Extremophile Journalism

/ by Chris Mooney /

The role of science journalists in the developing world is more important than ever.

Globally, science writers are performing a job that is fundamental to international development. Photograph © Siede Preis/Getty Images

At the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia, the final plenary session began with a demonstration I will not soon forget. The event, entitled, “Reporting Science in Emerging Economies,” opened with Christina Scott, a journalist from South Africa, at the podium. The lights went out; it was suddenly pitch black. Then Scott lit a lighter and held it aloft.

She asked the audience—containing many science journalists from the West—to imagine the difficulties faced by their peers in the developing world, who work in adverse conditions with frequent power outages, low literacy levels, a lack of government support, and worse. Subsequent panelists from Brazil, Zambia, Sri Lanka, India, and China then reminded me that reporters from developing nations have virtually everything stacked against them. And yet, in many cases they are succeeding. Scott later likened science journalists in the developing world to extremophile bacteria, evolved to thrive in harsh environments.

In the West, we specialized journalists have been known to occasionally gripe over the mass media’s obsession with covering fluff stories about a pop star’s shaved head or a celebrity heiress’s stint in jail, even as quality science journalism is getting squeezed. Compared with their peers in less-developed parts of the world, though, Western science writers really have very little to complain about. The Melbourne conference—a landmark event that brought together an unprecedented cadre of more than 600 science reporters from across the globe—drove this point home for me. After hearing some of the remarkable stories of heroic reporting being done by a small but dedicated group of developing-world science writers, I’ll think twice before complaining about the noise of a lawnmower or jackhammer outside my window, or the sporadic performance of my wireless router.

Science and technology writers in the developing world are taking on issues that have profound implications for the countries and emerging economies in which they report. One need think only of the African AIDS crisis, climate change, prescription-drug access, agricultural biotechnology, bird flu, and many other specific science issues that have huge importance for the developing world. Perhaps the most crucial issue in places like Africa and South Asia is health policy, which is inextricably intertwined with social progress—more-productive nations tend to be those whose citizens are healthier and live longer. Philip Hilts, a former science and medical reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post who has spent many years working in developing countries, observed that as health improves, wealth follows. By informing governments, NGOs, and the international community about their countries’ health policies, science writers in the developing world are performing a job that’s fundamental to international development.

Yet despite having such a critical role to play, in many cases science journalists from the developing world face a series of hurdles that I, comfortably ensconced in Washington, D.C., simply never encounter. For some of these writers, basic research resources like cheap and reliable telephone service, libraries, and even dictionaries can be scarce. And while the physical act of researching and writing can present dramatic logistical challenges, science correspondents in some parts of the world are also faced with the worry that offending despotic or corrupt governments will result in retribution. The number of journalists imprisoned and killed worldwide every year is testament to the dangers implicit in the trade.

The specific challenges faced by the science journalist—getting access to scientists, getting them to talk about their work, the work of their peers, or recent studies and their implications—are also more difficult to overcome. A constant refrain in Melbourne was that although developing-nation scientists may covet international attention, frequently they want nothing to do with reporters from their own countries. There was a sense that these scientists rarely see talking to the media as a professional obligation. Moreover, it may not benefit them to be quoted in stories taking a critical approach to government policies—it might even be dangerous.

In writing critically about the Bush administration’s treatment of science, I’ve been in the fortunate situation of engaging many distinguished scientists, including Nobel laureates and presidents of scientific societies, who want to talk to me. Yet in other parts of the world, science journalists have to employ a wide range of “tricks” (their word, used repeatedly in Melbourne) simply to get a scientist on the record.

Hepeng Jia, a Chinese journalist with whom I shared a panel in Melbourne, and who writes regularly for Nature Biotechnology and SciDev. net, is particularly accomplished in this regard. In China, science is being heavily promoted by the party chiefs in Beijing. But according to Jia, that hasn’t necessarily translated into an open culture in which science journalists are getting increased access to scientists. While there’s plenty of information about science in the Chinese media, much of it appears in government-sponsored papers and thus tends to propagandize the nation’s achievements. In more independent, market-oriented publications, there’s a (very Western) perception that science doesn’t “sell.” That leaves little room in the media landscape for critically oriented science-policy coverage that examines whether China’s science investments are benefiting the society as a whole.

Chinese scientists (and their government patrons), however, tend to be very solicitous of international approval, of fostering the perception that they’re competitive on the world stage and that their research meets global standards of excellence. So in this challenging context, Jia explained how he gets Chinese scientists to talk: He tracks what they say to international media sources, then follows up with them to confirm it. Or, he calls them to ask whether recently published research meets international standards. If doubts have been raised in the international media about some of China’s science projects—gene-therapy research, for instance—Jia knows that Chinese scientists will want to respond to such criticism, so concerned are they for their international reputation.

Despite considerable hurdles, developing-nation science writers continually deliver stories from the frontiers of science and economic development. It’s an invaluable source of intelligence and information for those of us interested and concerned with global science. Providing perspective on stories that their governments may want to see publicized, science writers are highly adept at placing current reporting in a more reflective context. One of the key themes that emerged in journalists’ stories in Melbourne, for instance, was developing governments’ all too frequent infatuation with what they amusingly dubbed “charismatic megascience”—when governments invest resources in high-profile (and very expensive) science projects like space programs or nuclear power. Meeting landmarks in these areas—for instance, launching a satellite—are, in fact, impressive. But such achievements can come at the cost of either basic research or of critical health and infrastructure-related science investments, which may have a far broader benefit to the general population.

In parts of the world that are newly entering the international community, the glare of the media—specifically, solid science reporting on these topics—is helping to propel government accountability. One of the most outstanding stories of reporters bringing questionable scientific thinking, or at least, practice, at the government level into the spotlight was from Sri Lankan journalist Nalaka Gunawardene. As Gunawardene explained in Melbourne, his nation’s government and military had a 90-minute warning before the devastating 2004 tsunami hit, killing 40,000 people (including the missing) in his country alone. It was Sunday, however, and, as Gunawardene writes, “the entire Sri Lankan government was on holiday.” So, no warning was issued. Journalists subsequently confronted the Sri Lankan science minister about this and received a staggering reply: “Do journalists work on holidays?”

Unfortunately, despite their remarkable work, journalists like Jia and Gunawardene remain the exception. Individual success stories notwithstanding, the overwhelming picture for science reporting in developing nations remains dismal. As the Melbourne discussion went on and an optimistic tone emerged, T.V. Padma, a journalist from India, steered it back to just this reality: Just because some hardy journalists have figured out how to get by doesn’t mean all is well and good.

I left Melbourne with a deep sense that as scientific policies and issues increasingly affect more of the world around us, those of us in the West need to find ways to support the science journalists of the developing world: We need to help these journalists help themselves. Mentorship programs, pairing experienced international writers with upcoming ones, have already begun to improve the quality of reporting in the developing world. But that’s not enough. In many cases, training reporters will make little difference unless editors and also those on the business side of media outlets see the importance of science coverage. Across staff roles, training programs should help media outlets in these regions realize that high-quality, provocative science coverage can actually sell, positively affecting their organizations’ reputation for credibility and their bottom line.

There are already a number of excellent programs that provide training and support. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on the issue of AIDS, has sponsored numerous journalism workshops in Africa and Asia, while the Gates Foundation recently endowed several global health reporting fellowships at Harvard. The Canadian government itself helped bring many developing-nation science journalists to Melbourne. Finally, at the Melbourne conference, UNESCO introduced a university curriculum for training science and health journalists in developing countries.

Those of us who consume the global science culture should appreciate that critical momentum was achieved in Melbourne to expand many of these developing-world opportunities simultaneously. That can mean only good things for science reporting and for the countries where strong media outlets promote it. “Authoritarianism doesn’t work very well if you have really strong journalism,” Philip Hilts noted. With science issues increasingly relevant to politics and international development, it’s an observation that would seem to go double for science journalism.

Originally published July 29, 2007

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