Egygtian science journalist Nadia El-Awady presented findings from an informal survey, which found growing numbers of Arab and African science journalists. For the past two years, El-Awady has been involved in an exchange program in which the U.S. National Association of Science Writers has partnered with the Arab Science Journalists Association as part of a larger mentoring program for African and Arab journalists organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists, of which the BBC’s Ghosh is president. The federation’s membership has grown to forty associations of science journalists worldwide. The changing fortunes of global science journalism will be amplified at the federation’s 6th World Conference of Science Journalists, to be held this year in London June 30 to July 2.
“I’m thrilled with the globalization of science journalism,” said New York science journalist Robin Lloyd, a senior editor for LiveScience.com and other Web sites. Like the international science correspondents, online science journalists like Lloyd and the prolific Ivan Oransky, who contributed to the 60-Second Science Blog and Twittered (hashtag: #aaas09) for Scientific American during the meeting, had a hopeful view that innovative, multimedia technologies will help create a better future for science journalism.
But the rapidly failing fortunes of the American print media, and specialty science reporting in particular, provided an underlying sense of gloom and doom at the annual science gathering. In what would normally be an exuberant ceremony, weak gallows humor repeatedly surfaced Saturday night at the Art Institute of Chicago, as the winners accepted their 2008 AAAS Science Journalism Awards, which are independently judged by respected U.S. science reporters. (The melancholy art of Edvard Munch on exhibit there seemed somehow appropriate.)
Veteran journalist Terry McDermott, winner of the “large paper” award, noted wryly that getting his hefty four-part series, into the Los Angeles Times had been a long struggle involving five top editors at the beleaguered paper. The series finally appeared in August 2007, but McDermott said he was fired in 2008 after being told he was a “luxury” the paper could not afford, because his in-depth projects took too long to complete. Kara Platoni, a younger reporter and winner of the “small paper” award, suffered a similar fate. She said she was laid off from the East Bay Express after her series, “In Search of Life,” appeared.
Nonetheless, the evening ended with a moment of cheer when the AAAS surprised my revered friend and colleague David Perlman, long-time science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, with an unannounced award for career science journalism. Long-term is an understatement, since Perlman, who recently turned 90, has been reporting since he started a mimeographed paper in junior high, worked on the college paper as a Columbia University student (B.A., 1939; Journalism M.A., 1940), and became a copyboy at the Chronicle before going off to war.
“Writing about science is the best thing you can do because you’re learning all the time,” said Perlman, who has traveled the globe from the Galapagos (1964) to Ethiopia (2005), writing about everything from evolution to astrophysics, and has no plans to retire.
Interestingly, in an interview I did with him recently for ScienceWriters, the quarterly publication of the National Association of Science Writers, Perlman said he thought the biggest science story on the horizon “would be the discovery of earth-like exoplanets with habitable zones and then the discovery of some kind of life on them.” Just the kind of story that has long been a staple for science writers at the AAAS meeting.