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					Under the
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By Nadine Böke                              this isn’t easy when you are working




O
                                            under constant time pressure.
           n the first day of the sixth           Murcott believes one way in
           world conference of science      which this priesthood model of
           journalists, held in June        science journalism can be toppled
in London, Wired magazine’s Ben             without too much effort is to report
Hammersley expressed the controver-         more on the process through which
sial opinion that there are simply too      science is produced and reviewed.
many science journalists.                   Also, Murcott asks for press officers
     Hammersley believes there will         at universities and research journals
be a process of natural selection in        to help journalists by providing them
the next few years, which only a few        with more background information
of the best science journalists will        and context on new findings than
survive. Other participants were            they do at the moment.
more optimistic, pointing out that                Probably having witnessed
even though journalism in general           some of the changes himself, Boyce
is in crisis, science journalism is still   Rensberger, who has been a science
extremely important.                        reporter for 32 years, writes about the
     But the future of science jour-        way science journalists have changed
nalism wasn’t just a hot topic at the       “from cheerleaders to watchdogs”
conference. Some leading scientific         during the past century. In the first
journals also joined in. A month be-        half of the 20th century science jour-
fore the conference, the journal Nature     nalists hailed everything scientists
Biotechnology reported on a workshop,       did. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, it
organised by the Health Law Centre          became clear that science and technol-
at the University of Alberta, on the        ogy also sometimes have adverse
future of science journalism, titled        effects and could be controversial,
“Science communication reconsid-            science reporting became increasingly
ered”, which was attended by leading        critical. Rensberger believes we are
science communicators from the              again facing changes in the role of
US, Britain, Canada, Germany and            science journalism. These are mostly
Australia.                                  due to digitalisation. It is, for instance,
     These experts drafted a list of        hard for the public to judge which of
eight recommendations, carried by           the numerous online sources are reli-
Nature Biotechnology, aimed at evolv-       able and which aren’t. So, if science
ing science communication, including        journalists are to regain relevance
a call for journalism schools to teach      to society, they should learn how to
students about science policy making,       master new media.
and the call for alternative funding              Nature also carries an opinion
(for example, by foundations, uni-          article by Nadia El-Awady, the newly
versities or governments) to ensure         elected president of the WFSJ, who
quality science journalism in a perish-     writes about science journalism in
ing media environment. (See http://         Arabic countries. In the past few dec-
tinyurl.com/8recommendations.)              ades, the Arab world has seen a vast
     The authors also see possibilities     growth in the amount of scientific re-
for science journalism in the form of       search being done as well as increased
web portals offering both profession-       interest in science.
ally produced content and user-gen-               Although science journalists have
erated content, thereby stimulating         gained a fairly stable position in Arab
public participation.                       countries, El-Awady also sees some
     In its June editorial on science       challenges. Quantity is not necessarily
journalism, Nature calls for scientists     the same as quality. Science journal-
and scientific institutions to help         ists are not always able to provide
proper science journalism survive.          critical coverage of claims made by
For example, through learning how           the institutions that pay them. Also,
to best talk to journalists; by helping     science journalists in the Arab world
them gain access to information; and        often have deep reverence for scien-
by helping them find the right people       tists or are working as a part-time
to comment on the subject they’re           scientist themselves. This can make
reporting on.                               it hard for them to maintain a critical
     Toby Murcott, a former science         perspective in their journalistic work.
correspondent for the BBC, argues in              El-Awady argues that we should
Nature that science journalists today       pay attention to these weaknesses; or
can be compared to priests. For the         the rise of science journalism in the
most part they just take information        Arab world may be the harbinger of
from a source of authority and com-         its downfall.
municate it to the congregation. But,             This is an edited version of an article
to best serve our audiences, we, as            which originally appeared on the World
science journalists, should also pro-          Federation of Science Journalists blog at
vide depth, context and criticism. But                                    www.wfsj.org


                                                                                            Rhodes Journalism Review 29, September 2009 59

				
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