Fabio Turone – Investigative science journalism


We started from a basic question: What do we mean by investigative science journalism? How is it different from investigative journalism? Is it the same “journalistic genre” all over the world?

WCSJ 2013 Fabio lowresI listed some of the definitions that have been proposed in recent years («It means going beyond looking at a single study to really understand a scientific concept. Diff from traditional “inv. journo”»; «Any instance in which a reporter tries to uncover scientific information that has been concealed or distorted, using rigorous methods»), and we all agreed that they were not satisfactory.

Then I briefly recalled two cases from my personal experience, of a “simple” science journalist: an investigation on an Italian association pretending to speak about HIV mother-to-child infection in the name of the United Nations, basically promoting an anti-abortion campaign (I was sued for that story, and learned my lesson); and an investigation I wrote for the British Medical Journal about the Swiss-based arm of a Chinese State-owned company producing stem cells that also marketed unproven stem cell therapies. After several rewritings, the story was finally killed, and I published it in Italy, on the weekly newsmagazine “Panorama”.

I learned from this experience that at any level, getting the facts straight is only part of the story: according to Italian law I risked to be sentenced for libel because I used an offensive expression (by saying that those people were «pretending», since they couldn’t talk for the United Nations), and I was spared it only because their lawyer did a stupid mistake with legal jargon; and the British law on libel is even more favourable for crooks, so any critical piece must be carefully weighed not only for truth but also for relevance.

So we explored together the legal side of investigative science journalism, and the participants were asked whether they were ever sued or threatened to be sued, and if they got an investigation piece killed. Furthermore, they were invited to tell us how much work they are/think they might be allowed to devote to a single investigation (if they’re salaried) or paid for an investigative story (if they freelance). Few in the audience had first hand experience of investigative journalism, and the general sense was that most publications grant little time/money to this kind of expensive journalism.

Then we discussed several examples of reasons not to take science at face value: frauds, mistakes, plagiarism, bad or non-significant statistics, self-promotional hype, brought to light with outstanding examples of investigative science journalism and data journalism projects, such as those promoted by Propublica or the British Medical Journal, such as the series on Dollars for Doctors (listing all payments received from pharmaceutical companies by US physicians, for whatever reasons) or the recent investigation about the use of sentinel node biopsy for melanoma despite the lack of sound results from clinical trials (still unpublished after too many years).

Here are a few more inspiring examples:

BMJ – WHO and the pandemic flu “conspiracies”

BMJ – HOW THE CASE AGAINST THE MMR VACCINE WAS FIXED

The goal of this short debate was a shared reflection on how to get inspired to produce good quality and useful pieces focused on one’s country/readers even with little resources available. To do so I distributed a short practical guide published on SciDev Net by  K. S. Jayaraman on “How to be an investigative science journalist”) and presented the EUSJA project for a grant for investigative science journalism, and launched the idea of a European Network of Investigative Science Journalism, adding to the existing networks of investigative journalism with a broader focus, such as

http://gijn.org/member-organizations/

https://po.missouri.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A0=GLOBAL-L

http://www.ire.org/blog/extra-extra/science/

(more details later on the EUSJA website).

If you want, you can scroll through the slides I presented
(the pace of the video is one slide per second, but you can pause and revert back as you want).

 

A few impressions from the presenters and some participants
(7 short videos,  you can skip from one to another
– Apologies for the bad quality of the audio)

 

 

Fabio Turone is the President of Science Writers in Italy, associate member of the board of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA), and a member of the U.S. National Association of Science Writers (since 1994), Investigative Reporters and Editors (since 2002), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (since 2004).

A member of the Italian Order of professional journalists since 1994, he is partner and director of the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information based in Milan. He has worked as a staff writer and freelance contributor for several media (Sapere, Tempo Medico, L’Espresso, Panorama, la Repubblica, la Stampa, Il Corriere della sera, la Nuova ecologia, Salve, Telèma, Diario, Il Sole 24 Ore, Newton and Wired), and has been deputy editor of the monthly Occhio Clinico Pediatria for paediatricians, and the director of the Epidemiologic bulletin of Lombardy. Since 1998 he has been contributing to the British Medical Journal.

He has attended courses, seminars and conferences as a producer, a panellist, and an invited speaker. In recent years he produced a panel on risk at the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha (Qatar, 2011), held a keynote speech about science journalism at a seminar at UNESCO’s International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste and served as Science Journalism Expert for UNESCO in Sarajevo in November 2012. Currently he is managing editor of the scholarly, peer reviewed quarterly Italian Journal of Public Health, and Course Director at the Erice International School of Science Journalism.

 

About the Author

Satu Lipponen is president of EUSJA, Twitter @Lipponen5