The passionate: interview with Angela Posada-Swafford

From the Spring 2013 issue of EUSJA news

Angela Posada-Swafford is one of Latin America’s leading science journalists. From Miami, the Colombian writes for the North- and South American as well as the European media. She will be part of the EUSJA workshop “Blood Infusion for Staggering Science Journalism” at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki this summer and will lecture on the art of storytelling in science. Wolfgang C. Goede interviewed her on her strategies in times of crisis, and on the strengths and opportunities of the profession. “You have to put your heart in science journalism”, she recommends. 

How do you assess the state of the art of science journalism in Latin America and Colombia? Can it live up to European and US-American standards as far as revealing the other side of the coin, digging for the truth?
In a recent Sci.Dev.Net survey, most science journalists in LatAm see the role of science journalism as informing people about science and translating complex information. Only a few respondents (3 per cent) say science journalists should provide a more critical perspective.
Compared with a decade ago, the region has more science journalists, and perhaps more science reflected on its pages (certainly not on TV or radio). But some 60 per cent of that science is not critical, it is not always accurate, it confuses science and pseudoscience, and it pays homage to scientists without questioning.  Way too many reporters get excited with the science, they swallow the information whole and they just repeat it.
For example, a highly respected Colombian neuroscientist announced recently that he is involved in researching ways to add oxygen to water and that this modified molecule promises to cure a host of diseases, even though he can’t give any details yet. The news went viral this November, with perhaps just one or two outlets tepidly attempting to explain, though none of them asking themselves how this can be.
LatAm journalists have a three-headed problem. On the one hand they are not specialised in science. On the other hand, they are not given enough column inches. The third problem is that university communication officers in general do not do a great job outreaching the press. They do not have the best bond with professors and researchers, so there is a disconnect among these three parties to the detriment of the general public.

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From your observatory in Miami, with a genuine triangle as your base, how do you look at the work of US-American and European colleagues?
US science journalism has had perhaps a longer time to evolve. In general it is solid. A lot more specialised than in other regions. I read fantastic pieces here and there. Of course I also see huge mistakes, and total dependency on press releases.  But job opportunities in traditional media are shrinking, while creative minds are making a modest living in the electronic media platforms. I think US media needs to be less reactive to news and more proactive. More creating the news to explore issues.
I move among all kinds of journalists, and the impression across the board is that everybody’s job is dying away. Even that of the gossip journalists. We seem to be replaced by bloggers, and in our case by scientists themselves. The other problem is that of jobs and academia. Several senior editors and staffers at mainstream media places here feel that we’re already at critical mass — that the job market, annually, can’t sustain a higher rate of science-writing graduates.
I think those who should report on science are simply those who do it WELL. No matter if they are journalists or scientists. And I also think journalists are quite capable of understanding complex science — if they put their heart in it … and those journalists that copy and paste from the internet (a surprising number, actually, and all over the world) certainly do not have their heart in their profession.
Science and technology have become the major promoters of change, which is unfortunately not always progress. Megacities still endorse individual rather than public transportation, and very liberal GMO policies, especially in the US, impact the daily lives of campesinos [peasant farmers] in the South. How can science journalists cope with this?
Two words: with knowledge. A science journalist who knows the science issues, who knows the parties involved, who knows the consequences of this or that regulation and its effects on people, is a person with the tools to be critical and questioning.
As a journalist, you begin to become immersed in the issues and the science way before you even ask for an interview. Then you start talking to people. I find that one source always leads to another one and so on, until the issue is seen under all angles. But the more you know about the issue, the better angles you will be able to find.
One of the greatest tools journalists of all kinds can use is simply banding together, forming associations, sharing their knowledge base, their connections, and their insight. I take a look at the e-mail exchanges in the National Association of Science Writers [NASW] and the Society of Environmental Journalists [SEJ], and I see a treasure trove of information, advice.
Another fantastic tool is the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which selects the best (and worst) examples of science reporting in English, Spanish and German, helping us to develop a critical eye to what our peers are doing, and learning from them.
In short, the job of a science journalist needs the kind of commitment you have when you are genuinely passionate about it.
For all its importance, science remains a niche that many people avoid confronting themselves with. Too complex, too difficult, are common comments. How can we address this dilemma?
The latest conclusion from the NASW is that we need to make each news item somehow be personally relevant for the audience we write for. While this is truth in a good measure, it is also true that it is harder to personalise, say, particle physics.
I think that the way to make science attractive to the bulk of the people is the old fashioned way: be seductive. Seduce the reader, the listener, the viewer, with the siren song of science, but well done. Crafted like a good entertainment book, movie, or radio show. Give them science soap operas, science Reality TV, more shows like The Big Bang Theory.  Give them Harry Potters of science, Tintins of science. Make it really fun while maintaining the quality and solidity of science.
No mission without vision: how do you picture the world in the year 2030, its challenges and accomplishments, the role of science journalism?
The principles of good journalism and good science journalism are the same now as they were in the 1800s, and as they will be in 2030. Society will always need to be informed. Science, for good and bad, will continue to surprise us and rule our lives. Our brains will be wired differently, as are children’s today … a new kind of ‘homo evolutus’ that processes information faster, that has different neuronal connections. Yet, even though the information delivery platform changes, the quality of the information will need to be preserved.
I think 2030 can begin in 2013 … if the WFSJ in Helsinki places Latin American science journalism and science issues on the table, not as a timid side dish, but as a more solid main course.
I certainly hope that 15 years from now we will have fully spanned the globe in terms of banding journalists more closely. And I further hope that Latin America will by 2030 have gathered the organisational strength to organise a world conference in the region. And finally, I do hope that news organisations worldwide get the support from private and government institutions to do their job on behalf of the society at large.
You are in a unique position with a unique career. How did you get to become the journalist you are?
I became a science journalist when that specialisation did not even exist in any journalism programme.  At first it was a strong attraction to the environment, and then that morphed into the hard sciences: astronomy, physics, earth sciences, paleontology, oceanography. I did my Masters in Journalism after having studied Modern Languages, and soon realised I had to learn the science pretty much on my own, at least in the beginning. This is where the passion part came into play.  I made it my business to learn about those topics, at home.
I embraced all media platforms, learning on my own. I freelanced as a script editor, helping hand, translator and science content consultant for Discovery Channel Latin America; I sent pieces to National Public radio, and to a host of little known magazines in Spanish and English wherever in the world I could find them.
My secret was always finding a great story. If you have something great to tell, and target it to the right publication, chances are it will get noticed because editors need good content. And you can’t find anything great to say if you don’t do your detective homework and learn the science behind the issue.
Finally, I learned about the Knight Fellowships in Science Journalism at MIT, became the first Hispanic to get the year-long fantastic opportunity in 2000, and entered the big leagues of science journalism.
One day I decided to share all those expeditions to remote corners of the world, and amazing laboratory sessions, in a series of 15 novels for young adults ages 8 to 15. Los Aventureros de la Ciencia is being used in Costa Rica and Colombia as a teaching tool in schools because the novels mix the real life science and scientists with the adventure and adrenaline of an action book. It explains the good moments and the pitfalls of being a scientist and of being a journalist since the main character is a science reporter. I hope to get them published in English one day.
Recently, Angela Posada-Swafford was honoured for her journalistic work as one of the top hundred Colombian citizens living abroad.

Wolfgang Goede
EUSJA Honorary Secretary