Programme / Thematic Sessions IV. a. When politics and science collide, should science journalists pick a side?

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Day 3

Friday / 22 NOV

17:00 - 18:30

Thematic session:
Thematic Sessions IV. a. When politics and science collide, should science journalists pick a side?
Organised by:  World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)
Venue: Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Library Conference Hall

Hearing ‘boo’ and ‘hear, hear’ loudly shouted out is rather unusual at scientific conferences. However, this is exactly what happened in the Library Conference Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences during the World Science Forum 2019. At a thematic session lead by Peter Vermij, a communications advisor based in Amsterdam, and Kai Kupferschmidt, a freelance science writer from Berlin, participants expressed their thoughts about the roles and responsibilities of science journalists. The audience exclaimed ‘hear, hear’ when they heard something they totally agreed with, and responded with a loud ‘boo’ as a sign of their disapproval. To facilitate a lively, emotional debate, chairs were arranged just like in the House of Commons of the British Parliament, so opposing parties could look each other in the eye. Crossing the aisle – not a very common thing in the House of Commons – was encouraged here, provided that a participant changed his opinion on issues related to scientific journalism during the debate. Those in doubt or unable to decide were seated separately. It was only at the end of the debate that they were asked if they had made a decision based on the arguments.


The first question was about whether anyone in the room had experienced, seen or reported on a clash between politics and science. Most of the participants moved to the ‘yes’ side. Some stories that motivated participants to choose ‘yes’ included: (1) migratory bird habitat destruction in Georgia; (2) abortion being banned in Argentina; (3) the withholding of scientific reports on air pollution in London due to a reluctance to ban diesel cars; (4) medical data being sold in Denmark; (5) selecting among evidence of drugs; (6) the denying of evidence of pesticide-related diseases near agronomical areas in France; (7) NGO persecution in Russia; (8) and several issues in Hungary: the recent confiscation of the academic research network by the government; destroying Hungarian hydrology related to a dam on the Danube; the banning of gender studies; and the incorporation of a GMO ban in the constitution.


The second question followed: An expert committee advises a government to triple its funding for Alzheimer’s disease research. A science journalist writes a news story about its report. Should such a story always include critical comments from scientists in other fields? The majority chose the ‘no’ side; they argued that scientists from other fields are not Alzheimer’s experts. The opposition said that scientists have special mindsets which add credibility to the article. In addition, the money has to be taken away from somewhere – what other researchers feel about it should also be reported (but maybe not in a ‘news’ article).


The third question was: When academic freedom is under attack, should an association of science journalists officially support a petition against it? More people chose the ‘yes’ side, saying that journalists have the right to show their attitudes, and they gain credibility if they sign such a petition. They also added that one side is clearly wrong and they are making a false argument. The ‘no’ side of the room highlighted the fact that journalists are not activists, and that they should maintain a neutral position; they have to report, not judge.


Fourth question: Politicians, celebrities, and scientists all decry fires in the Amazon rainforest. They succeed in drawing attention to deforestation using misleading data and overstating the facts. Should science journalists make this the headline? The majority found themselves on the ‘no’ side of the question (they were labeled ‘Machiavellians’ later on). The audience booed after the suggestion that journalists sometimes have to give up some of their scientific integrity. For example, metaphors such as ‘lungs of the Earth’ resonate with laymen and convey an important message. Others added that overstating the facts is very different from fabricating facts. Reporting the overstatements in headlines will result in people thinking that the actual threat is non-existent and the real problem will not be solved. The ‘no’ side emphasised that science journalists should call out the usage of incorrect data. Science should concentrate on science and not on politics.


Fifth question: When politicians go against a research consensus, is it a science journalist’s job to defend science? More people chose the ‘yes’ side. They argued that science journalists should report the lie and defend the truth. The ‘no’ side of the room actually did not disagree, but added that there is no such thing as a ‘consensus’. Journalists are not the extended hand of science. On the contrary, they should be totally independent. Science journalists are above all journalists, and it is not their mission to defend science.


Rapporteur: Enikő Kubinyi, Senior Researcher, Eötvös Loránd University