Science and the Media: Reflections on the Tobago Workshop

IAP Programmes

Science and the Media: Reflections on the Tobago Workshop

Abiodun Raifu, Editor, Saturday Tribune, Ibadan, Nigeria ...
For too long, the relationship between scientists and journalists has been characterised by mutual suspicion that has stalled progress in the area of scientific knowledge. Yet, it is clear that journalists and scientists must come to terms with the symbiotic nature of their relationship.

This is not only because journalists serves as a mediating influence between the scientific community and the larger society, they have a mutual goal of advancing the frontiers of science in mankind's quest to fully understand his environment and apply science to solve current and future problems.

Until the Tobago workshop, it was not clear to both sides that they have a mutual goal and that mis-understanding of each other's role may have been due to mis-conceptions and communication gap.

The Tobago workshop has been helpful in bridging this gap. But more of such initiative are needed.

Paul Caro, French Academy of Sciences, Paris ...

The meeting, based on contributions from the three partners in science news communication - scientists, public information officers and journalists - was very interesting. It was however confined to this triangle, and at times became something of a game of give and take.

Journalists were encouraged to seek the truth and extract information, perhaps slightly aggressively. The implicit view of the journalist as a 'white knight', fighting to extract 'the truth' from reluctant people, was quite clear in the informative practical exercise, which revolved around allegations about arsenic leaking into drinking water supplies.

In that case, however, the science journalist almost played the role of a political journalist. No journalist asked questions about the high pH of the arsenate water, which was a visible health problem in the data provided. The connection of arsenic to poison, which creates the mythical image of this element, obscured the rest of the analytical data.

There was, in my opinion, a component missing. It is the problem of how to introduce science in culture, whatever this is western, eastern or another. For the public to understand problems connected with science, it is necessary for it to have some basic knowledge.

Journalists may claim that it is not their role to be either educators or science communicators. But this is at the heart of the ambiguity in science communication; for the sake of clarity in their articles, they should also provide explanations on the issues involved (such as "what is a pH?").

At present, the media at large (including the entertainment industry, especially its science fiction branch) are the main transmission vectors between scientists and the public. They cannot relinquish responsibility. Given the political, economical and cultural importance of scientific problems, it seems to me that one cannot treat separately the three components that make up the overall science communication business: information on science events from media, public understanding of science and scientific culture and education.

These connections could make a good topic for a further meeting, as the question of education in science is especially critical in less developed countries.