The importance of science journalism has been increasingly obvious during the pandemic. We talked to Milica Momčilović, president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, about the status of science journalism today. She also spoke about science journalism in a webinar on trending topics in media literacy organized within the SEENPM members’ “Media for Citizens – Citizens for Media” project in the Western Balkans.
“Science is the only news. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.” – Stewart Brand
What is science journalism and why is it important?
Science journalism conveys reporting about science to the public. The aim of a science journalist is to give very detailed, specific, and often jargon-laden scientific information into a form that general public can understand and appreciate while still communicating it accurately. But it all starts with curiosity about science and an interest in the craft of journalism. And despite these obvious affiliations with science, most of science journalists take the traditional watchdog role seriously.
Scientific research, new technologies, environment and
climate change, etc… these aren’t just science stories. They play a major role
in key political, economic, cultural and social policy discussions, as well as
in public dialogue. Science issues are especially important to cover nowadays.
What paths to becoming a science journalist are available to reporters in the Western Balkans?
Many science journalists are drawn to the field by their own passion for science and increasingly are informed by their own education and experience in science. Science journalists often have training in the scientific disciplines that they cover. However, good preparation for interviews and even deceptively simple questions such as “What does this mean to the people on the street?” can often help a science journalist develop material that is useful for the intended audience. It’s simple – if you don’t understand something, it’s likely the general public won’t either.
Science journalists face an increasing need to convey factually correct information through storytelling techniques in order to tap both into the rational and emotional side of their audiences, the latter of which to some extent ensuring that the information uptake persists.
Nowadays they are finding new ways to train, learn from, and collaborate with others mostly through the World Federation of Science Journalists, a multinational organization dedicated to improving the calibre of science journalism through a wide variety of activities — from workshops to conferences to mentorship programmes — with partners that include universities, governments, and NGOs and local or regional associations such as the Balkan Network of Science Journalists, a group of professionals from Balkan countries.
More specifically, it provides professional development opportunities in the form of on-line courses and live workshops that enable senior journalists to share their experiences and skills. Working alone as individuals, together as self-organized groups, and through their professional societies, science journalists have shored up traditions, linked generations, funded reporting projects and awards, and recreated the community of practice once inherent in newsroom culture. But the most important thing is to simply be open to learning all the time.
How can newsrooms quickly improve their reporting on issues related to scientific enquiry while at the same time enabling top reporters to specialize in science journalism? Any examples of good practice in the region or beyond?
Science journalists today live with a central irony: they have helped usher in a golden age in their field—and it might not be enough to save the field, their own careers, or the place of verifiable information in society. They now compete with a vastly expanding universe of poorly executed journalism, irresponsible click-bait content, and intentional misinformation that are undermining trust in and financial support for legitimate science journalism.
When news media are analyzed, emphasis is often placed on how news is reported and not on what news is reported. The selection of news is fundamental because that is how the media directs the public opinion of what is “important”. Issues become “principal” by attracting attention via the mass media, not because they are intrinsically more relevant in terms of the advancement of science or social applications.
In spite of the collapse of traditional career ladders in journalism and the on-the-job training that went with them, a new generation of science journalists is taking on the challenges of learning both traditional journalism practice and the ever-expanding slate of digital media, distribution platforms, and reporting techniques that characterize the field today. The reporting of science news via the mass media is anything but easy, but it is becoming increasingly important. And since most public knowledge is derived from the mass media, it is easy to see why the general public tends to be poorly informed about scientific issues.
It is easy to see that many factors can affect decision-making in the newsrooms. Every section editor tends to assign a value to certain types of news, and the experience and specialization of the reporters also play a role in what is selected. Another important factor is what other news sources are paying attention too. This has a global effect, and explains why media portals from different countries and cultures around the world tend to publish similar news items. In that sense there is no simple solution for general improvement in the newsrooms. But there should be more science stories published daily and a permanent position for science editors as well as science journalists in the newsrooms on global level.
Examples of good practice in the region: from Bosnia and Hercegovina Quantum of Science by Jelena Kalinic, science journalists who reports for VOA; from Croatia Tanja Rudež works as a science journalist for Jutranji list and Nenad Jarić Dauenhauer, science journalist who has been reporting on science, technology, medicine and connected policies for theindex.hr; from Montenegro Ana Komatina, science journalist who has been covering health for Vjesti. Beyond the Balkans, in USA there is Carl Zimmer, a popular science writer, columnist, and journalist who specializes in the topics of evolution, parasites, and heredity. He contributes science essays to publications such as The New York Times; alsoHelen Branswell, a senior writer at STAT covering infectious diseases and global health. She was the recipient of the 2020 George Polk Award in the public service category for her coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. From Europe, Kai Kupferschmidt a contributing correspondent for Science magazine based in Berlin, Germany. He writes about infectious diseases as well as food science, nutrition, evolution and science policy.