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The press between science and ethics

A congress debates the quality of publishing and broadcasting scientific work

In a scenario of transition between a world dominated by chips and computers and on the other one which reigns over genes and DNA, the ABJC, Brazilian Association of Scientific Journalism, which gathers journalists from all the Brazilian States, held in Florianópolis, between the 2nd and 5th of May, the 6th Brazilian Congress of Scientific Journalism. With the general theme Scientific journalism in face of the ethics of science and the press, the event had as its objective an exchange of professional experiences and the presentation of journalistic works and journalistic scientific coverage in various mini-courses, round-tables, conferences and panels.

Modernity, the separation between science and ethics and the basis of our understanding, were the themes debated by the professors of journalism of the[Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Eduardo Meditsch and Orlando Tambosi. For Meditsch, journalism is a form of knowledge from science because it is directed to a broad public and reveals the facts in themselves. “The scientists, from their side, direct their production towards the scientific community and extract aspects of  different facts”,  he stated. “Nevertheless, journalism must also be seen as a form of knowledge because it offers another angle on the perception of reality.” And it is exactly for this reason that this activity, as well as that of the scientist, has be steered by a code of ethics. Two other professors of journalism from UFSC, Francisco Karam and Nilson Lage, defend the idea that each profession needs to be steered by a differentiated code of ethics as each one develops a different work ethic.

The ethics code of journalism, meanwhile, is ineffectual according to the evaluation of the journalist José Hamilton Ribeiro and President of the ABJC. “With or without an  ethics code the press works in the same manner”, he declares. “Each communication company has its own code. Each one has developed its product according to its interests and censorship criteria.” Professor Karam of UFSC added that it is necessary that the objectives of the media be the objects of discussion in the media. According to the professor, there are hundreds of lawsuits against journalists for publishing incorrect information, but there is not a forum within the category to debate the issue. The journalist Sérgio Murilo de Andrade, General Secretary of the National Federation of Professional Journalists (Fenaj in the Portuguese acronym), stated that a code of ethics is good, but is read by few journalists and taught in few schools.

Specialized coverage
Another point debated during the Congress was the qualification of the journalists. The President of the ABJC and André Singer, editor of the magazine Superinteressante( Super-interesting), agreed that journalism is heading towards specialization and that the professionals will have to know more in the areas which they intend to pursue. For Ribeiro, the scientific journalist and science carried out in Brazil, are, in general, below expectations. He said that one may improve journalism “only by carrying out journalism.” that is, the professional should work a lot, erring until he gets it right. “Science can advance with investments and the change of attitude of the researchers”, he explains. “Today, the Brazilian scientists are not committed to society and see no obligation to disclose their research findings. However journalists, think that they must study and work harder.”

The anchorwoman from TV Cultura of São Paulo and professor of telejournalism, Monica Teixeira, follows the same thinking as Ribeiro and criticized Brazilian journalism. “There is a culture in the country which wants to see bad news and the press follow the idea”, she said . “With scientific journalism there is no difference. An example is the case of the human genome project which is shown only as a discovery of genes which cause sickness, when in truth it is much more than this. However, the curing of sickness and immortality are what people want to know about and for this reason the project is presented in this manner.”

André Singer was softer  and talked about the influence of the magazine Superinteressante of which he is the editor. “Superinteressante is not a scientific magazine, but a publication which deals with science and technology and helps in the creation of a scientific culture in Brazil”, he explained. “In the magazine, which is within the ten most read of the country, we seek to show the beauty and the fascination of science to catch the attention of the reader. Unfortunately, this aspect is not always looked upon kindly by the researchers, who don’t like to see their research findings ‘simplified’.”

Inferiority complex
The Brazilian Andrea Kauffmann is not a journalist, but also works with scientific coverage. She is the Senior Editor of Nature and one of those responsible for the choosing of scientific articles from the world at large which will have the privilege of being published on the pages of this prestigious British magazine. During her talk, Andrea said that Nature is the magazine which is the most rigorous in its choice of scientific articles and for this reason the publication of an article on its pages brings prestige and recognition to the author. She explained that the criteria for publication are scientific and not journalistic and that all of the editors of the magazine are scientists, including herself, who is a biologist.

About  the fact that Brazilian scientists publish so little in Nature, Andrea believes that this springs from a certain inferiority complex which they have. “A complex which should not exist” ,she guaranteed. “Competence the Brazilian researcher has; what he doesn’t have is the infrastructure and resources. Perhaps for this reason he believes that his work is of poorer quality. It is not. In order to be published, the articles have to be sent, and the Brazilians have the conditions to do so.”

The closing panel of the Congress presented the projects of scientific disclosure of two research support foundations, that of São Paulo, FAPESP,  and of Minas Gerais, Fapemig. Mariluce Moura, Communications Manager of FAPESP,  presented the case of the disclosure to the press of the sequencing of the genome Xylella fastidiosa,  a piece of research developed by close to 200 scientists, financed by the Foundation and a landmark in Brazilian science. Liliane Nogueira, of Fapemig, talked about the project Minas Faz Ciência [Minas Does Science], whose prime purpose are two minute programs  broadcast  by TV Educativa of Minas Gerais.

Finishing the Congress by the Foundations served to show that there is scientific production of quality and  which produces results here in Brazil, as well as an awareness of the publicizing this type of work, as much as on the side of the researchers as on the side of the journalists.