Finland’s Ambassador to London, Pekka Huhtaniemi, welcomed leading UK science journalists to his official Kensington residence on 23 April for a panel discussion and reception. It was arranged by the Technology Academy Finland and organisers of the the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) 2013, being held in Helsinki on 24-28 June.
The Ambassador described it as “an appetiser” to the main event at the University of Helsinki city centre campus in the summer. The conference agenda was outlined by WCSJ2013 President Satu Lipponen and World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) President Vesa Niinikangas.
The nature of the crisis
Then the London debate got underway with the first of four panelists, BBC News Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh, asking if the culture of critical science journalism could prevail. He said: “There is a crisis in science journalism, something that affects western nations more than emerging nations, where there all sorts of jobs in covering new science and technology. In North America, Australia, Canada, the UK and Euorpe, we are losing our jobs. It’s not so much a matter of losing jobs, the real risk is of losing our values because as we all know science journalism has changed. Our job isn’t to be the cheerleaders for science, it’s not to translate.
“As science becomes more important to society and policy making we’ve got a crucial role in asking the awkward questions. I refer to it as ‘kick-ass’ journalism. My motto for the World Federation would be ‘In God we trust, everyone else we check out.’ This critical questioning is important and what it needs more than anything else is experience. More and more the average pay of science journalism is decreasing. I’m one of the lucky ones, I’m paid a reasonable salary to be a full-time science journalist, but for everyone else it’s very hard.
“More than anything we’ve got to argue this filtering, this process, isn’t just about annoying the scientific community, it’s for society’s good that we ask the awkward questions.”
SciDev.Net Director Nick Perkins revealed the results of a survey of 1,000 science journalists in the developing world where, despite the crisis affecting other parts of the world and unhappiness about their own working conditions in many cases, there was optimism about science journalism, particularly in Latin America, the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.
“While there is an economic crisis and the big titles’ stock price has fallen over the last 10-15 years, it has placed challenges on formats and working conditions, where specialist briefs are often the first to go.
“I asked one African journalist what he felt was the biggest threat to his livelihood, and he said it was the difficulty of finding people to talk to. It was very difficult to get hold of policy makers, speak to researchers. In that context we have issues around freedom of information.
“The crisis also isn’t felt universally around the world. The growth in print media continues across large Asian markets like India and China and we have seen that research funding from private patrons has gone up and that has perpetrated a different kind of crisis around quality of journalism.
The ‘ethos of passion’
“There were also two quite specific notions of quality that came up. One of these we call the ‘ethos of training’ and this was about your ability to do quality journalism, check the facts, to understand how to work in different media, the principles of investigative journalism, was well-regarded and well acknowledged by many journalists around the world as very important. Then there was what we called the ‘ethos of passion’ which was about your education in science generally, your interest in the world, your commitment to the public good you associate journalism with and with science. Interestingly it was the ‘ethos of passion’ that was considered most important everywhere except Latin America.”
Connie St Louis, the President of the Association of British Science Writers, argued that money was a big problem “and we have to find a way of funding science journalism. Not only to find a way that more science journalists can make a living, but how we can do more investigative journalism. One of the biggest challenges for science journalism is the massive pressure of science communications. I teach journalism and I see this massive flow of jobs for science communicators and very few jobs for science journalists.
“We also need more momentum in terms of more investigative science journalism and more representation. We also need more mavericks like Brian Deer and Ivan Oransky who are producing some very fine journalism. I think we need morality both in journalism and science and we have just gone through a big hand-wringing in England about morality and ethics and I think we also need to be talking about that.
“Then there is the issue of newspapers, I’ve been looking at some of the stories in recent weeks and MMR keeps raising its head. All of which we should talk about in Helsinki.”
Introduced as the sole scientist on the panel, Jarl-Thure Eriksson, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Rector of Finland’s Tampere University of Technology (1997–2008), who is now Chairman of the International Selection Committee of the Millennium Technology Prize, asked how science journalism could communicate successfully to this generation and particularly the next, considering the accelerating pace of change, where “Our grandparents travelled into the 20th century in horses and carriages and 70 years later man walked on the moon.”
He added that with advances in technology for transmitting information to people, creating a demand for more of it, and with celebrity culture dominating so much of people’s time and the mass media, the challenge was “how to compete, how to get the science message through.”
Some of the challenges
He added: “There are two levels of journalism – the breakthrough news, telling what’s happened which we’ve had a lot of in the last year with things like Higgs Boson, DNA, the genome project and all that’s happening in astronomy. The risk of that is telling it too shallow, with too little substance, and that risks a new ignorance – you know but you don’t understand, you have a lot of knowledge and information and you can take part in competitions and give the right answer but still you don’t understand what’s behind and under the physical process, biological process, medical phenomena and so on. That’s the real challenge for science journalists.”
He talked about Technology Academy Finland’s Millennium Technology Prize being at the stage of seeking nominations.
From the floor, contributors commented on:
All agreed the London debate offered plenty of food for thought and provided an impetus to take these topics further in Helsinki in June. The evening ended with drinks and canapés at the Ambassador’s residence.
Text and photos courtesy of Technology Academy Finland.