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Science diffusion

Reasons for progress

Editor of the Financial Times talks about media coverage of science


Clive Cookson during the conference held by FAPESP: “Coverage has improved, but not necessarily because of the journalists”EDUARDO CESAR

Exaggeration, negativity, and activism are the main mistakes made by journalists who cover science, according to Clive Cookson, science editor of Great Britain’s Financial Times newspaper. Nevertheless, media coverage has improved significantly in the last decades and scientists nowadays are less hesitant about exposing themselves and talking to reporters. Cookson voiced this opinion and made other comments on science journalism during the event “ Science in the Media,” organized and supported by FAPESP and by the Brazilian Association of Science Journalism. Cookson was the guest speaker at the event, held on April 16.

In his opinion, the desire to make the news more attractive drives journalists to over-emphasize the real importance of the facts, which leads to exaggeration. At the same time, journalists want to voice critical views, which leads them to be heavy-handed about negative aspects. Sometimes journalists get over-enthusiastic about a given issue and start campaigns instead of reporting facts in the way they happened.

Cookson has been editor of the Financial Times for the last 20 years. He has covered science and technology for the last 30 years. “I see that coverage nowadays is better ,but not necessarily because of the journalists,” he said. “The fact is that scientists have become more communicative and have realized the importance of giving the media relevant information.” One of the reasons for this change was researchers’  perception that they would be more likely to obtain funding from public funding agencies and from private institutions for their research work if they were exposed to and understood by more people.

On the other hand, the editor pointed out that new information technology has made journalists’  lives easier. The internet enables them to find scientific articles, conduct interviews, and clarify doubts quickly. In the United Kingdom, the Science Media Centre – an institution of scientists who help those who write about science – has been running for 10 years. “The Centre refers journalists to sources, evaluates articles and provides comments that support journalists’  work,” he said. In his opinion, the center is one of the reasons why the quality of the media has improved. Cookson, who has a degree in chemistry, said that journalists who cover Science and Technology in England are usually science graduates and do specific training programs when applying for a job in the media industry.

Other participants attended the event organized by FAPESP to discuss the relationship between journalists and scientists. Biologist Fernando Reinach, who writes a widely read column on science in the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper, complained that news articles on science emphasize new discoveries, but fail to explain how a given discovery occurred. Reinaldo José Lopes, editor of Science and Health of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, said that less space devoted to these topics has made it very difficult to write about the explanations. Thomas Lewinsohn, a biologist from the State University of Campinas, stated that even scientific journals are changing. “Nature and Science, for example, have increased the sections with news content and are using more accessible language,” he said. Other participants who attended the “Science in the Media” event included Sonia López, former editor of the AlphaGalileu news agency; Paulo Saldiva, a researcher from the Medical School of the University of São Paulo; and Roberto Wertman, of the Espaço Aberto talk show broadcast by Globo News.