Although the amount of space reserved in the traditional media for coverage of scientific topics has clearly been shrinking, there are a growing number of blogs based in different parts of the world whose mission it is to proficiently report, analyze and disseminate research findings and discuss science policy. That was one of the points underscored at the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists, organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), which attracted about 800 science journalists and communicators from some 80 countries to its meeting held in late June in Helsinki, Finland. In the words of the Final Conference Statement, “The momentum of quality science journalism is stronger than ever before, and the global community of science journalists and communicators can work together to create new models of science journalism that cross national borders in this digitally connected world.”
Digital platforms are becoming firmly positioned as the base of operations for professional journalists who can’t find a position in the ever-shrinking editorial rooms of traditional media outlets. Such platforms broaden the audience and boost reader participation at different levels of interactivity as they discuss and debate scientific issues. These perceptions, and the fact that bloggers are shedding their reputation as amateur writers and taking their place among the world’s best science communicators, led the conference organizers to dedicate three panels to a discussion of ways to operate on a digital platform. One such panel, titled “The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future,” was organized by Bora Zivkovic, a veterinarian who edits 63 blogs on the website of the journal Scientific American, including A Blog Around the Clock (blogs.scientificamerican.com/a-blog-around-the-clock), which he pens. He is also Co-founder and Director of ScienceOnline (scienceonline.com), a virtual community of researchers, students, bloggers, artists, web developers and educators interested in popularizing science. In Zikovic’s opinion, we need to keep in mind that, although work performed in print media, radio or TV is better paid and reaches certain specialized audiences, those media are losing audiences at a rapid pace. “So it’s important to focus on the online world, while still occasionally getting some money from the old media when possible,” he says. Zivkovic, dubbed the blogfather, is known for his active role in discovering talented writers and helping them along until they can work on their own. As the first blogger to have a post cited as a reference in a scientific article, he is planning to partner with three colleagues to publish a book that could serve as a manual for science blogs and a useful tool for researchers and journalists.
According to Zivkovic, to be a “killer” science journalist, a professional writer has to combine good journalism practices with multimedia skills, creative content production, and an understanding that the science blogosphere presupposes a new logic for connecting with the public and one’s peers. In practice, it means mastering technological tools and languages—video, podcasting, photography, political cartoons, infographics, comic books, poetry, music, science fiction—that make it possible to explain science in an attractive way. It also means, he says, knowing how to deal with instantaneous, often devastating, feedback with complete transparency, civility and willingness to admit mistakes. It means, furthermore, that achieving visibility will involve building a community of “virtual friends” who will pass along your published work.
Zivkovic points out that, just as the scientific community cites their peers in scientific articles, an online text should contain a link to every document and reference mentioned, especially when covering research-related topics. “Trust and reputation are the currency in the new media ecosystem. In the online world, the currency of trust is the hyperlink. Even if most readers don’t have the time to open all the links, they serve as proof that the author has done the due diligence of researching data and finding the relevant sources,” he says.
Rose Eveleth, a journalist who also works as a designer, video and podcast producer and programmer, spoke at the conference about the challenge of being flexible. She writes about science for the Smithsonian Magazine’s blog, manages social media for Nautilus Magazine, is curator for Science Studio (a repository of multimedia works) and creates animations for the TED platform of educational talks and conferences on the web, among other activities discussed at www.roseveleth.com. “The ability to take a huge stream of information coming in, use it to tell a story and make something big and meaningful, and then give that meaning to people on all sorts of platforms is totally new and fascinating. I spend a lot of time working with podcasts, animations, illustrations, infographics, maps, web design and the like,” Eveleth says.
Another fan of the new scenario is Erin Podolak of the communication team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. For the past three years she has written the Science Decoded blog (www.sciencedecoded.blogspot.com), where she publishes information on scientific discoveries, covers the media on science topics, and talks about her graduate internship while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Multimedia is a critical component of journalism today, and is only going to grow in importance in the future. We are living in an age of journalistic opportunity. What the internet and social media tools like Twitter have given us is a tremendous advantage when it comes to interacting with our audience,” Podolak says.
This does not mean that teams of journalists working in editorial rooms are out of fashion, according to Lena Groeger, a developer of applications for producing and publishing news on the ProPublica website (www.propublica.org), who also took part in the discussion. With an editorial staff of about 40 journalists dedicated to investigative reporting, ProPublica is a curious model of partnership between traditional editorial staffs and journalists who work for non-profit organizations. Since the conventional media sometimes tend to abandon research in difficult economic times, the stories chosen by ProPublica—the deceptive practices of public and private institutions, for example—are offered without charge to traditional media outlets.
More than 80 articles written by 25 partners were published in 2012. To facilitate the work of editing and make the site more user-friendly, some applications and tools are developed by programmers and journalists with multimedia skills, such as Groeger. “There really isn’t anything else like the feeling of publishing an important story, whether it’s in the form of a narrative story or an interactive project. We’re proud of everything we make, and we’re even more thrilled when readers or other journalists send us emails saying how helpful or meaningful our work has been. It pushes us to make even better tools,” she says.
Amidst the difficulties that science journalism faces in countries with disparate realities, one common feature is the search for new models or new sources of financing that do not compromise freedom of expression or editorial independence. Web-based journalists appear to be finding sustainable alternatives. This is true for a number of watchdogs that monitor information and stories published in the press, in advertising texts or by public or private institutions. ProPublica, for example, was founded by Paul Steiger, former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, as a non-profit organization with funding from the Sandler Foundation and other donors. HealthNewsReview (www.healthnewsreview.org) is supported by the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, which exerts no influence over the project’s editorial operations, according to managing journalist Gary Schwitzer. The blog evaluates the content of messages about health in journalism, advertising, marketing and public relations that can influence consumers. Bora Zivkovic’s ScienceOnline receives donations from readers, who can deduct them from their income tax. There are also communications firms that pay bloggers—who may or may not be journalists—to write on specific topics in blogs hosted on their websites. That is an option for giving a media outlet a larger audience. It is the method used by the British newspaper The Guardian, which has 13 science blogs on a number of subjects (www.theguardian.com/science-blogs), and the American magazine Wired, with its 10 science blogs (www.wired.com/wiredscience/category/science-blogs/).
Science bloggers in Brazil
Blogger participation in coverage of scientific issues is also conspicuous in Brazil, where there are about 210 science blogs. Overlooking the ones that had no published posts in 2013 and no basic profile of the writers, the blog contingent drops down to less than one hundred, of which 28 are written by journalists and 69 by non-journalists. Of the blogs kept by journalists, 25 are linked to traditional media outlets (10 at five newspapers, 15 at six widely read magazines) and three have no such ties. Of the 69 blogs written by non-journalists, three are also linked to traditional media outlets. That figure was obtained by cross-referencing data collected on Google, on the websites of the principal media outlets of every major Brazilian city, the Ring of Science Blogs (a list created by the Scientific Dissemination and Scientometrics Laboratory at the Ribeirão Preto School of Philosophy, Science and Letters, University of São Paulo), and the list of journalists and media outlets for the mailing list marketed by the firm Maxpress. Among the science blogs written by non-journalists, this scientific dissemination tool is most often used by biologists (17), physicists (13) and psychologists (10). The other bloggers write in a broad range of fields of knowledge, and in some cases the content is produced by multidisciplinary groups. The largest concentration of writers (journalists and non-journalists) is in São Paulo (56), followed by Rio de Janeiro (17), which could indicate that regardless of the media used, scientific dissemination is more active in areas near the country’s major centers of scientific output. Other states represented in the survey are Rio Grande do Sul (6), Santa Catarina (4), Paraná (4), Pernambuco (3), Rio Grande do Norte (3), Minas Gerais (2), Ceará (1) and Mato Grosso (1).
Since there are no accurate data on the number of newspapers and magazines that have science editorial sections in Brazil, a check of the database for Maxpress’s mailing list of journalists shows that there are 35 major print newspapers that reserve editorial space or have professionals dedicated to science coverage. Those newspapers are circulated in 17 states, 46% in the Southeast: São Paulo (9), Rio de Janeiro (4) and Minas Gerais (3). The same database showed 10 magazines in print form specialized in science and another 10 nationally circulated general-interest magazines that devote space to the subject. There are also dozens of thematic magazines devoted to specific areas of science, in addition to 159 news websites with science and technology sections. According to the survey, scientific dissemination in Brazil is now carried out to a significant degree by blogs that represent nearly 60% of the media outlets devoted to science.Republish