Some Optimism for the Future of Science Journalism

And especially for international collaboration

LONDON — Amidst the gloomy climate in American science journalism, leading British editors have a decidedly upbeat view about coverage. “I have an enormously sunny outlook for the future of science journalism,” said James Harding, editor of London’s The Times. “Science is absolutely essential to what we do.”

Harding said that last year he saw predictable spikes when the paper put coverage of Barack Obama and the banking crisis on the front page. But he was surprised when there was a “huge spike” of reader interest in response to stories about the opening of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest atom smasher, located at CERN outside Geneva in Switzerland. “It clearly engages our readers,” he said, adding that “science journalists are not going to be put out of business by Facebook and Twitter.” In fact, he said, The Times has expanded its science beats, adding a new ocean correspondent and math columnist, expanding its “science central” blog and planning a new science, engineering, and environment magazine.

A similarly sunny view came from Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering at the BBC, who said that “the future for science journalism is actually extremely positive.” She too was surprised by the public enthusiasm for the BBC online coverage of the Large Hadron Collider, which set a record four million hits: “There is clearly a huge audience.” (She did not mention, however, that the BBC recently announced it planned to cut two of its eight science and environment correspondents for budgetary reasons.)

Reflecting the current crisis atmosphere in American science writing, particularly at newspapers, New York Times science editor Laura Chang agreed that “there is a large audience for science” but “paradoxically we are sitting here under a cloud of anxiety about the survival of our species….I feel as if I’m running for my life.” Chang, who heads of one of the largest teams of science reporters and the leading weekly science section in the United States, said the biggest challenge was to broaden traditional science coverage and “meet readers wherever they happen to be,” both in medium (print, online, Twitter) and interest (such as a popular new health and running blog). “We want to engage the muscles as well as minds of readers.”

The three editors appeared on the closing morning of the four-day World Conference of Science Journalists, which attracted upwards of 950 science journalists and communicators from more than seventy countries. “It’s been a huge success,” said BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh. “We’ve grown from a club of idealists to an international professional body in a few short years.” He led the British group that hosted the large meeting here and is the outgoing president of the World Federation of Science Journalists. The federation has seen dramatic growth in a short period, with membership rising to forty science journalism groups in Asia, North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

The growth in international journalism, particularly in developing countries, has been particularly satisfying to the world federation’s executive director, Jean-Marc Fleury, a professor of science journalism at Laval University in Quebec, who launched an extensive $2 million outreach program to train and network African and Middle Eastern science writers. “Now 600 Arab and African journalists are connected through nine associations,” he said.

As part of that effort, the Arab Science Writers Association, now three years old and 180 members strong from seventeen countries, was paired two years ago with the venerable U.S. National Association of Science Writers, 75-years-old and 2,500 members strong. As a result of this international partnership, the two groups joined forces to propose that the next international science writers meeting be held in Cairo in April, 2011. The federation’s board this week reviewed four bids, including a well-financed effort from the Finnish science journalism association, as well as two proposals from sub-Saharan Africa, one from Kenya (Nairobi) and the other from Uganda (Kampala).

When Ghosh, with great fanfare, announced at a plenary session that the federation’s board had selected the joint Arab-American proposal, a great cheer arose from the audience, particularly from the contingent of Arab and U.S. science writers in the audience. A jubilant Nadia El-Awady, the Egyptian science journalist who organized the joint proposal and will become the federation’s new president, said afterward that “the most exciting thing is that it brings the conference to a new region of the world in terms of science and science journalism. The other thing is that we worked with the American science writers to organize this. That’s a completely new model. It will keep us in an international state of mind.”

“It’s the culmination of a partnership we’ve been working to build,” said Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor who has led the partnership from the American side. Blum, who is chairing the conference program committee, said that she was proud of the progress, adding that the Cairo conference “will have great benefits to our members and other journalists from around the world in learning and understanding science in a developing country.” (I will serve on the conference steering committee.) The last two federation conferences, held in Montreal, Canada and Melbourne, Australia, attracted 600-plus science writers. The Cairo planners are shooting for more than 1,000 attendees.

“We were disappointed,” said Patrick Luganda of Kampala, Uganda, an experienced science journalist and radio host who also chairs the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa. “Science journalism has grown quite a bit, not only in Uganda but in Africa in general. Science journalism has great relevance to people’s lives and is closely attached to development.”

Pirjo Koskinen of the Finnish Broadcasting Co. also expressed disappointment, adding, “I think we understand the decision. I think it is right it should go to a developing country. It’s very important for us to get to know Africa.”

Federation board member Valeria Roman, medical and science reporter at Clarín, the largest daily newspaper in Argentina, said that after attending the international meetings she and others were inspired to organize science journalists in her country. The Argentine Network of Science Journalism [Editor’s note: this article originally misidentified this group as the Argentinean Association of Science Journalism.] now numbers 110 members, and it is networking online and hosting meetings, included a recent workshop on tobacco control. She and four colleagues from print, radio and television were blogging together in Spanish about the London conference. “The participation of developing countries has been growing at these conferences, providing a new place to listen to the voices of journalists from our countries,” she said.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.