The projected future of science journalism

Chantal Barriault, the director of the Science Communication Graduate Program at Laurentian University, alongside Tim Lougheed, a freelance science writer. Photo by Sandra Hercegova


The Science Journalism Educator Summit welcomed scientists and journalists to a three-day panel conference at Concordia University

Scientists, journalists and professors from across North America gathered to discuss the importance of science in the field of journalism at the first Science Journalism Educator (SJE) Summit, hosted by Concordia University.

From Aug. 10 to 12, the summit examined the way science journalism is taught in Canada and developed a research plan for exploring new and improved ways of teaching this subject. It was also an opportunity to establish connections between professors and students across Canada to support the future of science journalism.

The summit was organized by Concordia’s chair of journalism, David Secko, alongside the SJE Summit team, Concordia’s journalism department and faculty of arts and science, the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC).

The first panel discussion focused on the challenges of teaching science journalism, and was led by Dan Fagin, a journalism professor at New York University.

“Unfortunately, professional science journalism is increasingly dominated by a relatively small number of folks coming from a relatively small number of institutions, and that is not healthy,” he said.

According to Fagin, who is the director of NYU’s science, health and environmental reporting program, many science journalism programs are expensive and, therefore, inaccessible for many students. For this reason, he has been trying to obtain financial aid to support demographically, racially and geographically diverse students interested in completing the program.

In recent years, Fagin has also been working on a series of science communication workshops. “The idea behind these workshops is to fight, train and preserve journalistic values amongst folks who are not necessarily going to be full-time professional science journalists,” he said.

This idea of teaching journalism skills to people outside of the field was linked to an important topic debated throughout the summit: the contrast between science communication and science journalism.

Science journalism is done through articles generally written by experts in a specific field of science with a purpose of providing the public with accurate and vital information. According to Fagin, like all journalism, science journalism is a specific type of communication that puts the needs of the audience first. “Its priority is giving the audience the most interesting and most important information,” he said. There is no agenda in science journalism, he added.

However, science communication is generally affiliated with promotion and public relations. According to Fagin, science communicators share information with the goals of the institution that employs them in mind.

Teaching public relations and institutional communications people to employ journalistic practices like accuracy, fairness and transparency in their work, Fagin said, could be a solution to the decrease in traditional financial resources for journalism.

Four students from Secko’s Projected Futures science journalism class. The two front speakers are, from left, Kristin Brown and Allison Chua. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

However, this idea of promoting science communication was not unanimous among speakers at the summit. Jim Handman, a freelance science journalist, for one, said he would like to see a revival of specialist science reporters in mainstream media.

“I am worried about science communications taking over science journalism. There is more science in the news today than ever before — we’ve got climate change, vaccines and extreme weather, forest fires, and yet we don’t have specialists covering it,” Handman said. “I think this is a crisis, not just for the media but for society, because you’re going to have a less informed public.”

Yet for some, including Elyse Amend, a member of the SJE Summit team, science communication is about explaining scientific concepts to people in a way they can better understand.

“Science journalism should be much more than just explaining the science, but also explaining the complexity that surrounds whatever scientific issue you are covering,“ she said. “It doesn’t just explain — it illuminates and helps connect and illicit emotions, too.”

According to Amend, good science journalism can have a healthy future if it becomes more collaborative. She said this collaboration will require more conversations between journalists and the variety of people who participate in science.

“(We should be) building relationships with the actual researchers, building relationships with communities that are affected by science and building relationships with people who traditionally wouldn’t be considered experts but still should be,” she said. She offered the example of farmers: “They are not scientists, but they are experts because they apply that science on a daily basis on the field.”

The summit also welcomed students from a summer course called Projected Futures, taught by Secko. The concept of the course, he explained, was to engage students in the idea of making science more accessible to society. Most of the students were scientists or master’s and PhD candidates with little or no experience in journalism, so the course also helped them acquire and practice science journalism skills that would allow them to communicate their knowledge more effectively to the public, Secko said.

At the summit, the 20 students were separated into groups to present their solutions to the issues discussed and to offer their perspectives on how their own scientific work should be covered by journalists in the media.

“We made a lot of progress this week by thinking about the future of science journalism through these student experiences,” Secko said. “Those 20 students are the future of science journalism.”

Feature image: Chantal Barriault, the director of the Science Communication Graduate Program at Laurentian University, alongside Tim Lougheed, a freelance science writer. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.


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