We’re off on the road to Cairo

July 3, 2009

A hard act to follow.

Nadia el-Awady (centre), with the new board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, will welcome science writers to Cairo in 2011

Nadia el-Awady (centre), with the new board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, will welcome science writers to Cairo in 2011

That’s been the verdict on each of the last two world conferences of science journalists, held in Montreal and Melbourne in 2004 and 2007 respectively. And it was the same at the close of the London meeting, widely acclaimed to be the biggest and best so far.

With over 900 delegates – 200 more than in Melbourne – and a tightly packed, broad-ranging programme, many of whose highlights we have captured in this blog, the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists yet again underlined both the vitality of the profession, and its growing importance in acting as both a channel of communication between science and society, as well as a watchdog on the way that the relationship between the two develops.

One difference from the earlier meetings was the increased feeling of gloom about the prospects for traditional science journalism, particularly in the developed world. But there was plenty to celebrate elsewhere. It has been especially rewarding to watch the growth of science journalism in developing countries, and awareness of the profession’s role in meeting the challenges of development.

The meeting was not without its faults. The higher-than-anticipated number of delegates meant that many of the meetings took place in overcrowded rooms with frustrated — and often over-heated — delegates left outside in the corridors.

A significant amount of the debate remained at a somewhat superficial level. Science journalists – like many other professions – are much better at self-reflection than at self-criticism. A few more external voices from those who have carried out analytical studies of their work, not always complimentary, would have spiced up the proceedings.

Finally, as one of our blog entries below highlights, there is still some way to go in ensuring that the programme adequately reflects the global ambitions of the conference organisers. Despite gallant efforts to achieve this, much of the agenda remained dominated by northern participants and perspectives.

The next meeting, due to take place in Cairo in 2011, will be an excellent opportunity to correct these various faults (as well as other suggestions for improvement that the organisers say they would be delighted to receive). And there is every reason to believe that once again it will be a hard act to follow.

Cairo, here we come.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

Crossing enemy lines?

July 2, 2009

Credit: Flickr/oooh.oooh

In one of today’s lunchtime sessions at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists, Chris Whitty, head of research at the UK Department for International Development (DfID), said the point of research was not doing the research itself, but putting its findings to use. He emphasised that the media has a key role in facilitating the transition from one to the other.

This reflects an idea presented yesterday by Ugandan journalist Patrick Luganda that science journalists, if they do their job right, can provide a platform for informed decision-making and debate.

But creating such a platform means that reporters and researchers have to be fully engaged with each other and committed to getting the science out there.

Yet, more often that not there is, according to Whitty, “mutual antagonism, more often indifference”.

Why? It seems it all boils down to two simple excuses — from both sides: don’t want to; don’t know how to.

Journalists are reluctant because they think science is boring, irrelevant or just too complicated, or because they don’t know who to talk to. Researchers, on the other hand, don’t talk to reporters because they don’t know any, because they worry that their research will be oversimplified or misrepresented, or because they just don’t see communication as part of their job.

The answer, according to two DfID-funded projects in Africa presented at today’s meeting, is to get the two sides round a table to talk the issues through. For example, a discussion on language in one project in Zambia quite quickly led to a set of terms and definitions that journalists felt comfortable using in their stories, but which researchers felt still retained scientific meaning.

More difficult is determining where researchers’ responsibility in communicating science ends and journalists’ begins, said Alex Hyde from the TARGETS Health Research Consortium.

Indeed, as pointed out by TVE Asia Pacific’s Nalaka Gunawardene, some researchers have started bypassing journalists altogether and feeding their findings to policymakers more directly, using the plethora of tools available through new media.

Does that mean we’ll all soon be out of a job? Let’s hope not.

Sian Lewis, SciDev.Net

An AIDS vaccine — there’s still hope

July 2, 2009

syringe_Flickr_Nick Atkins PhotographyWill we ever have an AIDS vaccine? After numerous failed trials — including 2007’s infamous Merck trials — you could be forgiven for wondering whether HIV, the most complex human virus, is just too smart for us, with its constant, rapid mutation and ability to hide parts of itself from the immune system.

But hope is not lost, according to Wayne Koff, from the AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and University College London’s Robin Weiss. In the lunchtime session ‘An AIDS Vaccine: Mission Impossible?’ the researchers said that they have made a “significant amount of incremental advances” … but admitted that significant challenges remain.

Koff assured the session there are currently “about 30” vaccine candidates in clinical trials. Four of these are currently in efficacy trials, including a combination vaccine consisting of a shot of canarypox and a shot of protein vaccine.

And Weiss said that they have made big advances in identifying adjuvants, agents that stimulate the immune system and improve response to a vaccine.

But they don’t yet know how to elicit neutralising antibodies — an essential requirement of a successful vaccine.

Weiss said, “One can always use more money, but it’s the scientific and technical stumbling blocks that are the problem.”

They said that vital clues may lie in people who appear able to control or resist HIV infection.

Pressured in jest by Andrew Jack — pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times, who chaired the session — to give an estimate for “when?”, Weiss, who had earlier said “It’s not impossible but don’t pin me down for a date” reluctantly offered 20 years. Koff went with an infinitesimally better “less than 20”.

The results of the canarypox trial are expected at the end of this year. Will it go the way of Merck or will a new hope be born? In Koff’s words: “Wait and see … I wouldn’t want to take a crystal ball to it.”

A little bleak for a self-confessed optimist, perhaps? Still, maybe it’s better to hedge than hype in such matters.

Naomi  Antony

Finding a context for climate change

July 2, 2009
The panelists stressed the importance of climate change reporting

The panelists discussed the various issues climate change reporters need to consider

Climate change reporting is a real challenge for science journalists. There is a wide range of news angles to choose from — and it is often hard to find one that convinces editors.

A good strategy when covering stories about climate change is to not lose the “big picture”, said Andrew Revkin, environment reporter for the New York Times, at the session ‘Climate change coverage: The messy marriage of science, policy and politics’.

Revkin said that it is important to frame news, making the context clear.

There has been a steady increase in media coverage of climate change in the last 20 years, according to Maxwell Boykoff — a research fellow at Oxford University — who presented the results of a study at the session. But analysing the headlines and text of news stories, he found that there is sometimes no coherence between the two.

Richard Black, environment correspondent for BBC News, pointed out that when reporting on climate change a reporter has to face not only science, policy and politics but also business, education, culture and many other areas.

For example, explaining the mechanisms of the ‘carbon market’ is really complicated and incorporates a variety of areas. “You need to learn,” Black warned, “and if you are not sure about something, just don’t say it.”

Black said that climate change is undeniably a major environment issue. Desertification, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, decline of fisheries and growth of population are all related to climate change. But Black pointed out that media coverage about these phenomena is “pretty bad”.

A key when reporting is to link your story with your region, said Black, to “find the relevant element in your time and place,” he concluded.

I think that’s a really a big challenge!

Laura García, freelance contributor to SciDev.Net

Are Western embargoes stifling developing world science journalism?

July 2, 2009
As journalists in developing countries strive to meet strict Western embargoes are they missing research in their own countries? (Flickr/Garrett Crawford)

Do strict Western embargoes overshadow developing country research? (Flickr/Garrett Crawford)

Are embargoes — and their accompanying press releases — an innocuous tool that give journalists time for the best coverage or are they a manipulation of the media by the publishing and scientific establishments?

In a lively debate, Vincent Kiernan — associate dean at the United States’s Georgetown University — argued that while journalists are constantly distracted by a stream of news releases we don’t have the time to seek out other, possibly more important, stories.

And he reminded us that this becomes all the more important in the developing world, where under-resourced journalists could come to rely on Western news sources rather than digging around in their own backyards.

“As we foster development of our craft in other parts of the world, is the embargo addiction really something that we want journalists in developing nations to take up?” he asked.

“Unwittingly the embargo system exerts a kind of Western hegemony on developing nations. It incentivises their journalists to cover embargoed research from developed nations rather than research and science related news from their own countries. How does that behaviour foster the public interest in those nations?”

Watts seemed bemused that the issue of embargoes was even being given airtime, so little of a problem does he see it. “I don’t really regard this as a controversial issue,” he said. “My feeling is that the arguments made against embargoes are made on false claims and false perspectives.”

But perhaps we should remember that developing countries often have to look to the West for resources. And as science journalism is promoted in developing countries, practices that have become standard in the West don’t necessarily have to be transplanted — particularly if we can’t decide whether they’re any good.

Katherine Nightingale, SciDev.Net

There’s more to food than just security

July 2, 2009
Food safety in developing countries is an underreported yet crucial issue

Food safety as well as food security is a key issue in the developing world

The reporting of food issues in the developing world is stuck in a rut, according to Claudia Stein from the WHO’s department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases.

Journalists mostly cover food security when it comes to developing countries. Although it is often the highest priority, food safety is a huge issue and, if food is not safe, it can end up creating worse problems.

Foodborne diseases are “the diseases of the poor”, Stein told yesterday’s session ‘Food: The good, the bad and the misreported’. They are on the rise and the key problem is this: In vulnerable settings, food will never be thrown away. She cited the example of a maize sent as food aid to Mozambique that became contaminated with a fungus somewhere along the line.

Four of the Millennium Development Goals are affected by food — which shows how important this subject is to development practitioners. In impoverished settings, food storage and production practices are often inadequate which leads to food contamination, Stein said.

People with HIV/AIDS are more prone to developing severe illness from these diseases — both child mortality from diarrhoea and the infection of pregnant women is high.

Stein said that data from developing countries on foodborne diseases is scarce, which makes it difficult to estimate the scale of the problem. If development is to happen, she said, more attention must be paid to making sure not just food, but safe food, reaches the people that need it.

At the end of the year, SciDev.Net will launch a collection of articles on nutrition.

Carmen Fishwick, SciDev.Net

Finding the science in the midst of disaster

July 2, 2009
Science journalists who found themselves in the thick of disaster

Science journalists who found themselves in the thick of disaster

Has a science story ever moved you to tears?

A session in which three science journalists talked about how they reported in such a dramatic situation was certainly moving.

Nalaka Gunawardene, director of TVE Asia Pacific in Sri Lanka (and a SciDev.Net trustee) told the audience about his experience covering the tsunami of 2004. The phenomenon caused 40,000 deaths and 550,000 people lost their home.

“We had to explain the basic science but we couldn’t answer the big question: why now and to us?”, Gunawardene said. The challenge was to cover the humanitarian side of the story but also the substories with science elements, like how to prevent epidemics and DNA identification. After some days, journalists started asking why they were  not warned in advance.

Hujun Li, science and health writer of the Caijing Magazine, talked about the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when over 86,000 people died. There was an intense first week of reporting and in the second week more questions started to be asked.

For example, was the widespread collapse of schools, which killed so many children, a natural consequence or a human-caused disaster? The Chinese reporter also wondered about the ethics of disaster reporting: “Did we hurt the victims by asking them questions again and again?”

Richard Stone, correspondent for Science Magazine in Beijing, gave an amazing chronicle of his coverage of  the Wenchuan earthquake in China, which began with his disbelief that he would be able to find a science story amongst the rubble.

“The first days I was paralysed. There was a science angle out there?” he said.

But after contacting scientists and visiting the disaster area with them, he finally found a very interesting angle: there was a controversial possibility that a dam could have caused the earthquake.

All this highlights, as Tim Radford, former science editor of The Guardian newspaper in the UK and session chair said, the fact that science reporters have an important role in the reporting of disasters — they can keep the story alive. It is really important to keep going back to the disaster places a month, six months and even years after.

Laura García, freelance contributor to SciDev.Net

Reporting tomorrow’s story today

July 1, 2009
UN talks offer easy news hooks for climate change stories

UN talks offer easy news hooks for climate change stories

We (the editors I mean) are apparently to blame for the lack of media coverage on climate change. This is beginning to sound a bit like a broken record. Every session I’ve been to at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists has, in one way or another, bemoaned the fact that editors aren’t interested in stories about climate change (or science more generally) — because they’re not new or sexy, or are just plain boring.

Today’s session ‘A drought or a flood? Climate change reporting around the world’ was no exception. Paddy Coulter, from the University of Oxford, discussed his research on climate change journalism in China, Ghana and Norway, concluding that newspaper editors, especially those at business papers and tabloids, just don’t see climate change as a big story.

The problem, said Saleemul Huq from the IIED, is that “climate change is not an issue of now”. It is tomorrow’s story, or next year’s — but not today’s. Today, editors want stories that will wholeheartedly resonate with their readers, such as imminent changes in government or crashing markets.

So how to get editors to buy in to climate change coverage? Huq suggested that it’s essential to find a “news hook”. International climate talks, such as the UNFCCC Conference of Parties meetings are an easy example. And the negotiations planned in Copenhagen later this year, with all that’s riding on them to come up with a sequel to the Kyoto Protocol, are the biggest hook of all—even the most complacent editor is likely to take the bait.

But, as one delegate from the Thomson Foundation put it, “what happens after Copenhagen?” Huq said the key is to use local events to bring up related issues of climate change. For example, extreme weather events like cyclones or droughts. While any single event cannot be attributed to climate change, each one provides an opportunity to explain that such events are likely to become more frequent with climate change.

One delegate from The Guardian, suggested using technology (electric cars for example) or political tension, drama and scandal as effective news hooks.

Earlier today we heard some other tips for making climate stories appealing — both to editors and readers. “Humanise it”, was the advice from The Guardian’s Damien Harrington. IPCC chair, R.K. Pachauri agreed—“human stories have immense appeal”, he said.

The bottom line is that after Copenhagen journalists will have to become more imaginative in pitching stories about climate change.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net

Does the developing world need science media centres?

July 1, 2009
Science media centres help ensure that accurate science is promoted in the media

Science media centres seek to help ensure that accurate science is promoted in the media

Is it worth setting up science media centres (SMCs) in the developing world?

Science media centres seek to promote more informed science in the media. Patricia Scholtz, communications manager at the Academy of Science of South Africa, is hoping to establish such a centre in South Africa — potentially collaborating with Nigeria and Uganda.

Playing devil’s advocate, she asked the panel at the session “Different strokes for different science folk” whether, for developing countries with other priorities such as education, such centres would be a “luxury”.

Peter Calamai, a consultant at the Canada Foundation for Innovation, who chaired the discussion, doesn’t think so. “The way to get [developing] nations out of poverty is development; to have a public that is well-informed and engaged in science”.

But would developing world science media centres encroach on press officers? Kenyan delegate Juliette Mutheu said that press officers in her country had expressed concerns that such institutions would “take away their role”.

Several delegates at the WCSJ have lamented the state of press officers in the developing world. Christina Scott, SciDev.Net’s African news editor, pointed out that there are very few of them. In South Africa, she said, the quality of press releases could be improved.

Surely media centres would help, then? Fiona Fox, director of the UK’s Science Media Centre, thinks they would complement each other.

She said the role of SMCs is to “add value to existing institutions”.

“We need to listen to press officers and ask them what they want. It is a critical relationship”.

And Scholtz, a former journalist, believes that science journalists must be helped in any way possible to overcome the obstacles in getting science to the public.

She and her team have submitted proposals for the centre and are awaiting the results.

“It’s definitely worth trying,” Scholtz told SciDev.Net. “There’s a long road ahead but I’m very excited.”

Naomi Antony, SciDev.Net

Where has “the world” gone?

July 1, 2009
The WCSJ flag

The WCSJ flag

It was only Tuesday — the first day of the conference proper — and already there were murmurings that the World Conference of Science Journalists was missing the ‘world’.

In the ‘Great talent, but are they credible?’ session yesterday Alok Jha, science and environment correspondent for the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper, gave tips on how to make sure that, as journalists, we’re not taken in by the fraudulent claims of publicity-hungry charlatans.

His pointers included making sure you always read the scientific paper, speaking to trusted scientists in the same field for independent comment and asking the right questions to seek out the credible from the fraudsters. All laudable techniques which we should surely practice — and not outside the grasp of most science journalists in the West.

But Diran Onifade from the Nigerian Television Authority brought us back to down to Earth.

“Ignorance in the media also drives [fraudulent claims]. The journalists don’t know the right questions to ask. When a scientist comes along and says ‘I have discovered this’ do we have journalists around who understand the process of scientific discovery? Do we have journalists around who know research works?” he asked.

“That is key. Until that begins to happen in a lot of developing countries we are going to be having cranks making all kinds of claims. Capacity, capacity, capacity will be the issue in the developing world.”

That a delegate stood up in the questions session to thank Onifade for reminding us of the challenges faced by journalists in the developing world suggests that there is an appetite at the WCSJ for such global perspectives.

Is this appetite being sated? Other sessions yesterday, from a press briefing about global attitudes to evolution that was stubbornly UK-centric to a plenary session where philanthropists were almost stumped when questioned about how billionaires could support research in the developing world, suggested not.

Katherine Nightingale, SciDev.Net

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