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Disseminating information

Diverging paths

Partnership between scientists and journalists in favor of scientific culture are still far apart

LAURA DAVIÑAAlthough journalists are originally generalists by definition, there is now increasing evidence that scientific journalists everywhere – and not only in countries with an Anglo-Saxon tradition – are investing more and more in the strategy of ongoing improvement in order to perform their jobs with the required rigor, critical spirit and, of course, indispensible level of knowledge of the field that they are writing about. In this quest, various paths are valid: taking graduate courses that enable one to reflect and investigate with theoretical support and in greater detail one’s own practices; or workshops of a more pragmatic nature, which propose, for instance, increasing  journalists’ competence in the short term in the handling of scientific databases, in order to separate the curds from the whey (i.e., science from pseudoscience) within the vastness of the Web and in the possible and effective possibilities of links between social networks and journalism, among other themes. Moreover, this trend may grow as a result of new institutional support, to judge from one of the main recommendations of the seminar “Culture and science as narrated by journalists: challenges and opportunities”, held from April 20 to 22 last, in Madrid. This recommendation was to prioritize the training and ongoing improvement of journalists writing about science and culture, expanding the system of grants and other forms of financing in Ibero-American countries.

After two and a half days of intense debating among almost 50 journalists, professors, researchers and cultural producers from Spain and several Latin American countries, including Brazil, this recommendation, along with the recommendation to adapt journalism to the new formats provided by the Internet and to form a broad network of cooperation among culture and science journalists on the Web, was backed by the institutions that held the seminar: the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI), on behalf of whom its secretary general, Alvaro Marchesi, spoke, and the Ibero-American New Journalist Foundation (FNPI), represented by its director-general, Jaime Abello, with the support of the Spanish Agency for Cooperation for Development (Aecid), of the Efe Agency and of the UAM-El País School of Journalism.

One should point out that these consensual recommendations were reached despite all the differences in the experiences of cultural and scientific journalism presented, and even the deep conceptual differences cited. Thus, if for some journalists the Internet and the democratization of the production of content via the Web are a threat to the very existence of their profession, for others, such as Gumersindo Lafuente, the deputy director of El País, the respected Spanish newspaper, they are a great challenge demanding a near reinvention of the journalist. “Our narrative has also been tied to reality and today this reality is in the streets and on the Web. As journalists, we must also report what is going on on the Web”, he said. He commented that we are no longer living in times in which one can expect people to go searching for the media, but rather in times in which “we must take our stories to places where there is talk about the subjects that we deal with on the Internet”. Lafuente stressed that now, more than ever, the role of the independent journalist is fundamental. This is someone who can filter what is valuable and who can compare information in the effervescent sea that the Internet has become. Furthermore, he bet that, as in a Darwinian environment, “the quality Internet platforms, whether they are blogs or twitters, will turn into brands, whereas the media that have already turned into brands will only survive if they keep up their quality”.

Divergence also arose in connection with whether or not a more literary style is suitable or not in scientific journalism. Whereas María Ángeles Erazo, director of the Otovalo Center of Science, Technology, Society and Innovation Studies in Ecuador, and Liliana Chávez, a journalist from the Mexican publication Día Siete, believed that nowadays one should experiment with new genres so as to convey in an attractive and more literary manner facts from the field of science, the journalist Milagros Pérez Oliva, a professor at the UAM-El País School of Journalism and the El País ombudsperson, considers such attempts “a danger for journalism and its professionals, in addition to being a contamination of the narrative”, since “journalistic language is objective”.

Speaking of which, Milagros, who on the previous day had sat at a round-table about “divulging scientific knowledge and the science industries” (which included a presentation of the Pesquisa Fapesp experience), noted that “scientific news has a great deal of value when it is well developed, because it generates opinion and knowledge, but it is more risky when it is poorly done and tendentious, because it can give rise to social damage for which all of us will pay”. According to her, the doors of journalism are increasingly open to pseudoscience, which, particularly when it comes to digital information, requires containment and proof.

In the midst of these discussions, there hung in the air something of the speech by professor José Manuel Sánchez Ron, the head of the History of Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid, who delivered the meeting’s opening speech. “Culture and science are part of intellectual life, but there is mutual misunderstanding, hostility and antipathy between them”. According to him, the media should not only inform, but also educate when dealing with science – something with which journalists are unlikely to agree on, strictly speaking. “Journalists, besides being critical and rigorous in the performance of their function, must not give up imagination and good writing, precisely so that they can turn science into something timely and interesting”, he said, also adding: “It is important to write well, with charm and originality when talking about science.”

Silence and noise
Although on the front of the journalists and the communication courses there is noticeable concern about the quality of scientific journalism, there are indications that within the national system of science and technology the notion of partnering with the media in order to disseminate scientific culture throughout society, an idea that seemed to be flourishing at the beginning of this decade, is now going backwards. Thus, at the Fourth National Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation, held from May 26 to 28 in Brasília (see article on page 26), which tried to stress as much as possible partnerships in the scientific community, the State, business, and the so-called social sectors, in order to develop a real society of knowledge in the country, the role of the media was ignored, even when what was being discussed was the popularization of science. Among all the debates held, only 15 minutes were reserved for a speech by a female journalist, Cilene Victor, the chairwoman of the Brazilian Association of Scientific Journalism (ABJC), as part of the “Building scientific culture” session. One should keep in mind that during the Second National Conference, held in 2001, which was organized by professor Cylon Gonçalves during the term of Minister Ronaldo Sardenberg, there were several tables discussing the issue of the public communication of science through journalism.

Thus, in a way, we seem to have resumed the old view of journalism as a mere instrument vis-à-vis science, in which the former is subject to the latter, instead of embracing the more contemporary view of a partnership arrangement for the social dissemination of knowledge.

*The journalist travelled at the invitation of the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI),