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Latin American newspapers allocate little space for regional science

ESTEVAN PELLIA not yet published pioneering study on the coverage of scientific topics by 12 newspapers from 9 Latin American countries, including Brazil, describes the paths of science journalism in Latin America in the last few years. First, the good news: the study shows that a reasonable amount of space is allocated to science articles, especially to topics on medicine and health care, which have a more direct impact on readers’ lives. In the midst of general daily news, permeated by articles written in a negative tone, articles on scientific research studies and discoveries provide a positive overview. Now, the bad news: science journalism is still based on two relatively fragile pillars, especially in less developed countries. The size and the tone of the science coverage reflects the individual initiatives of the newspapers’ owners – and especially those of science reporters and editors – who, due to personal interests, tend to write about specific research areas to the detriment of others – rather than reflecting the national context of the countries being written about.

The study analyzed the 2006 coverage of 12 elite newspapers, read by the better-educated segment of the population; each newspaper had permanent sections on science or other similar topics that could be accessed through the internet. Two daily newspapers from each of the region’s leading economies were selected for this study, as follows: Folha de S. Paulo and O Globo (Brazil); Clarín and La Nación (Argentina); Reforma and La Jornada (Mexico). One daily newspaper from each of the six other countries was also selected, as follows: El Mercurio (Chile), El Tiempo (Colombia), La Nación (Costa Rica), El Comercio (Ecuador), El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico) and El Nacional (Venezuela).

“Of course there is good science journalism in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico”, says journalist Luisa Massarani, coordinator of the Center for Studies on Scientific Divulging of the Fiocruz Museu da Vida museum in Rio de Janeiro, and the lead author of the study. “But not all daily neswpapers allocate enough space for the scientific endeavors of their own countries”. In one daily newspaper, the El Nacional, the percentage of articles on research studies conducted by local scientists represented more than half of the science news. Clarín (49.6 percent), Folha de S. Paulo (40.6 percent) and Argentina’s La Nación (38.7 percent) came close.

The researchers counted 2,280 articles on science published in the said newspapers during the period in question. One should highlight that this number does not include all the articles published in 2006; the number reflects a sample of the newspapers’ contents, obtained by resorting to a technique called constructed week method, which is commonly used in this kind of research. This approach may produce some distortions but is considered valid by many researchers. Costa Rica’s La Nación published the highest number (332) of articles on science in the aforementioned period. “This was a surprise, given that the science system of Costa Rica is less developed than in other Latin American countries”, says Luisa. The runners-up were the region’s three biggest daily newspapers, which allocated space for scientific articles: Clarín (278), Reforma (247), Folha de S. Paulo (224), Argentina’s La Nación (194), and O Globo (162). Colombia’s El Tiempo (107) allocated the smallest amount of space in this respect.

An analysis of the topics that the science news articles published in Latin American dailies focuses shows that the two Brazilian newspapers are outstanding for publishing a varied and well-balanced menu of topics. They provide good coverage on medical and health care issues and publish articles on research studies that are under way in the fields of the exact sciences, the environment, basic biology and social sciences (though the latter is published less often). In Argentina, practically half of the news published in both Clarín and La Nación focuses on medical sciences.

Unequal space
At the end of last year, a nationwide study that analyzed the coverage of science, technology and innovation by 62 Brazilian dailies in the years 2007 and 2008 , ranging from newspapers with nationwide distribution and specialized newspapers to regional and local daily newspapers, came up with some worrisome data. The study, conducted by the News Agency of Childhood Rights (Andi) in partnership with the Foundation for the Development of Research (Fundep), which is connected with the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), showed that the nationwide coverage of scientific issues is still not well balanced in Brazil. The country’s leading daily newspapers,  such as O Estado de S. Paulo and O Globo, published an average of 2.3 news articles on science per day, while the other daily newspapers published one news article on science every five days.

According to the study “Ciência, tecnologia & inovação na mídia brasileira” [Science, technology and innovation in Brazilian media], more than 85 percent of the 2,599 news articles on science analyzed in the study did not include elements of the context in which the reported research studies had been conducted. Science journalism often fails to resort to multiple sources of information to write the news articles. Only one source of information was mentioned in 55 percent of the material analyzed in the study. Allocating space for dissenting opinions is also an uncommon practice and only 10 percent of the news articles explored opposing opinions on the topic presented in the news article. The study also showed that science journalism is not very critical and presents the results of scientific studies as if they were definitive truths: only 13 percent of the analyzed texts mentioned that there was still some uncertainty in the findings of the research studies mentioned in the articles.

Perhaps science journalism should adopt a more critical attitude on research study results, an attitude that seems to have been employed by the United States’ leading media in its coverage of the effects of internet use and that of new electrical and electronic devices on people’s lives. A study published at the end of September by the Project for Excellence in Journalism by the Pew Research Center, a private institute headquartered in Washington, showed that the US media gives equal emphasis to the positive and negative aspects of new technologies. A sample of 437 news articles published between June 2009 and July 2010 in 52 different types of media (newspapers, sites, TV and radio broadcasts), showed that two topics had been heavily discussed: the first, published in 23 percent of the analyzed news articles, was that “technology makes life more productive”; the second, published in 18 percent of the analyzed news articles, conveyed the idea that “the internet is not safe”.