From ScienceWriters: WCSJ2017 update

By Charlie Petit

What is this World Conference of Science Journalists anyway?

Most American science journalists and others who help in shuttling information and analysis from the realm of science to the public in plain English surely have heard at least vaguely about something called the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ). It is coming soon to the USA for the first time. In less than two years, our kind will be in downtown San Francisco for a self-improvement confab among a global bevy of science journalists and their like. Key activities include workshops, mad gossip in the hallways, tours, and lectures from experts on hot science on the horizon.

ScienceWriters cover winter 2015-16

The 2017 meeting will take the place, with much the same qualities, of the annual ScienceWriters meeting that NASW and its allied organization, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), put on every year at U.S. universities or similar locales. Local hosts include the Berkeley and San Francisco campuses of the University of California.

The new international crowd will arise from among more than 50 science-writing organizations with 9,000 individual members.

We recently asked a familiar presence in science journalism, Curtis Brainard, to further fill in the blanks for our members. Digital Content Manager at Scientific American, he is best known for the keen judgment he displayed as a science journalism watchdog at the Columbia Journalism Review. He joined the board of the meeting’s prime authority, the World Federation of Science Journalists, two years ago. At the close of the 2015 Seoul meeting, Curtis was named to a two-year term as WFSJ president.

Q: Why is this meeting important and what specific reasons encourage U.S. science journalists and communicators to attend?

A: One main reason is that science writing occupies such a small corner of the U.S. news media. Pew and other organizations have done the research and say that science, health, and environmental news make up less than 10 percent of the news, and most of that is health. At a meeting like WCSJ, one finds that we are in fact part of a massive global community of science writers. It goes far beyond the U.S. and other large nations. While we struggle to gain space in our own publications or broadcast time, our colleagues all over the world, in Asia, Africa, everywhere, are dealing with many of the same issues — to get on the front page or air time. They also have questions about such things as agenda setting and access to information that may be distinct from the U.S. experience. There is a lot to be learned by getting together with colleagues worldwide.

Q: What sort of volunteer or other contributions can NASW members and other U.S. science writers provide at this meeting or to international issues in science journalism generally?

A: Like NASW, we are a small volunteer organization. We’re well known for our mentoring projects in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and we provide valuable training and guidance to journalists around the world through a variety of other workshops, symposia, and fellowship opportunities. Journalists in North America have knowledge that can be useful anywhere. This includes, for example, big data and investigative journalism. Another one of our goals is to become a better networking organization, facilitating communications between our 50-plus national and regional members organizations around the world. We recently launched a new website with blog space for members, and we’d like to set up emails, listservs, and other channels that will allow our members to keep in touch with colleagues around the world. We may not always be advertising for volunteers, but whether it’s one of our training programs or helping out with networking initiatives, anybody who is interested should just reach out. There’s always a way to get involved.

Q: What in a nutshell, from your international perspective, do you tell people when they ask how U.S. science journalism and communication is doing these days?

A: Well, chaos rules, that is the topline conclusion. I also tell people that I am optimistic about science journalism in the U.S. We have turned a corner, from doom and gloom to guarded optimism. Not that everything is hunky dory. We have in the last 10 years or so lost something like 40 percent of the workers at traditional outlets, networks, and newspapers. When I got into the business a decade ago, almost all the talk was about everything that was being lost. We were getting a smaller, thinner slice of a shrinking industry pie. But now, the talk is back in the present; in the realm of the possible. We do see opportunities and new webnative outlets doing good science reporting: Vox, fivethirtyeight.com, Vice, Matter, Buzzfeed, Aeon, and Quanta come immediately to mind. Pretty much all of the big new, general-interest outlets are making science a part of the mix, and small, science-based start-ups such as InsideClimate News are winning prizes like the Pulitzer. There are green shoots now. Before, there was just barren, dry earth.

Q: And if Americans ask you about the trade elsewhere?

A: What is so interesting is that for many years now, in the developing world, the trend has been just the opposite of the U.S. and European experience. In countries, just starting with real development and economic progress, there is rising interest in science topics. They are investing in health care, energy infrastructure, modern agriculture, and tech industries. All are growing in national importance as wealth increases. This is why WFSJ is such a great organization. We can help provide mentorship and capacity building as these countries grow. We can help a lot. In developing countries it is hard for journalists to find local scientists or get access to journals, for instance. We can help build bridges and suggest new ways to dig into local affairs with science as an important aspect of the coverage.

Q&A compiled by Charlie Petit. Edited for brevity.

(NASW members can read the rest of the Winter 2015-16 ScienceWriters by logging into the members area.) Free sample issue. How to join NASW.