New Unity Found in a Rough Environment

2nd European Conference of Science Journalists Budapest 2015: a 1st prelimary synopsis and evaluation.

ECSJ venue: Hungarian Academy of Science (c) Goede
ECSJ venue: Hungarian Academy of Science (c) Goede

The 2nd European Conference for Science Journalists ECSJ, held on the 3rd of November 2015 in the Hungarian Academy of Science, was a powerful showing of a revitalized and reunited European science journalism. Here come highlights of five panels*, at the end with personal reflections.

At the beginning, Satu Lipponen from Finland, current president of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations EUSJA, in 2016 celebrating its 45th anniversary, appealed to the 120 participants:

“We have to find new ways.”

Panel #1: Science Journalism in Society.

Curtis Brainard, WFSJ President (c) Goede
Curtis Brainard, WFSJ President (c) Goede

Curtis Brainard from the US, current President of the World Federation of Science Journalists WFSJ, presented blatant evidence of cases in which advertisement and commercials are increasingly being mixed with editorial content. His message: Fight it or leave it, sci journos, “work on your quality!”

Connie St. Louis from UK, former president of the Association of the British Science Writers ABSW and current WFSJ board member, talked about the traditional function of science journalists as watchdogs, also and especially regarding sexism in science and her own role in the Tim Hunt scandal.

Panel #2: Communication of Infectious Deseases

Viola Egikova from Russia, current EUSJA vice president, stressed the role of science journalists to thoroughly inform the public, especially in health issues and epidemics.

Viola Egikova, EUSJA Vice President and her panel (c) Goede
Viola Egikova, EUSJA Vice President with her panel (c) Goede

Which resulted in deep confusion, as Csaba Molnár from Hungary, biologist and science writer, critically pointed out, when he analyzed the management of bird flu in Europe.

Oliver Lehmannfrom Austria, delegate of the Club of Austrian Science Journalists to EUSJA, warned about metaphors as a camouflage of reality: “Metaphors can become infectious deseases.”

The Johnson & Johnson representative, filling in for Seema Kumar, J&J vice president of innovation, global health and science policy communication, talked about the challenges in the development of new pharmaceutical weapons against epidemics such as Ebola. “A culture of openness” shall prevent a meltdown in ethics and communication as recently witnessed with VW and FIFA.

Panel #3: Roll-out new EUSJA network

As an avenue “out of depression in science journalism”, Satu Lipponen introduced EUSJA’s new Nucleus project. The network will provide jobs and open an innovative door, namely make ethics in science measurable and comparable and thus provide a digital tool box.**

Satu Lipponen, EUSJA President (c) Goede
Satu Lipponen, EUSJA President (c) Goede

Berit Viuf from Denmark, vice president of the Danish Science Journalists’ Association, criticized traditional science journalism as one dimensional: “Hurray or horrible”. If the community starts to go out into more innovative directions, new and more productive forms will evolve and also provide for a living.

Priit Ennet from Estonia, associated member of the EUSJA board, reflected  on the advantages of networks like Nucleus. They can enable, “in a low intensity conference” constant exchange and learning.

Panel #4: Journalists as Entrepreneurs

The panel, organized by Jens Degett from Denmark, EUSJA treasurer, tried to ignite fresh ideas and drum up new business models. Tim Radford from UK, long-time science reporter of the Guardian, held up the power of a good story (in support of Brainard’s quality appeal). It’s all about meeting people, talking to them, finding out what’s interesting and sharing this with others, in short: “the privilege to write something never written before”.

Jens Degett (ctr), Alex Gerber (r.), Dominique Leglu (l) (c) Goede
Jens Degett (ctr), Alex Gerber (r.), Dominique Leglu (l) (c) Goede

Dominique Leglu from France, editor-in-chief of “Science et Avenir” and former delegate to EUSJA, presented the scientific journal and especially the website. She gave proof of the passion which is needed to fill it with meaningful content by doing on-site interviews of researchers and participants.

Alex Gerber from Germany, professor for science communication at Rhine Waal University, stated that he disagreed with most of the panelists. He made a pitch for radical changes, making the new generation fit for survival and training young people with creative skills, business skills, technical skills (which many listeners never had heard about so far). His students enriched ECSJ with videos which were disseminated on the youtube channel.

Panel #5: Science Journalists in the climate debate

Mico Tatalovic from UK and the Balkans, ABSW vice president and news editor at New Scientist, addressed the fact that public awareness and scientific evidence of climate change have significantly increased over the past 20 years.

Martin Schneider from Germany, vice president of the science department Public Television SWR and president of German Science Journalists’ Association WPK, found that in science there is always more than one truth and the key question for the public is: “What can I do personally?”.

Martin Schneider, WPK delegate to EUSJA (c) Goede
Martin Schneider, WPK delegate to EUSJA (c) Goede

Hans von Storch from Germany, professor at the University of Hamburg and analysist of climate change, made a pledge not to call the sceptics evil but to deal with their queries and uncertainty properly. His contribution “Media an me, the climate scientist” can be downloaded here.

Pros & Cons

Finally, apart from reporting the first attempt of an evaluation, pros and cons, presented by the author of this report, Wolfgang C. Goede, EUSJA Honorary Secretary, who had been kindly asked to participate in the 1st panel.

Science journalism in society was well covered with strong statements. What I missed and what I tried to emphasize in my own impulse: the role of industry and the growing dependence of research, especially technology on the corporate world. Science journalism has to explore these borderlines, be also critical with the economic growth dogma.

Infectious deseases: We are concerned, of course, but are we also prepared when the crisis hits home?

Entrepreneurship: It’s more like a buzz word, the conference filled it with sense. Traditional story telling is not out, while technical wizards enter the stage. More best practices and lively examples are needed.

Her Highness Sumaya Bint el Hassan (2nd r.) (c) Goede
Her Highness Sumaya Bint el Hassan (2nd r.) (c) Goede

Climate Change: Before the Paris Climate Summit in December an excellent item on the ECSJ agenda. However, no new insights were delivered, no reference to refugees and climate refugees, which i.e. were addressed at the press conference of the opening of the World Science Forum WSF, which ECSJ was a satellite event of. The host of WSF 2017 Jordan, Her Highness Sumaya Bint ell Hassan, addressed the environmental deterioration in her country, short term thinking of the Western culture, increasing numbers of refugees in her country, by the millions. She talked, as many others on the panel, of the urgent need to create “science for peace”. This aspect ECSJ missed out on, which I feel is a pity because the public is so much concerned (see also New York Times Oct. 31***)

In a nutshell

All in all, ECSJ was a valuable contribution to the consolidation of European science journalism. Now we have to get closer to the issues, not only digest the science, but submit answers to the public, figure out much more the societal impact. Very important also that we have to get away from the monolithic type of moderation, provide opportunity for more interactive forms, realize inclusiveness, use everyone’s brain neurons, simulate lab atmosphere with lively and sometimes unpredicted outcomes, not a church type setting.

Rapporteur Dino Trescher with Reetta Kettunen (chair)
Rapporteur Dino Trescher, TELI delegate to EUSJA, with Reetta Kettunen (chair of evaluation)

This was the 2nd ECSJ after the first one in Copenhagen, satellite event of ESOF 2014; the 3rd ECSJ will take place in July 2016 in Manchester in conjunction with the ABSW and as an ESOF 2016 satellite event. This will be also the stage for the EUSJA anniversary.

PLEASE STAY TUNED: More to come in details, reflections, outlook on EUSJA website by the two rapporteurs of the 2nd European Conference for Science Journalists ECSJ, Daniela Ovadia and Dino Trescher!

AND SPECIAL THANKS TO: Istvan Palugyai, organizer of 2nd ECSJ. Istvan is President Emeritus of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations EUSJA. In 1999, he was the organizer of the 2nd World Conference of Science Journalists, which laid the groundwork for the foundation of the World Federation of Science Journalists WFSJ, a reliable and robust column in science journalism.

Istvan Palugyai, organizer of 2nd ECSJ 2015 Budapest
Istvan Palugyai, EUSJA Pres. EM and organizer of 2nd ECSJ 2015 Budapest

*) 2nd ECSJ Program


***) “A Mass Migration Crisis, and it may get worse”, NYT Oct. 31, 2015: “Climate change, too, is roiling societies across the Middle East and Africa. Syria was in the grip of a drought when war broke out, and large areas of sub-Saharan Africa are becoming uninhabitable.” … “this is only the beginning of the crisis, because the conditions inciting people to flee their homelands will only worsen” (Joschka Fischer, former German foreign minister). >>>



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