Science journalists – Critical, credible questioning?

Finland recently hosted the World Science Journalists’ Conference. About 800 delegates from 77 countries converged on the University of Helsinki for this biennial event, which was hosted by the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists.

The wide range of countries represented meant that a broad range of experiences was brought to the conference, which was held from 24-28 June.

Papers and panel sessions extended beyond climate change and loss of biodiversity to include sessions on ethics, anti-science, science journalism in past and present totalitarian societies, science’s growing credibility problem and science journalism skills.

One packed session looked at the development of science media centres. Are they “independent, non-profit services for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science, or have they instead become formidable PR agencies for science, making it more difficult for science journalists to investigate science and keep scientists accountable?” The panellists provided pro- and anti-stances.

Another session considered the credibility of science and science journalism. “From ‘the top 10 foods to bust belly fat’ to ‘asteroid hurtling towards earth’, many news stories about science or health contain factual errors.

“In many newsrooms across many countries, health and science reporters have been cut from staffs and the accuracy, balance and completeness of reporting has suffered...Findings in fields from climate change to vaccines can also be deceptively cherry-picked in service of a political cause.”

Elsewhere, it was reported that “climate scepticism is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, found most frequently in US and British newspapers”.

These are certainly important contemporary themes, particularly in the light of reports of government-instigated science censorship in Canada, covered last week in University World News: “The Canadian government has overhauled science communication policies in a bid to silence any evidence that might go against its economic agenda.”

There have also been suggestions of reports of science 'lite' being served up in Australia, with right-of-centre editors and proprietors preferring versions of science that suit political and resources industry agendas. Not to mention experienced science journalists being sacked!

The conference enjoyed high-level support from the Finnish government, with the Ministry of Education and Culture providing financial support to conference organisers, and maintaining a booth throughout the event.

Ministry representative Dr Eeva Kaunismaa explained that it was important to support those responsible for disseminating scientific research to a worldwide audience. The ever-modest Finns rarely blow their own trumpet. It took years before the world learned of Finland’s superlative school education system.

The organising committee’s final conference statement neatly summarised the importance of science journalism:

“Science journalists have a unique role to play in examining scientific evidence and communicating changing science and its implications for society at large. Different audiences and the general public as a whole need high quality, independent science journalism that thoughtfully analyses research and puts it into the larger societal perspective...

“Critical questioning and integrity is intrinsic to science journalism...Science journalists should strive to communicate the perspectives of crucial stakeholders without compromising journalistic independence.”

The social programme was typically Finnish, with delegates invited to play Finnish baseball (pesäpallo), dance outdoors in the evening sun, and visit an off-duty ice breaker. The closing barbeque dinner was held at Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre. A good time was had by all.

The next conference is to be held in South Korea in 2015.

* Dr Ian R Dobson, a co-resident of Finland and Australia, is affiliated with the University of Helsinki’s Higher Education Governance, Organisation and Management unit, and is an honorary research fellow at the University of Ballarat in Australia.