Good science & good journalism: what’s the link?

Posted in Indigenus blog

by Subhra Priyadarshini | Category: ,

In journalism, the more you write about a particular issue, the more chances you have of being heard by people who matter and of impacting public policy — that’s an obvious thing.

In science, the more you publish, the more you influence your peers and, in effect, people who matter. Now, that too is pretty obvious.

In many ways — especially when the issues are of immediate importance to you and me (such as the environment or health) — journalism and scientific publishing have a lot in common. They help create the buzz, bring matters to the fore and, if done well, could influence national policies. In many cases, a glaring scientific observation lends seamlessly to a brilliant work of high-impact journalism and vice-versa.

The latest IPCC working group report (fifth assessment report or AR5), as always and with reason, got a lot of media attention when it was released last month. There have been studies and more studies showing how media coverage of climate change issues peaks during IPCC negotiations and before and after the release of such ARs. However, there’s also much disappointment among negotiators and climate change communicators that effective coverage does not happen where it matters most.

During a south Asian climate change communicators’ meet last year, the issue of journalism versus activism was discussed at length as a section of journalists seemed to be gleefully crossing the line, created by modern journalism, to “do their bit for the society”. Some debated that we live in times when journalism is no longer considered a vocation, it is a profession guided mostly by advertising revenue, circulation/viewership and space/time crunch. However, most agreed that environment journalism is still that niche area where these lines often blur effortlessly.

Award winning environmental journalist Mark Schapiro says science lends itself seamlessly to great investigative stories.

The sentiments were echoed this month when a meet of global investigative journalists discussed how environmental journalism could be made more scientific and high-impact. The session discussed at length the many layers of environmental coverage, the use of scientific methodology and new age tools (satellite images, scientific literature and geotagged maps) to make sense of it all.

Taking this discussion to the next level — that is to ask ‘how environment journalists can make a difference’ — David Dodman of London-based International Institute of Environment and Development recently outlined what journalists in their role as communicators can do towards “strengthening the resilience of vulnerable citizens and infrastructure.”  They could advocate wise use of funds to improve living conditions and build resilience.

Dodman says urban populations in Africa and Asia live in places exposed to hazards, such as floods and tropical storms, which will become more frequent and intense in the coming decades. Many towns and cities lack the necessary basic infrastructure and resources to reduce the risk that such hazards pose,” he wrote in his blog. Urban residents are not always aware of the range of funds that their cities could use. Journalists can inform vulnerable citizens about them, so that citizens can in turn make the right demands from their authorities at different scales, he says.

A couple of months ago, an article in Nature Reviews Climate Change made a direct connection between pollution in a particular country/region to the number of scientific papers published in that country/region. The article accompanied by a beautiful map  concluded that the more the number of scientific papers produced from a country, the lesser are its pollution levels. “Good scientific research is necessary to provide the basis for the implementation of policies that aim to control harmful environmental agents, helping society to decide a course of action,” write Lais Fajersztain and colleagues in the paper.

They also infer from their study that governments that spend more on health care have more stringent air quality standards, probably because of greater governmental awareness of the adverse health effects of air pollution and the consequent establishment of air pollution control measures to avoid increased health costs. The researchers found that scientific research on the impact of air pollution on health is concentrated mainly in North America and Europe, China, Australia, Brazil and Japan. Such research is practically nonexistent in Africa, India and other South American countries — developing countries were found to contribute only 5% of the total research.

The map depicted a comparative panel of the number of papers produced from 1983 to date on malaria, water quality and air pollution, using the Web of Science database. “There was a marked imbalance between levels of air pollution and local scientific production: a more balanced scenario emerges when waterborne diseases and malaria are considered,” the scientists wrote.

Now that is something to pick on. And it brings to fore another question: are countries traditionally doing well in science also producing the best journalistic works? The question, in turn, merits another scientific study.

Good science and good journalism will never cease to give-and-take.

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