History of Science Journalism

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Treatment of Science by the Media

Science journalism, alive and well

At the onset of the 1970s, a network of science journalists was in place in the press and on television and radio. They followed in the wake of the first generation of science journalists who had carved out a niche for themselves in Canadian media since the 1950s.

In 1974, four daily newspapers out of ten had reporters specializing in medicine and agriculture. Two newspapers in ten had one reporter assigned to scientific research. This same year, a survey recorded more than 70 signatories, editors, chronicle writers and journalists specializing in areas related to science and industry. Many general reporters were occasionally required to cover science in daily newspapers and current events magazines. Press agencies were also hiring science journalists.

Governments applaud science journalism

The federal government granted singular importance to the dissemination of popularized knowledge by mass media. Scientific activities were financed in large part by public funds and it was in the government's interest that citizens understand new concepts and embrace, or at least not oppose, government policy in science. In 1973, the federal government mandated Orest Dubas and Lise Martel to conduct a vast survey on the treatment of science by Canadian media.

The Dubas-Martel report detailed recurring communication problems between journalists and scientists, in particular the mistrust and reservations harboured by scientists towards the media. The report recommended the establishment of university training in science journalism that would include courses on the history of science, social survey techniques, mass communication and scientific writing.

In 1981, Quebec's department of higher learning and science launched a science journalism contest to award winners professional training in science journalism. In 1988, this annual contest became the Bourse Fernand-Seguin.

Yves Quenneville

Journalists focus on the environment

In Canada, several journalists campaigned actively for environmental protection. In 1971, for example, Bob Hunter, journalist with the Vancouver Sun, was one of the 13 founding members of the Greenpeace movement. This group first sought to denounce nuclear testing above ground conducted in Alaska by the government of the United States.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal of 1972, many journalists, inspired by the rising popularity of investigative reporting, became interested in environmental problems. 'Pollution' was an everpresent theme in the magazine Québec Science and on the television show The Nature of Things.

Journalists and researchers became partners, with journalists serving as intermediaries capable of explaining scientific activities to the public, placing things in perspective and sometimes criticizing events.

Fernand Seguin and JoŽl Le Bigot

Science journalists group together and acquire tools

Aware of their increasingly complex mission, science journalists associated with the press founded two professional associations: the Canadian Science Writers' Association in 1971 (CSWA, www.sciencewriters.ca) and the Association des communicateurs scientifiques (ACS, www.acs.qc.ca) in 1977.

Through these associations, science journalists could appraise aspects of their professional reality such as the debate on the nuclear industry, the situation regarding scientific information and the coverage of the AIDS epidemic by the media.

These associations also developed tools to improve journalistic coverage of science. For example, in 1978, some ACS members established the first French-language scientific press agency, Hebdo-Science, now known today as the Agence Science-Presse (www.sciencepresse.qc.ca). The initial goal of this agency was to distribute popularized scientific information to regional weekly newspapers and possibly to private radio and television networks.

A similar initiative was launched in 1982 by English-language journalists. Lydia Dotto, a former science journalist with the Globe and Mail, and Professor Harold Schiff of York University started the Canadian Science News Service press agency. This agency was devoted exclusively to news on Canadian research and targeted newspapers and radio stations. The agency covered hard sciences, social sciences, life sciences, medicine and technology. The agency closed in 1991 owing to financial difficulties.