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Scientific culture

Elusive readers

Attracting the attention of the public is the big challenge for the satisfied journalists who specialize in science

 

CATARINA BESSELL

Two Brazilian studies about scientific news, cited first hand at the World Conference on Scientific Journalism 2011, in Doha, Qatar, at the end of June, when superimposed on each other indicate a curiously disconnected overview for this area in Brazil: if on the one hand journalists specializing in science reveal a high degree of satisfaction with their work, on the other, a high proportion of a representative sample of the city of São Paulo’s population (76%) admitted that they never read scientific news in the newspapers, magazines or on the internet. What is even more surprising is that out of the universe of respondents interviewed in the State of São Paulo in this second survey, 52.5% stated that they had a “lot of admiration” for journalists and 49.2%, for scientists, though few of them read the news written by the first group regarding the work of the second group. This figure, along with others in the studies, raises a lot of questions for scholars of national scientific culture. Just for openers, does the professional satisfaction of journalists who specialize in science depend upon them reaching their targets with their output, in other words, the readers, the viewers, the listeners or, in more general terms, the public?

The World Conference, transferred at the last minute from Cairo to Doha, on account of the political upheavals which started in Cairo in January, brought together 726 journalists from 81 countries, who, over a period of four days, debated a whole range of topics, from the central concept of scientific journalism, the various ways of performing this activity and the associated difficulties, to the numerous problems of organizing these professionals in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and Latin America, both in the most democratic countries as well as in the most authoritarian ones. One question present in all these debates was the idea that scientific journalism does not entail translating scientific information for the public – but rather, effective ways of narrating in journalistic language that part of scientific output that can be classified as interesting news for society. The next World Conference will be held in Finland, in 2013.

Presented by one of FAPESP’s representatives at the conference, the study that brought to light the worrying level of disinterest in science-related news is called “Public perception of science and technology in the State of São Paulo“. It is the twelfth chapter of Indicadores de ciência, tecnologia e inovação em São Paulo – 2010 [Indicators of science, technology and innovation in São Paulo – 2010], published by FAPESP in August of this year. Drawn up by a team from the Laboratory of Advanced Journalism Studies at the State University of Campinas (Labjor-Unicamp) under the coordination of its director, the linguist Carlos Vogt, in empirical terms the study was based on a questionnaire made up of 44 questions applied to 1,076 people in the city of São Paulo and to a further 749 individuals in the interior of the state and in its coastal region, in 2007. Therefore, a total of 1,825 people were interviewed in 35 municipalities, spread throughout 15 administrative regions (RAs).

It should be stressed that this was the second direct survey carried out by Labjor on a sample of the population regarding their perception of science, and that both of these surveys were part of an Ibero-American effort aimed at constructing indicators capable of reflecting scientific culture in the region. The first poll, conducted between 2002 and 2003, included samples from the cities of Campinas, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, in addition to Salamanca and Valladolid, in Spain, and its results were presented in Indicadores de C, T&I em São Paulo – 2004 [Indicators of science, technology and innovation in São Paulo – 2004], also published by FAPESP. Meanwhile in 2007, using a more refined methodology and a larger sample, the survey covered a total of seven countries. In addition to Brazil, there was Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Panama and Spain. The questionnaire had a common core of 39 questions, each region being free to develop additional questions at its own criteria.

028-031_JornalismoCientifico_188-1The other Brazilian study that was presented in Doha was “Scientific journalism in Latin America: learning more about the journalists in the region who specialize in science” and, strictly speaking, is still in progress. The preliminary results presented were based on the answers to a questionnaire consisting of 44 questions, developed by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE),  which had been sent up to June 21st. But at this point, more than 250 journalists have completed the questionnaire, including approximately 80 Brazilians, according to the coordinator of the study, the journalist Luisa Massarani, director of the Rede Ibero-americana de Monitoramento e Capacitação em Jornalismo Científico (Ibero-American Network for Monitoring and Training in the field of Science Related Journalism) and the institution responsible for the study, in conjunction with the LSE. The survey is also supported by scientific journalism associations and other institutions are connected with the area of scientific news in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela.

The objective of this study, as its title indicates, was to find out how many journalists are involved in the systematic coverage of this area in Latin America, who they are and what view they have of science. “We have no idea about this; we don’t even know how many journalists there are in Brazil who specialize in science, and whether or not they are representative within the category,” says Luisa Massarani, who is also a director of the Museu da Vida da Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (of the Osvaldo Cruz Foundation’s Life Museum) and coordinator for Latin America of the Rede de Ciência e Desenvolvimento (Science and Development Network) – SciDev.Net. She points out that up until a recently, “the Brazilian Association of Scientific Journalism (ABJC), based on its member records, put this figure at around 500, but actually this included scientists and other professionals who were interested in getting scientific news published.” Incidentally, next month the ABJC will begin the work of re-registering its members, together with a call for new members, which might help with this census of journalists in Brazil who specialize in science.

Belief in science
With 46 graphs and 55 annexed tables that can be cross-referenced according to the specific interests of each researcher, the survey of the perception of science which is financed by FAPESP and coordinated by Vogt allows an infinite number of conclusions and new hypotheses about how society absorbs science through the media or how the various social and economic classes in the State of São Paulo react to exposure to science-related news. For the coordinator himself, one of the items among the survey’s results that caught the most attention was the inverse relationship that can be drawn between a belief in science and information about science. “The axiom would be that the more information you have, the less belief there is in science,” he says. Therefore, if one looks at the graph in relation to the degree of consumption of scientific information that people admit to versus their attitude regarding the risks and benefits of science (see graph 12.11), one can see that 57% of the respondents who declared a high consumption of scientific information believe that science and technology can offer many risks and many benefits at the same time, whereas 6.3% are of the opinion that it can bring many risks and little in the way of benefits.

CATARINA BESSELL

Among those who declared a zero consumption of scientific information, 42.9% believe that science and technology can offer many risks and many benefits at the same time and 25.5% are of the opinion that it can bring many risks and little in the way of benefits. “In other words, the percentage of those who feel that science offers risks and benefits at the same time is higher among those who are well-informed,” stresses Vogt, who was FAPESP’s president from 2002 to 2007, and who is currently the coordinator of the State of São Paulo Virtual University (Univesp), indicating that this would be a realistic view. It can be observed that the degree of pessimism is much higher among those who declared a zero consumption of scientific information: 8.1% of them said that science does not bring any risks or any benefits, while this percentage drops to a figure of 5.8% among those who declared a low consumption, to 2.3% among those who put themselves in the low average consumption bracket, to 0.7% in the high average bracket and to a figure of zero percent among those who state that they consume a high level of scientific information.

In the part of the study regarding general interest in Science & Technology, one’s attention is drawn to the way that, out of 10 topics usually covered by the media, this item is positioned mid-way by the respondents, in fifth place, below sport and above cinema, art and culture. However, while in the case of sport 30.5% stated that they were very interested and 34.9%, interested, in the case of science and technology 16.3% are very interested and 47.1% are interested, in other words the intensity of interest is lower. It is also worth noting how the different levels of interest in Science & Technology in São Paulo are similar to those observed in Madrid, but very different from those seen in Bogota. Thus, 15.4% of the respondents in São Paulo and 16.7% of those in Madrid declared themselves to be very interested in science and technology; in the “interested” category, the respective percentages were 49.6% and 52.7%; in the “not very interested” category, the respective percentages were 25.5% and 24.8%, while for the “not at all interested” category, the respective percentages were 9.4% and 5.9%. Meanwhile, in the case of Bogota, no less than 47.5% declared themselves to be “very interested” in science and technology. Why this is so, nobody knows. Those who were “interested” added up to 33.2%, “not very interested”, 15.3% and “not at all interested”, 4%.

There is not much difference in the level of interest by age. Both the young and the old are distributed democratically across the various levels considered. As for the educational level, you get exactly the opposite result: among those who are “very interested” in science and technology, 21.9% have degrees and post-graduate degrees, 53.9% have completed high school, 21.5%, have completed basic education, 1.7%, infant education and 1% have had no education at all. While in the “not at all interested” category 1.2% have degrees and post-graduate degrees, 26.3% have completed high school, 47.4% have completed basic education, 8.8% infant education and 16.4% have had no education at all.

Well aware of all the conclusions that the tabulated and interpreted results of the questionnaires indicate, Vogt stresses that the majority of the population does not read scientific news, but that it is exposed to the information that circulates about science in a more or less passive way. “For example, every time that Jornal Nacional or Globo Repórter [TV news programs] talks about a functional food, almost the whole of Brazilian society starts to talk about it during the next few days,” he says. He is of the opinion that media surveys and surveys of the frequency of science-related news in the press can provide indicative parameters for studies that can complement what has already been constructed regarding the public perception of science.

028-031_JornalismoCientifico_188-2Satisfied professionals
Luisa Massarani observes that nowadays there have been advances in audience studies in many fields, particularly for Brazil’s soap operas, but that in the area of scientific journalism there are no studies yet that can indicate what happens in terms of perception when people hear and see an item of news about this subject on Jornal Nacional. “Do people really understand it? Does the information provoke distrust? We simply don’t know.” Either way, the big question that is still unanswered in her opinion is what exactly scientific journalism is, both in terms of output as well as in terms of reception.

For the time being, the study that she is coordinating has managed to identify that women make up the majority of journalists who specialize in science in Latin America, with 61% versus 39% in the case of men, and that it is a specialty for the young: almost 30% of the sample are aged between 31 and 40, while a further 23% are aged between 21 and 30. This last figure is corroborated by the fact that 39% of the respondents have been working for less than 5 years in the area of scientific journalism, and that a further 23% have been working in the area for between 6 and 10 years. What is impressive is that 62% of these journalists are satisfied with their work in scientific journalism and another 9% are extremely satisfied. Perhaps this is tied to the fact that 60% have full time formal registered jobs in this area.

On the other hand, if Latin American journalists who specialize in science do not have much in the way of official sources that give them feedback regarding their work, 40% of them are sure that their role is to inform the public, 26% think that their function is to translate complex material, 13% believe it is to educate and 9% think that it is to mobilize the public. And evaluating the result of the work, 50% believe that the scientific journalism produced in Brazil is average, while 21% believe that it is good and just 2% would classify it as very good.

The best indication of just how much scientific journalists enjoy what they do lies in the answer to the question on whether or not they would recommend the career to others. No less than half gave a clear positive response, while 40% answered that they would probably recommend it as a career. Either way, there is still a way to go in relation to determining the role of journalists among the actors who say what science is and do it. “Who are these actors?” asks Vogt. “Scientists used to believe it was them. Governments used to believe it was them. But nowadays we say that it is society. But in what way?”