Science journalists gather in San Francisco

By Bianca Nogrady

“With science under attack, should science journalists get off the sidelines?”

This was the question posed by a House of Commons-style debate held at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco in October. But with the spectre of Trump and all that his administration represents looming large over the conference, it was also an unspoken theme that echoed throughout many of the presentations and discussions.

As the first such conference held on US soil, the 2017 World Conference of Science Journalists was always going to be huge. It attracted more than 1300 delegates from over 70 countries, representing all continents except Antarctica. Attendees were a fairly even mix of science writers – both in-house and freelance – editors, science communicators/public information officers, and scientists. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Copyright Agency Limited’s Career Fund to attend the conference, which was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

While the plenaries featured some serious scientific fire-power – including CRISPR-cas9 co-inventor Dr Jennifer Doudna, and former Obama science advisor Dr John P. Holdren – the most engaging discussions and presentations were found in the break-out sessions.

The House of Commons-style debate was one of the stand-outs. Led by science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt and science communicator Peter Vermij, this interactive session got the audience voting with their feet on a range of propositions, including that:

  • any story on forest fires and storms should include mention of the role of climate change (the audience voted generally no: there will be stories where that is not relevant or appropriate.)
  • science journalists should work to rebuild people’s trust in science (the vote – generally no. That’s the job of scientists and science communicators.)
  • in the age of Trump, I am more likely to pass on a weak study that questions the safety of vaccines (strongly no, as they would pass on a weak study anyway).
  • All journalists should participate in the March for Science (no; one audience member expressed his aversion to any statement that began with “Journalists should…”.)
  • I would support my publisher’s campaign against fossil fuels (mixed response; when does a campaign cross the line from journalism into advocacy, and what does that mean for the media’s objectivity and perceptions of bias).

The moderators asked various audience members to explain their position, and sometimes these responses were convincing enough that people on the opposing side crossed the floor to reverse their original decision. But there were no unanimous decisions for any of the questions, reflecting the many shades of grey that exist on the border between science journalism and science communication.

An illuminating discussion of how statistics can mislead the unwary drew the curtain back on the practice of ‘p-hacking’; which FiveThirtyEight’s science writer Christie Aschwanden described as fishing around in a data set until you find something statistically significant. There was also a workshop for journalists on uncovering stories from industry documents held within the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, which has now expanded to include documents from the pharmaceutical, sugar and chemical industries.

In another session, two science journalists reported on their experiences going undercover to report on alternative health practitioners in Germany, and online pharmacies in the UK. And there was a practical session on data visualisation by Professor Alberto Cairo, who generously made his slides available online.

A sponsored lunch on pre-print servers, the end of Ingelfinger rule – which laid the groundwork for journal embargoes – and open access publishing explored how scientific publishing is changing, and what that means for both scientists and science journalists. One speaker argued that the existing model of peer review was fatally flawed, relying as it does on three anonymous reviewers, and that the comment facility available on some pre-print servers did a far better job. He also suggested that journal embargoes slowed science down, and should be eliminated altogether.

The session on ‘Science Journalism, Authoritarian Regimes and Pseudoscience’ heard from science journalists – including newly-elected World Federation of Science Journalists president Mohammed Yahia – who have risked their jobs and even their lives to uncover regimes’ use of pseudoscience.

The closing plenary featured science journalists who have found themselves reporting on natural disasters in their own communities, from earthquakes to bushfires. As someone living in a highly bushfire-prone area, their advice had particular relevance. Freelance science writer Erik Vance, who has experienced numerous earthquakes in his home of Mexico City, said freelances in this situation can’t compete with the day-to-day disaster coverage from major network reporters, but their advantage lies in preparing ahead and “bringing the science” to their reporting. KQED science reporter Lesley McClurg said reporting on disaster could be emotionally exhausting, and writers need to be honest with their editors about how they are feeling.

As a freelance science journalist, the conference offered me not one but two extraordinary opportunities to meet and pitch to editors from around the world. The first Power Pitch session was like a speed-date, with freelancers given seven minutes with one or two pre-selected editors, to sell their story idea. This got me in front of The Atlantic’s senior editor Ross Anderson, and The Verge’s Elizabeth Lopatto, but it also provided an invaluable ‘Who’s Who’ list of science editors. Demand for the session’s limited spaces was so high that a second, less-formal ‘pop-up’ pitch session was organised. This was a wonderfully-chaotic hour in a noisy, hot, cramped room packed full of writers and editors from science publications such as Nature, Hakai, Sapiens, bioGraphic, Science News, and many others.

I also hosted my own panel at the conference, discussing conflicts of interest for freelance science journalists and featuring US-based freelance writer Brooke Borel, Argentinian freelancer Federico Kukso, and Nature Middle East editor Mohammed Yahia. The session revealed that very few freelance journalists have been directly questioned about conflicts of interest – such as being asked to report on an organisation that they also provide writing services to, or accepting travel support from a research organisation to report on a story or attend a conference.

But there was acceptance that conflicts of interest are a significant issue for freelances and the editors they write for. In an age when the media is under increasing scrutiny for perceived bias or conflicts of interest, it is in the best interests of writers to be transparent and honest with their editors, and decide together whether a conflict of interest is significant enough to require action.

And finally, at the World Federation of Science Journalists Annual General Meeting, the Swiss city of Lausanne won the right to host the 2019 conference, with a spectacular bid that involved the multinational team literally climbing a mountain as part of their pitch.