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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Is Science Journalism an Oxymoron, Vanishing Art, or…

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications

I spent last night at the Vancouver Aquarium with some of my most talented colleagues and a few fish. We were attending the launch of the Vancouver branch office of the Science Media Centre of Canada. The event featured a panel discussion led by Canadian science icon Jay Ingram and a short reception in a darkened exhibit area surrounding by smiling sea animals. It was fantastic—and it prompted some existential conversations over bite-sized appies and the drive home.

The most important feature of the evening was that it was a PERFECT Vancouver evening. Literally. 65 degF, clear sky, amazing sunset. Oh, and then we went inside for the event.

A tough day in Vancouver.

Jay Ingram is a celebrity of Canadian science and communications. Most recently, he hosted and produced Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet¸ perhaps the most-watched and most-loved science show on Canadian television. For years, Jay would find something new in science, make it simple and inspiring, and work to share it with the public each day of the week. That’s commitment.

The panel included Lisa Johnson (CBC news reporter), Jennifer Gardy (BC CDC scientist and communicator), Candis Callison (UBC professor of journalism), and Marcello Pavan (a graduate of Quantum Diaries and TRIUMF’s outreach coordinator). Jay did something very clever and actually interviewed each of them separately on the stage for 3-4 minutes before starting the panel discussion. This provided an intimate conversation for the audience to get to know each panelist instead of the usual “prepared remarks going down along the table.”

Lisa talked about the timeline of a story. She might find out at 10am what she has to research, interview, shoot, edit, and air by 6pm that same day. That means a 30 minute delay in reaching someone credible could be a deal breaker. Jennifer talked about how important it is to give the journalist freedom to choose the angle of the story that works for them; she also said that the highest honour a journalist can pay a scientist is a chance to review the final copy of the story for any errors. Candis spoke about the skyrocketing role of new media and the challenges of communicating science as it evolves and changes at the forefronts. Marcello talked about the challenge of talking to people who have already made up their mind; he said his #1 piece of advice to journalists interviewing scientists is to give up that science is hard and that it’s too technical to make sense. As a scientist, its hard to do an interview with someone who has already decided you speak gibberish and cannot be understood!

The Q&A discussion with the audience covered some tough topics.

When science or science results are unpopular, surprising, or complex, who is responsible for championing the cause and getting them out there? Everyone has heard examples and allegations about governments around the world muzzling scientists for sharing research results that undermine policy positions or policy decisions. Are scientists themselves accountable for fighting the machine and having their truths known? What role should the media play? What about when scientists don’t know what the truth is, such as in the first few days of the Fukushima disaster where misinformation was 10 times more available than facts and yet everybody wanted a rock-solid assessment.

In the age of internet democracy, everyone and anyone can be a credible expert. It used to be that the newspaper was credible and if you saw it there, there were good odds it was true and verifiable. Nowadays, anyone can write a blog, run an online newspaper, or make a viral YouTube video that claims to be the truth. In some cases, crowd-sourced journalism can allow the public instant and immediate access to ground truth. In other cases, it means that a credible analysis can be excoriated by an anonymous user with only an e-mail address.

How can an organization like SMCC have an impact in this environment? The goal of SMCC is to raise the level of public discourse in Canada by helping journalists access evidence-based research. With this intention, the organization was formed to act as a bridge and a reliable clearinghouse and resource for scientists and the media alike. There was a lot of discussion about how to ensure that the organization could remain independent while also acting like a partner in the crucial moments when science hits the headlines. Likewise, instead of “science” sections in the newspapers, there is now science in almost every front-page story. SMCC will be helping the non-science reporters get the information they need so that the front-page headlines are accurate, timely, and useful to the public.

A fascinating evening and hats off to Jay Ingram and the panelists! Well done, and let’s do it again soon.


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