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'Exciting and Perilous': Hope For the Future of Science Journalism
By Cristina Sanza, Brittney Borowiec, David Secko, Farah Qaiser, Fernanda de Araujo Ferreira, Heather MacGregor , Michael Bramadat-Willcock and Pouria Nazemi
Eat blueberries for the antioxidants. Exercise daily at a moderate intensity for optimal heart health. Get the vaccine to prevent the disease.
Our decision-making and conduct is influenced by what we read, see or hear. And many parts of our lives, from the food we eat to our quality of sleep, can in some way be linked back to scientific research.
The media — aiming to inform or engage — can end up peppering readers with sensationalism, hype or inaccurate science stories that shape our day-to-day lives and how we perceive the value of science. But this could be avoided if science journalists update the way they report stories.
And if readers understand what accurate, balanced science journalism should look like, they'll able to distinguish the good stories from the not-so-good ones, and make informed choices.
The future of science journalism is both exciting and perilous. Those wanting to enter the field can follow tradition such as transmitting information through a single platform or reshape how science stories are told. It's a choice we can no longer ignore.
Last summer, graduate students from around the world took part in Projected Futures, an intensive summer school that seeks to rethink how science is communicated with society. We came up with some key ways to create better science stories — and boost interest and trust in science.
How do we humanize unfinished science?
Science is not a sterile and infallible creation of computers and gleaming, strange machines. It's a human pursuit packed with curiosity, frustration, ambiguity and excitement. It's seldom a series of dramatic eureka moments. It's a slow challenging grind that's collaborative and competitive.
Here's an old story: Scientists find a new cure for cancer and it's been hiding in coffee this whole time. Relish that morning latte! This focus on show-stopping, paradigm-shifting breakthroughs makes it easy to miss the bigger picture. Tomorrow another research article may derail the cancer-promoting effects of the morning pick-me-up.
These dots are too often left unconnected, leaving readers with false hopes, apprehension and confusion about the scientific process.
Researchers may feel agitated and irritated or, with luck, exhilaration with an ever-changing body of knowledge. For this reason, a story about science remains unfinished.
Journalism needs to embrace the limitations, ambiguity and caveats of its subject, and pull people to the forefront. It should capture the collaborative efforts of researchers, combined with critical takes on available evidence. This means straying away from the myth of the lone genius and seeking information from more than a lead author.
Graduate students and post-docs often know an experiment's most intimate details. Spotlighting trainees captures their strong contributions and the collaborative nature of science. Bonus: They tend to be more accessible, a plus for journalists.
Who's in our community?
Science journalism should be delivered by journalists who are trained in science and scientists who are trained in journalism. This will enrich the public's understanding of science from multiple perspectives and prevent blowing findings out of proportion and misleading claims from going viral.
But diversity in science journalism should not be limited to one's professional or academic background — the inclusion of under-represented or marginalized individuals is essential.
The few surveys that do report science journalist demographics have abysmal response rates, making it difficult to have an informed conversation on how to advance diversity in the profession. A 2016 J-Source survey of 125 Canadian columnists found that demographics skewed largely towards white, male and middle-aged heterosexual individuals. Similarly, when it comes to interviewees, a 2016 analysis of major Canadian media revealed that male sources represented 71 per cent of all quotes and outnumbered women in every professional category.
Fortunately, new platforms are broadening access to the public sphere. The Canadian group Informed Opinions and the global organization 500 Women Scientists advocate for an increase in the number of diverse sources in science journalism. But science journalists need to actively use such resources and address any underlying biases in their reporting.
Can we be more international?
Diversification of science-related content will benefit public understanding of science on both local and global levels. While top-tier institutes often conduct more costly studies, less well-known research centres could benefit from the publicity.
Although it's not the media's role to promote institutions or individuals, in the interest of a balanced outlook, we should also cover smaller, credible public institutions that are not typically promoted by granting agencies or public relations teams. This added exposure could translate to more funding opportunities for people who don't have access to prestigious institutions and help combat inequality.
Western media has a tendency to focus on European and North American academic sources. A 2017 study of Canadian media coverage of the developing world focused largely on conflicts and disasters. More focus on international research could promote interest in cultural exchange and increase public understanding of the global nature of science research.
A more collaborative future
New forms of storytelling — from Instagram stories to podcasts to artificial intelligence-based tools — are trickling into journalism.
Between the complex subjects we cover and the emergence of new digital platforms we need to master, the old idea of science journalists working alone will change.
Science journalists, who are often freelancers, rarely have the resources or time to optimize a story across platforms. But a network of communicators, each bearing a different expertise, skill sets and tools, can transform stories into collaborations.
Our stories should also be adapted to be more accessible. For example, a print story could be read and recorded as an audio story, which publications such as The New Yorker, Wired and Hakai Magazine have done.
Like the researchers they cover, the work of science reporters is packed with curiosity, frustration, ambiguity and excitement. It's an ever-changing grind — but by working together and exercising creativity, good stories that matter will be told.
Projected Futures 3 runs from Aug. 5-9, 2019. Join in to add your projections for the future of science journalism.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.