Trust me, I’m a science journalist!

eureopan health forum gastein 2013 015Europe’s health system is in crisis. Science journalism is in crisis. At the European Health Forum Gastein EHFG 2013 researchers, policy makers and journalists joined to discuss common issues and an exit strategy.

At the high-level roundtable in the Austrian Alps participants produced a multi-facetted snapshot of what science journalism ought to be, why the profession has so many deficits, how these could be resolved and why mutual trust between scientists and journalists is so important to overcome the crisis.

Nikos Maniadakis, professor of the National School of Public Health in Athen, was very up-front with his experience with journalists. “I have a phobia of your profession”, he explained. Every interview he gave turned sour. Always the journalists got the facts wrong. Kirstin Steinhausen, professor at the European Science Foundation, nodded: “It’s sometimes dangerous to talk to journalists”.eureopan health forum gastein 2013 016

This view was not uncontested however. “Researchers have not learned to communicate well with the public”, admitted Kristine Sorensen, University of Maastricht. “We are good in lenghthy written language and delivering 45 minute lectures”, she said critically. Often it is up to the journalist to make sense out of it, to identify key messages, reduce complex studies to the language of the people. This transformation process is full of pitfalls.

John F. Ryan, director of the Public Health Directorate (DG SANCO) agreed, more or less, with his colleague. He referred to the E. coli event which resulted in the dumping of vast amounts of vegetables with an economic loss of millions of Euros. A lack of proper communication between scientists and journalists had led up to this lamentable case.

In his 30 years experience with the media, Ryan had also come across some very encouraging examples. “How US journalists and NGOs exposed tobacco manipulations”, he said that was an investigative masterpiece.

That also could be connected to the culture. In the United States officials are much more open, remarked Peter Wrobel, former Nature editor. “They are obliged by their constitution to make their information available”, he added and observed: “In Europe authorities are much more defensive” which is a reason why investigative journalism does not thrive on the continent.

eureopan health forum gastein 2013 018But this exactly is the essence of high quality journalism, intervened Tessa Richards from the British Journal of Medicine who moderated the EHFG-EUSJA-Round-Table. “Our job is to sniff out good stories”, she said and in light of the crisis in journalism “we have to finance that somehow”.

Her statement was also a response to a long list of critical remarks about science journalism by the attending journalists themselves. EUSJA president Barbie Drillsma, for example, had offered in her opening statement a very gloomy picture. Whenever crisis hits a media company science journalists are the first who are fired with the newsroom filling in and covering science.

This had just happened to the Greek television journalist Vasiliki Michopoulou (“Vaso”). From one day to the other her channel went dark. Her account of austerity within the EU, also a theme of the entire conference, is a somber testimonial ->  see also

It is not only a document of what is happening in the southern rim of the EU, but what could sprawl as a kind of cancer north as well. Vaso, a member of the Greek Association of  Science Journalists Science View, conveys a message to Brussels and European science journalism: The economic development puts the freedom of the entire media are at stake!eureopan health forum gastein 2013 020

No heydays for science journalism in Russia either. EUSJA vice president Viola Egikova reported on all kinds of spooky science going on in her country, for example the invention of so called fancy “electronic vitamins” which the media is merrily picking up on. To expose the truth behind these fakes can be very dangerous, said the colleague from Russia.

Despite of all these difficulties of the profession EUSJA board member Menelaos Sotiriou sees a whole new perspective of collaboration between research and science journalism. He referred to the soon-to-be launched research offensive of the European Commission Horizon 2020. It calls for early involvement of the audiences. “We the science journalists are stakeholders too”, Sotiriou expressed. “So if you pull us in from the early beginning of your research we are much better apt to report on it.”

eureopan health forum gastein 2013 022The roundtable had been organized by EHFG president Helmut Brand after an EUSJA session in 2012 which had demonstrated the need of more media involvement in the conference. He concluded the roundtable with the recommendation that each side should try out more trust. For EHFG 2014 he suggested to invite Anne Glover, chief executive adviser of EU president Jose Manuel Borroso.

This could  be an innovative approach to bridge health and science, science journalists and the science-minded society. Glover has co-authored a recent policy paper called “Science for an informed, sustainbable and inclusive knowledge society” -> which calls for a new social and societal contract:

 “For Europe to become a sustainable, prosperous, democratic and secure society, it is important that legitimate societal concerns concerning science and technology development are taken on board, entailing an enhanced democratic debate with a more engaged and informed public and better conditions for collective choices on scientific issues. A new science and society contract should be proposed. Social learning and co-production of knowledge were appropriate together with the involvement of civil society in science and technology.”

EUSJA is developing a consultation paper of how European science journalists could participate in this.