SAN DIEGO—What a difference a year makes. The intense handwringing over the future of science journalism in the wake of job losses in traditional print media seems to be waning, as the focus in this transition era shifts toward how to do more with less, increase global coverage, launch innovative Internet content, and get back to the basics of reporting and good storytelling. But anxiety over the quality and content of science news and information on the Web and overseas, and underlying questions about what constitutes science journalism, percolated beneath the surface of the annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) here.
There is no question that there are fewer staff jobs, especially in print media, for science journalists in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries that have been hard-hit by the global economic crisis, including the United States, United Kingdom, other European countries, Canada, and Australia, said Pallab Ghosh, a veteran science reporter at BBC News in London. But he said that a recent U.K study on the state of the science journalism field there found no crisis, and instead saw a gradual shift to more use of new media.
In many developing countries around the world there is no similar job market shrinkage reported, but there is a tremendous need for journalism training, said Nadia El-Awady of the Arab Science Writers Association, based in Cairo, Egypt. At a session on “facing the uncertain future of international science journalism,” she said that a survey of science journalists working in Arab countries found no change in the number of journalists working at media organizations, and reports more space in print and broadcast outlets for science news. Similarly, science journalism is on the increase in India, according to a colleague who emailed El-Awady.
The real problem in international science journalism is that there are “only a few pockets of excellence in an ocean of mediocrity,” El-Awady said. “There is a real problem in the quality of journalism as a whole. It’s not just science journalists. This affects the quality of science reporting. Science journalists require more general journalism training so if they’ll be reporting on science, they’ll do it in a much more professional way.” Some new science journalists lack basic journalism skills and values, “or think they don’t apply to science reporting,” said El-Awady, who is also president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), which represents forty-one associations of science and technology journalists around the world. She is co-organizing the next international conference of science journalists, in Cairo in June 2011.
El-Awady announced at the AAAS meeting that the Federation is launching a second round of its mentoring project for science journalists, known as SjCOOP (Science journalism COOPeration), this time with a focus on training sixty journalists in the African and Arab world to cover health, environment, agriculture, science and technology, and another fifteen as trainers in science journalism. The WFSJ announcement said “the training will address issues that are common to the Africa and Middle East contexts, such as a short fall of competent journalists needed to cover scientific and technology issues, lack of interest from editors for science and research, and deeply entrenched scepticism of scientists and policy-makers towards the media.”
The lead donor for the proposed $4.3 million (Canadian) project is the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, with funding also promised by the International Development Research Centre of Canada, where the federation is based. The first round of the program resulted in the formation of more than a dozen new science beats, and mentees won forty-four science journalism awards, she said.
“This goes to show how training science journalists can really have an effect,” she said. “What we really need to focus on is how to improve the quality of our reporting, not necessarily the quantity.”
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Other speakers at the conference focused on the need for more high-quality, awe-inspiring science stories, while raising an eyebrow at the impact of digital media on journalism outlets. “A 400-year-old business model was destroyed in fifteen years by the delusion that quality contents come for free,” said Scientific American’s new editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina, quoting from a report (pdf) titled “The Sense of Crisis Among Science Journalists,” based on a survey which was conducted at the World Conference of Science Journalism in 2009. “That delusion only applies to things that people see as commodities. Are we producing commodity content?”