“When we first started partnering with Arab journalists, we were just trying to build bridges,” said Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who chaired the international conference committee for the Doha meeting. “It was in the midst of the Iraq War and there was a great deal of conflict between our cultures. We thought, we can do better than that. We built relationships and trust and eventually decided to partner to hold this conference in the Arab world.”
The hard work began after the seventy-five-year-old United States’ National Association of Science Writers, with more than 2,000 members, and five-year-old upstart, the Arab Science Journalists Association, with about 200 members, won the competitive bid to co-host the 2011 conference.
Although the World Conference of Science Journalists took place in Japan in 1992, Hungary in 1999, and Brazil in 2002, the most recent meetings, in Canada in 2004, Australia in 2007, and the United Kingdom in 2009, had a decidedly Western bent. This time, organizers sought to not only bring in more science writers from developing countries but to create a program that reflected the challenges they face in writing about science, health, and the environment and important regional issues such as climate change, sustainability, agriculture and medicine.
“It was a lot harder than I expected,” admitted Blum. “We were always on a learning curve…. asking what’s important in Ghana, what’s important in Pakistan, and making sure it was not just token representation.”
In the end, 195 speakers discussed a broad range of issues in science journalism around the globe. The attendees—from Nepal to Norway—and the program were remarkably diverse. Some 726 people attended, including staff and exhibitors, and 641 science writing delegates from Africa (21 percent); Arab countries (20 percent); Australasia (11 percent); Latin America (4 percent); Europe (27 percent); the U.S. (12 percent); and Canada (5 percent), said conference planner Sarah Willan. During the formal sessions, often in both English and Arabic (with headphones for simultaneous translation), and in the crowded conference hallways, the importance of science and reporting about it to the public about it were often intertwined in ways that went beyond traditional Western approaches to journalism.
In the opening session, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail, an Egypt-born professor at the California Institute of Technology (who has become an increasingly prominent figure in his native country since the revolution, with some calling on him to run for the presidency), stressed that the “Arab region needs you in terms of science reporting.” However, as many conference participants noted, that task is easier said than done: recruiting and training reporters to write about science, and scientists to talk more openly about their work, is a challenge in the Arab world and many developing countries.
Hala Al Khairy, a veteran medical and science reporter for Al Jazeera Arabic, noted in an interview that “the best journalists prefer to write politics or be in war zones. There is money and reputation there… In a large part of the developing world, we don’t see good science writing.”
Al Khairy said that for the most part, she is free to report as she sees fit, but must avoid cultural taboos of Islam involving sexual activity, such as discussion of combating HIV-AIDS with condoms or references to gays and lesbians. “We can’t talk about that,” said Al Khairy. (Indeed, at a post-conference workshop on science journalism in Cairo organized by the US embassy in Egypt, Ashraf Amin, the deputy head of the science department at El-Ahram, the country’s largest daily newspaper, talked about the difficulties in covering the subject. In an effort to break down those barriers, he was handing out a pamphlet he’d created in association with the Egyptian Anti-Stigma Forum called Letters from Egypt—HIV/AIDS: Testimonials of stigma and discrimination.)
Lebanon’s Raghida Haddad, executive editor of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia, one of the leading environment magazines in Arabic, said that “reliable sources of environment information are rare or hard to access, especially in the Arab world. Scientists are often not authorized to talk about research on health, medicine, the environment or other scientific issues.”