Midsummer Ethics

WCSJ 2013 Helsinki 074During midsummer, the Finnish capital was the northernmost extension of the Mediteranean Sea – with special light effects. Blue sunny skies and temperatures of up to 35 centigrades made the University of Helsinki a sauna and made the participants of the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists work up a sweat. How refreshing to take a stroll at night to the pleasant waters of the harbor, relax in one of the open air cafés and bars! Just like in Rome or Barcelona, confusing, however, that at midnight it felt like 9 in the evening. During Helsinki’s famous “White Nights” its skies stay in twilight. All this contributed to a very special conference ambience.

Vesa Niinikangas, the outgoing president of the World Federation of Science Journalists and former EUSJA treasurer, perfectly lived up to this. In his red jacket and with his straw hat he was a charming host. He harvested the fruits of seven years of hard work. Vesa and his team could welcome 807 delegates from 77 countries. They engaged in well over 50 sessions, workshops and panels, which in the majority revolved around the question how to become better in the job and draw the line between science journalism and science communication.

The special emphasis of WCSJ 2013 Helsinki was, more than during previous world conferences, put on ethics and democracy, such as “freedom of expression” and “critical questioning in the public sphere”.

WCSJ 2013 Helsinki Istvan lowresAs EUSJA president Barbie Drillsma pointed out in a letter to all members, the umbrella of Europe’s science journalists managed to engage in four sessions, in which not only the board but a sizeable number of members got involved. Three scholarships to young professionals from the Netherlands, Ireland and Spain were awarded. Besides, EUSJA’s treasurer Priit Ennet organized a study trip with twenty plus participants to Estonia, or better e-Estonia, the first country in the world which is establishing a completely internet-based society   >>> https://www.eusja.org/e-e-e-stonia-the-new-baltic-tiger/

Altogether this world conference was very successful also for Europe, thanks to a close and generous cooperation with the Finnish organizers. EUSJA is very grateful for this. With its contributions, EUSJA tried to address the goal of the conference and to advance ethics, a critical attitude and democracy.

The capacity building session “Blood Infusion for Staggering Science Journalism” dealt with exactly this. Associate board member Fabio Turone laid out the principles of investigative science journalism. A lot of science is not as truthful and objective as it is supposed to be. Listening very carefully to what sources say, how they say it and whether they use words like “sensitive” is the job of an investigative science reporter.

He must dig much deeper into the material and data than his colleagues, sniff out contradictions, cultivate relationships to the research community, record carefully all his findings, never rely on a single source but always get a second opinion, keep his editor informed about progress, be patient and prepare for months of investigation, get the story watertight and ask before publication the incriminated persons for their version, generally be ready for conflict, if push comes to shove even anticipate legal action.

Turone, a specialist in medicine, knew what he was talking about and was once sued for a story. Besides, he referred to the guidelines of K.S. Jayaraman, a very successful investigative reporter in India >>> http://www.scidev.net/global/communication/practical-guide/how-to-be-an-investigative-science-journalist-1.html

Another source of misinformation are false or misleading statistics, many times arbitrarily used. Hans van Maanen exposed them in his exercise “Smelling the rat between the numbers”. He recommended, like Turone, tough questioning. A researcher should be asked “where is the publication” and “show me the numbers”.  This helps the science journalist to figure out the plausibility and the human dimension. “1 in 1000 is a lot”, said van Maanen, “but how lot?”WCSJ 2013 GA lowres

Don’t accept a percentage, he instructed his audience, “but always go for absolute numbers”. A 10 percent increase might sound a lot, he added, but if it’s only 3 people, forget it, “that’s just noise”. For people who really want to dig into numbers the lecturer offes an online course on statistics >>> http://www.wfsj.org/course/lesson.htm?e=e09#L09P00

Not only numbers, but also badly told stories are a deterrent to readers and media users. To make an article meaningful and attractive, said Angela Posada-Swafford, the writers must apply the rules of storytelling. For example

  • unique first sentences (“Mary was a dark-haired beauty with a hole in her heart”), usage of comparisons (“a meteorite is like the ice-cream they serve at Chinese restaurants: frozen inside, with a crispy coat outside”), 
  • use the writing as a movie director would use the camera with long shots and close ups,
  • SHOW and don’t tell, 
  • change perspective and tell the story through the view of a patient, an animal, a molecule, 
  • continuous action, 
  • sounds (“rain clatters on the roof”); 
  • verbs are everything, 
  • a paragraph is a unit of thought (the more elegant the thought, the shorter the paragraph), 
  • at the end revise, revise, revise and read out loud the story and ask yourself “Does it sing well?”.

Posada-Swafford finished with an exercise and asked to write the opening sentence of a story and to incorporate these three words “tangled, hair, fresh” in 25 words within five minutes. Many experienced writers failed, but not the teacher: “She was gasping, in need of fresh air, suffering from the penetrating pain she had caused to herself while combing her tangled hair, still wondering what could have possibly gone wrong with the experiment”.  >>> http://www.angelaposadaswafford.com/nueva/esp/intro.html

Curricula & Summaries, Pictures & Videos, Mission Statement of this EUSJA Training >>> https://www.eusja.org/eusjas-workshop-at-the-2013-helsinki-world-conference-of-science-journalists-on-blood-infusion/WCSJ 2013 EUSJA Stand lowres

Very much in line with the conference goals to foster more professionalism and societal dialogue was the session “Science Debates as a Tool and Opportunity for Science Journalists”. It was organized by former EUSJA president Hajo Neubert and was originally presented already at ESOF 2010 Torino. It provides new platforms for science journalists as the moderators of the discussion between science, society and politics.

Debates about scientific issues and policy also enlarge the frames of reporting and make journalists aware of the fact that science and technology are always embedded in the entire society and have a political context. That was stated by Shawn Otto, inventor of the US Science Debate 2008 and 2012, in his input about the “Science Democracy Gap” >>>

As the history of climate change shows, “democracy is co-opted by private interests” and manipulations, Otto said. “We need to report on the political interests of science”, he demanded and finished with the sentence: “Science debate are needed to save democracy.”

Priit Ennet, the EUSJA treasurer, had run a science debate in Estonia  proposed an international science debate with the following criteria:WCSJ 2013 Helsinki Priit lowres

  • continuous, 
  • decentralized, 
  • transparent,
  • inclusive, 
  • non-hierarchal, 
  • diverse and 
  • voluntary

Klaartje Jaspers, EUSJA conference scholar from the Netherlands, wants to organize a science debate for “science unlimited”, a science festival in Den Haag in 2014 >>> www.scienceunlimited.nl.

Oppressed dialogues addressed Istvan Palugyai, the Hungarian EUSJA delegate and former EUSJA president in the session “Science journalism in totalitarian countries and its impacts to the present time”. In totalitarian times, distortion was everywhere, he reported.

“Now it’s more subtle, but no less devious” and journalists have to be extra vigilant, he said. For example, almost half of Hungaria’s power is generated by a Russian nuclear power plant, “but cost benefits and safety are never debated”, Palugyai regretted.

James Cornell, President of the International Science Writers Association ISWA, supported this view by adding examples of the United States. From the development of the atomic bomb, over biosecurity to global warming, US science is always part of the political agenda and due to manipulation, said Cornell, thus reinforcing the message of his fellow countryman Shawn Otto. Sources may talk a lot but reveal little valuable information, in other words:WCSJ 2013 Helsinki Jim lowres

Heavy hand censorship has transformed into “velvet-gloved” manners of US bureaucrats, “the difference is just a matter of style”, concluded Cornell.

An article of this very well received session was published by Nalaka Gunawardene >>> http://collidecolumn.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/when-worlds-collide-72-open-science-and-closed-societies-can-it-work/.

Also SciDev.Net reported on this session. It also quoted Jim Cornell.  He was asked what nowadays could be done, when authoritarian governments oppress journalists and prevent access to information, like for example in some Latin American countries. The ISWA President responded:

“We need to build better networks that help us to put some pressure on the repressive governments.” >>> 


The panel had been organized by EUSJA’s vice president Viola Egikova, a resident of Moscow. She had won for it many delegates of former East Bloc countries such as Blanca Jergovic, Croatia, and Marina Huzvarova, Czech Republic. Alexandru Mironov, Romania, presented his science books written over the decades and said that he actively participated 1989 in the revolution against Ceausescu. But he had not imagined that science journalism would so much deteriorate after the end of the communist regime.

Not only political journalists, but also science journalists are watchdogs was a central message of the session, which Viola Egikova underlined by pointing out: On the map of the freedom of the press 2013 the Finnish guests belong to the few countries, which enjoy unconditional and unrestricted liberty.

Obviously also encouraged by this session, the organizer engaged right after the end of the conference in a protest against an attempt to disempower and destroy the Russian Academy of Science. Egikova wrote on the EUSJA website:WCSJ 2013 Helsinki Viola lowres

“It seems the session of totalitarian countries EUSJA had in Helsinki arrived home with me! As if somebody heard what I was saying and decided to give an example how it worked in a country with a totalitarian past.” >>>

EUSJA delegates and other joined in >>>
The Danish Delegate Jesper Odde Madsen circulated a petition >>>

Highlight of EUSJA’s World Conference activities was the session about Horizon 2020 and how science journalism ties into this new EU strategy. The panel, chaired by Barbie Drillsam and consisting of Menelaos Sotiriou, associate board member, and Martin Schneider, German WPK delegate, welcomed a highranking official of the European Union, Begoña Arano, Head of Communication, representing Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research & Innovation, European Commission, Brussels.

She said that the EU will invest between 2014 and 2020 up to 70 billion euros in research and development. The goal of the session was to make sure that science journalism will be included. The decision is still pending, responded the guest, however she made a firm commitment that “science journalism is needed in the society”.

In his presentation Sotiriou made clear that unlike communicators “we are not disseminators of science”. EUSJA rather could offer workshops, dialogue sessions, trainings and study trips to promote the exchange of knowledge between science and society. Important, he pointed out, is to identify the needs of the taxpayers. Science debates with a targeted audience could help to achieve this as much as “educate researchers about the audience”. >>> EUprojects_Phases_EUSJA

WCSJ 2013 Helsinki Marina lowresMartin Schneider summarized complementary negotiations with Smits during the past months which circled around three fields of interest: Summer schools with training for journalists, a European conference of science journalists parallel to ESOF 2014 Copenhagen, a fund for investigative science journalism. Barbie Drillsma reaffirmed that science journalist are not cheerleaders for science, but provide an enabling contribution to the society as a whole.

The 8th World Conference of Science Journalists ended with a fierce call for action of Satu Lipponen, president of the conference, “to promote freedom of expression, access, transparency, and better communication among public and private organizations involved in scientific research and policy”. This is crucial to science journalism and its important role in informing the general public about science and its implications for society, she said and added:

“Science journalists should strive to communicate the perspectives of crucial stakeholders without compromising journalistic independence.”

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