled to write that there is at least one other person who agrees with you and wholeheartedly so.

Eleonora | 18 May 2007  

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