History of Science Journalism

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Treatment of Science by the Media

Less place for science in daily newspapers

In 2002, the Conseil de la science et de la technologie du Québec noted two things: first, the distribution of scientific information was declining – for example, in 1995-1996, major daily newspapers in Quebec published 33% fewer news items on university research than in 1980-1981; secondly, scientific and technological information lacked diversity and its handling was deficient.

At the end of the 1980s, most daily newspapers in Canada grouped scientific news in a 'science' page. In the wake of daily newspaper downsizing, science pages have become rare indeed. Likewise, journalists covering science are now mostly in the employ of huge daily newspapers like the Globe and Mail. At the end of the 1990s, the Journal de Montréal and the Journal de Québec offered their readers a weekly science feature written by an agency (Science-Presse) collaborator, Michel Marsolais. The feature no longer exists. Information Director Dany Doucet of the Journal de Montréal has no intention of remedying the situation by assigning a journalist specifically to coverage of the sector. ''Science is too vast a domain,'' he indicated. ''Health interests us more. We are well served as it is by the Canadian press and the Associated Press.'' (...) For three years, Le Droit  in Ottawa reserved one page weekly to scientific news (...) except that this page was not republished in September last. However, one exception does continue to exist: two years ago, Le Devoir hired journalist Pauline Gravel to add more depth to scientific coverage.

« Journalisme scientifique en déclin », (science journalism in decline) Pascal Lapointe, Sciencepresse, December 10, 2008, http://www.sciencepresse.qc.ca/node/22349;

« Journalistes scientifiques en voie de disparition », (science journalists on the road to extinction) Pascal Lapointe, Sciencepresse, February 14, 2009. http://www.sciencepresse.qc.ca/node/22843

Television, the stronghold of science journalism

In television and radio newsrooms, journalists assigned full time to the coverage of scientific events are rare indeed.

On the other hand, since the 1990s, new science information shows have been aired by specialized networks such as the Discovery Channel and Ztélé. Among other things, the Discovery Channel proposes a show broadcast daily known as Daily Planet that can also be downloaded directly from their website (www.discoverychannel.ca).

The Nature of Things and Découverte, the main science shows aired by CBC and Radio-Canada, enjoy fine reputations and each boasts a loyal audience of viewers.

Découverte, the show that replaced Science-réalité, has been on the air since 1984 on Radio-Canada. Sunday evenings, some 661,000 television viewers (information from 2008) tune in to watch the show. Découverte explores the world of science through real cases having an impact on the public. The show presents reports and documentaries on science, health, the environment, space research and technology. Découverte is hosted by Charles Tisseyre.

For more information: http://www.radio-canada.ca/emissions/decouverte/2008-2009/

After several years of absence, scientific information made a comeback in 2008 at Télé-Québec with a show entitled Le code Chastenay.

Le code Chastenay  is hosted by Pierre Chastenay, astrophysicist and person in charge of educational activities at the Planetarium in Montréal. Reporting carried out across Quebec addresses all aspects of science and showcases impassioned researchers. The journalistic approach to scientific issues focuses on the human perspective.

For more information: http://lecodechastenay.telequebec.tv

The challenges of covering science

Coverage of contemporary science often consists of news from press agencies. Brief texts regularly announce sensational breakthroughs without providing information on their validity and scope.

Moreover, because university researchers are encouraged to patent and market their research results, science journalists must consider the financial aspects involved in the validation of information collected from scientists.

Coverage of science by general newsmen

Since science is everpresent in our daily lives, it is part and parcel of a wide variety of reports. However, general newsmen or journalists now write a good number of the science features published. Therefore, these journalists deal with subjects such as GMO, energy, climate, pollution, assisted reproductive techniques, etc. At the municipal and regional levels, several debates and contemporary issues also involve scientific considerations that journalists must understand to better explain them.

To mitigate the non-specialization of journalists in scientific matters, a new tool has been in development since 2008: the Science Media Centre of Canada (CSM/SMC, http://www.sciencemediacentre.ca/). It consists of an independent assistance and reference organization set up by a small group of journalists, researchers and friends of science. Based on the model of similar centres in the United Kingdom and Australia, the SMC aims at improving scientific news coverage. For example, upon request, the SMC will provide journalists with the coordinates of leading experts and reliable websites in specific fields of science. Training workshops and information sessions are also among services offered in response to the needs of journalists, media and the scientific community.

Special university training

Journalism and communication departments at Laval and Carleton universities offer future journalists courses in the popularization of science and the coverage of contemporary science. These universities house the Chaire de journalisme scientifique Bell Globemedia (www.cjs.ulaval.ca) and the CTV Chair in Broadcast Science Journalism (http://www.carleton.ca/research/chairs/endowed_chairs/ohara.html) respectively.

Science journalism across the world

In associations founded by science journalists, such as the Canadian Science Writers' Association (CSWA) http://www.sciencewriters.ca/), and the Association des communicateurs scientifiques (ACS, www.acs.qc.ca), one fact stands out: membership is growing faster than ever, but the number of science journalists is declining.

Likewise, as is the case with research and any related issues, science journalism has become international in scope. Now, one must cover the 'world', navigate the sea of information on the Web, judge the pertinence of subjects and scientific news, track down recognized experts in different fields, etc. Thus, science journalists must work like journalists assigned to international news.

In 2002, the World Federation of Science Journalists was established and its headquarters are located in Gatineau, Quebec.

World Federation of Science Journalists

This non-profit organization groups together associations of science and technical journalists from around the world. Canadian journalist Véronique Morin was the federation's first president in 2002. The WFSJ promotes the role of science journalist as the essential intermediary between science, scientists and the public. Through its bi-annual world conference, website, exchange and training workshops, the Federation encourages development and exchange among science journalists. In January 2009, the Federation had 39 member associations in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe. For more information, refer to: http://www.wfsj.org/about/page.php?id=65

Radio benefits from podcasting

Podcasting is a form of multimedia content broadcasting made popular by blogs. This ever-evolving technique involves the use of a portable digital player to receive audio and video files through a subscription to a website. Podcasting allows listeners to listen to pre-recorded radio broadcasts at their convenience.

On the air since 1994 on Radio-Canada, the show entitled Les Années lumière (http://www.radio-canada.ca/emissions/les_annees_lumiere/2009-2010/), which is also available through podcasting, boasts 69,800 to 82,800 listeners (information from 2007 and 2008).

After his studies at the École supérieure de journalisme in Lille, France and a few years spent covering news at large, Yanick Villedieu embarked on a career in science and medical journalism in the 1970s. He worked for the magazine Québec Science, and for two years served as a member of the Science-Réalité team on Radio-Canada television. Since 1982, he has been a journalist and host on Radio-Canada radio during the Aujourd'hui la science show which, in 1994, became Les Années lumière. This veteran science journalist also cooperates with the magazine L'actualité and has published four books.

The Quirks and Quarks show which has been on the air at CBC since 1975 is also podcast, reaching out to some 353,400 viewers when aired on Saturdays at noon (information from 2008).

Before joining the Quirks and Quarks team in 1992, Bob McDonald hosted Wonderstruck, a science program for children on CBC television. He continues to work in this niche, writing and hosting Heads Up!, a scientific culture show for children aired on TV Ontario (TVO) and the Knowledge Network. As a science journalist, he also regularly cooperates in various CBC shows such as CBC Newsworld Morning on radio and The National on television. In recognition of his remarkable talent for communication and scientific interpretive writing, Bob McDonald has received numerous awards such as the Sandford Fleming Medal from the Royal Canadian Institute in 2002 and the McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science from the Royal Society of Canada in 2005. Likewise, at least four Canadian universities have awarded him honorary doctorates since the year 2000.

For more information: http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/host.html

The Internet: a new tool to disseminate science

The Internet features four main kinds of websites offering scientific information.

  1. Written and electronic media present science news from around the world in sections of their website or in specialized websites. Thus, the public can now easily refer to the best news specialist on a given topic regardless of whether the journalist works for Radio-Canada, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Le Devoir or Le Monde, The Gazette or The New York Times.
  2. There are also websites produced by foundations and associations that specialize in scientific news, the environment and health. Some offer original content such as Passeport Santé (www.passeportsante.net), which combines scientific news with technical fact sheets validated by specialists.
  3. Others are aggregators, meaning sites grouping together content originating from various sources. Such is the case of Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) and e! Science News (www.esciencenews.com). The latter site, produced by Quebecer Michaël Imbeault, automatically displays a selection of science news from 40 distinct sources.
  4. Some science journalists also exploit the flexibility and multimedia possibilities of the blog. The userfriendliness of the blog allows these journalists to offer readers a range of contemporary information and commentaries. Such is the case of Valérie Borde, a science journalist with the magazine L'Actualité, who writes a blog entited « Mon il! Le blogue d'une journaliste scientifique en colère » (http://blogues.lactualite.com/valerie-borde/). Jean-François Cliche, journalist with the daily newspaper, Le Soleil, maintains a blog known as « Sciences Dessus Dessous » (http://blogues.cyberpresse.ca/sciences/).

As a hub of science journalism, the World Federation of Science Journalists hosts a series of blogs prepared by trade professionals, also members of the Federation, on its website (http://www.wfsj.org/blogs/category/wfsj/).

Scientists are also present on the blogosphere. For example, many write on « Science! On blogue », produced by the Agence Science-Presse (http://blogue.sciencepresse.qc.ca).