Creative science communication vs critical investigative science journalism

clip_image002MANILA: 4th of July 2013. As I note that SciDev.Net has reinvented itself, I see that the science journalists don't see eye to eye with science communicators, despite the editorial (see image). A lover's quarrel. And I have a different problem: I can't tell right now whether I'm a science journalist or a science communicator!

I registered for weekly emails from SciDev.Net on 27 November 2007 at the instance when ICRISAT Director General William Dar requested SciDev.Net to forward the details of the ICRISAT-based article "Crop research 'must switch to climate adaptation'" to several people, including me, because I write on ICRISAT science.

Since 2007, SciDev.Net has switched and tried to adapt to different climates in its work as media in the universe of science for development.

Differently, I started consulting with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in February 2007, and I have never changed my science writer's view of ICRISAT, based on the Institute's own mantra: "Science with a human face." My own slogan is, "Thinking science globally, writing science locally." You can visit my dedicated blog if you wish, iCRiSAT Watch, blogspot.com. For the last 7 years, I have been happy just writing without having to worry about labels, whether I was doing Journalism or Communication, so that now I have a collection of at least 1,500 essays of at least 1,000 words each written on diverse topics ranging from Adaptation to Creative Writing to Mass Media to Partnerships to Watersheds to Zimbabwe (visit my one-stop-shop blog The Creattitudes Encyclopedia, blogspot.com).

With the new SciDev.Net, now I have to determine for myself whether I am a science journalist or a science communicator if I am to follow the logic of that network.

Actually, I have noticed that SciDev has undergone at least 2 transformations and presented itself in 2 different incarnations since that time it came to my attention.

On 19 December 2007, the SciDev tagline was this:

SciDev.Net is the leading electronic source of free news and commentary about science, technology and innovation in the developing world.

I interpret that to say SciDev is the #1 electronic medium for free news and views on new knowledge in the Third World.

Less than 2 years later, on 10 August 2009, SciDev.Net was still "Science & Development Network," but the tagline had changed to this:

News, views and information about science, technology and the developing world.

There is no essential difference between the old and new taglines, but I note that the words "leading" and "free" and "innovation" are gone. SciDev.Net had lost its leading edge; it was no longer focusing on innovation; and it was no longer free?

On 04 July 2013, the American Independence Day, the day I received my weekly SciDev.Net email again after more than a year of drought (I guess SciDev.Net was restructuring all that time), "Science & Development Network" was gone and the tagline was changed again and became (image):

Bringing science and development together through news and analysis.

Nice, but now, that is a big paradigm shift if ever I saw one. Inadvertently, it contains a radical reinvention of the role of science journalism, because I believe that, instead, the proper role of public and private science agencies is "bringing science and development together," and that the proper role science journalists should be playing is, to borrow from the SciDev tagline:

Bringing news and analysis on science and development together.

Now that I've restated the SciDev tagline that way, I think that this is what separates the men (science journalists) from the boys (science communicators): Most science journalists take "analysis" as mostly criticizing; and these journalists think most science communicators take "analysis" as mostly approving.

So, I'm not surprised that there is a funding crisis for science journalism, as SciDev and some science correspondents saw and discussed in their 23 April 2013 London pre-world conference meeting, as they wanted the 24-28 June 2013 World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in Helsinki, Finland to create plans for resolving it (Imogen Mathers, 26 April 2013, scidev.net).

If my interpretation is right, their wish did not come true. The final statement of that Helsinki Conference, all 282 words of it, did not include any plan to resolve any funding crisis; instead, it pushed the journalists and communicators to talk to each other and agree to work as one (wcsj2013.org):

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.

With the Internet, it's easy "to create new models of science journalism." Modesty aside, I have been trying to create one since 2007. But you have to set your heart to it. And you cannot do it if you do not reinvent yourself from being the journalist or communicator that you are now.

So, the WCSJ naturally favors its own kind, the science journalists, and merely acknowledges the presence of the science communicators. I take it that it is urging the communicators to work with the journalists to come up with better media outputs in the field of journalism, not communication. The Statement in fact started by pointing out the exceptional role of journalism as science is applied to work for global and national development:

1. Unique role of Science Journalism

Global social, economic and environmental wellbeing relies upon knowledge-based societies. Scientific evidence fosters many solutions to the grand challenges facing our vulnerable world. Science journalists have a unique role to play in examining that evidence and communicating changing science and its implications for society at large.

The WCSJ is saying that while science is applied for development, its impact on society must be examined by science journalists, after which they must communicate their findings to the people.

Different audiences and the general public as a whole need high-quality, independent science journalism that thoughtfully analyzes research and puts it into the larger societal perspective.

High-quality, independent science journalists? What the WCSJ is referring to are the investigative science journalists. In other words, science journalists are supposed to investigate new sets of knowledge such as in health, the environment, and technology, and broadcast to the world the implications that they understand of those, especially what they come to consider as the negative implications. In investigative science journalism, forewarned is forearmed.

Here comes Kaz Janowski, the new Editor of SciDev.Net insisting on the dichotomy with his editorial entitled, "Science journalism and communication make a good match" (10 May 2013, scidev.net), from which webpage I captured the image shown above. He doesn't really discuss how to create A Match Made in Heaven.

In his editorial, Janowski says about what President of the Association of British Science Writers Connie St Louis and WCSJ panelists say about that dichotomy:

St Louis sees a tension between what she calls true science journalism and science communication. As Pallab Ghosh, a BBC science correspondent and another panelist at the event, said, the job of science journalists is to ask awkward questions, not to act as translators of or cheerleaders for science.

If Ghosh is saying that science journalists say what they want to say, while science communicators say what their employers want them to say, I take that not only as an affront but a misunderstanding of the role of purveyors of science news and views. There are hacks and there are paid hacks everywhere.

I know. It's easier to ask an embarrassing question like "Why do you say Bt eggplant is safe for human consumption?" than an enlightening question like "What are the choices other than growing the Bt eggplant?" As a science writer, I like to ask questions that make people think better, not bitter.

Similarly, do science journalists think that science communicators merely behave as praise releasers? The trouble with science journalists arises when they are too learned, when they know everything and assume that the object of their investigative journalism is not telling the truth. The trouble with science journalists is when they focus on being negative and not being positive, when they focus on destructing.

Imogen Mathers is concerned about "the challenge of funding public interest and investigative science journalism, amid the crisis in traditional print media and a decline in the number of specialist science reporters" (26 April 2013, scidev.net). In other words, there is a drought in funding investigative science journalism.

Now, now, why should investigative science journalists be surprised that funding for science journalism is being visited by a drought? Why should they expect the ones they investigate to advocate for them?

They don't realize that the very problem lies in what they're doing: investigative science journalism? In other words, they want to propagate critical science journalism and yet they want public science, private science, science associations and their supporters to nurture them. If I see that you bite the hand that feeds you, why should I go on and offer you more fodder?

Perhaps, Janowski refers to science staff journalists when he says "science communicators" and media staff journalists when he says "science journalists." In that sense, presumably, one works for private interest, the other for public welfare. The communicators try to serve their patrons, the journalists try to serve the people. If that is their view, I say the science journalists regard themselves too highly for their own good!

To summarize:

Their science journalist is a fault-finder; my science communicator is a strength-seeker, not simply a translator or a cheerleader, and I prefer it that way. Ah, it is as if science journalists prefer to make enemies, and science communicators prefer to make friends. Now then, as my iCRiSAT Watch essays show, you can call me a science communicator anytime!

At this point, I will leave those boys to their critical investigative science journalism and I will continue with my creative investigative science journalism, an example of which I have just shown - this essay itself. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on, to instruct. I prefer to construct; occasionally, I intend to distract, never destruct.

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