Monday, 16 May 2011

Sci Comm: The Next Generation

Hi everyone! As always it's been a while. Sorry. There's been a lot of conferences lately and I'm currently house hunting, which means this place and my PhD have both been feeling a little neglected. First I'd like to congratulate NASA for another successful shuttle launch today and second, I have an exciting new post for you.

This is all about a one day conference that was held here in Cambridge last Wednesday for a select group of people from sicence media, predominantly including journalists and film makers, all of whom have extensive and well developed online personas. Several of us from BlueSci where very honored to be asked to attend too, as the focus was squarely on the future. Where we at BlueSci, as aspiring science writers could take the field in the coming years.

The day was full of exciting and controversial bits of debate and we got to hear lots from many different view points about what science journalists should be doing and how we should be interacting with academics and the public. Here I have outlined the major topics discussed, more details are available elsewhere (see the end). Whilst I dod find some opinions difficult to agree with, it was interesting to hear what everyone had to say and I feel I have gained a lot from the experience.

Also I'll hopefully be posting again soon as following this conference I saw Simon Singh again, along with Ben Goldacre and Brian Cox on their Uncaged Monkeys tour here in Cambridge, so stay tuned for that.

The crest of Jesus College
What is the future of science media and science journalism in the 21st century with all of this new media and the shift of communications onto the Internet? This was the focus of a one-day conference hosted by John Cornwell at Jesus College, Cambridge.
 
The day took the form of a series of open discussions with two leaders providing focus to the discussion. After a warm welcome by John Cornwell, John Naughton opened the first session by discussing the opportunities and challenges involved in adopting new media. He focused on how newspapers have become news organisations, with the paper being one of many media products. Science journalism was effectively compared to a developing ecology where a few large dinosaurs are being replaced by a myriad army of journalistic, blogging termites with a corresponding increase in productivity. The reduction is media size was also highlighted; people buy tracks not albums, read stories not papers and posts not blogs. He asked the questions: How do we add value to a story amidst such competition? And who pays for good journalism when so much of it is free online?

The first session of the conference. Science Journalism in the era of New Media
Lou Woodley continued the session with an exercise in connectivity getting everyone up and active to demonstrate how we all communicate through multiple media and how everyone is connected in the small world of science media. She asked what approach we take to our work; are you more of a wit or a filter? She also mentioned the difficulties of building a reputation and a career through blogging and the need to build trust from your audience.

Several delegates got rather enthusiastic showing the different media that they use to communicate. Media included facebook, twitter, blogging.
The second session looked to the future of big stories, not the specific issues that will attract media attention, but the approach science journalists should be taking to new stories. Corrine St. Louis and David Adam highlighted the need for more investigative journalism, acting as moderators for what’s going on behind the scenes in science. They discussed the need to take a new approach, not to just translate scientific findings, to increase the separation between science outreach communication and science journalism. Focus on the individuals and the conflicts behind the science rather than the findings themselves, make science more personable and real. A new paradigm for science reporting is needed which asks new questions and dissects the bitter rivalries and conflicting egoes that arise so often in science. However, will anyone care about scientific conflicts if they are otherwise completely unheard of? Applying celebrity methods to leading scientists became a highly debated issue which continued well into lunch.

Delegates socialising over drinks.
The afternoon session was opened by Andrew Brown and Dennis Alexander with a discussion entitled Impact of Science Journalism on Culture and Society. The leaders opened with fervent presentations on the media perpetuated myth of the conflict between science and religion perceived as cold sterility vs. warmth and emotion. Yet this is far from true and many preeminent scientists also have strong religious faith, although many are unwilling to ‘come out’ on the issue. The problem is that the debate is dominated by extremists on both sides.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the whole debate came when discussion was opened on the issue, met by silence across the floor. Nearly 50 science journalists had nothing to say on the matter of science and religion. It may be that everyone was unwilling to comment openly on such a complex subject, although several comments suggested that many feel there is simply nothing to discuss. Later conversations on the matter also revealed that many fail to see what the issue is, feeling that religion and science are separate and failing to see why we bother considering the two together. The session found that the issue is more science vs. stupidity which is often misdirected as science vs. religion. This session did spark a lot of online Twitter commentary, with the sentiment being rather rebellious, feeling that the discussion was not living up to the broader title.


Simon Singh leading his part of the session about Ethics in Science Media
Discussion picked up again on the matter of ethics as Simon Singh addressed issues of libel cases against science journalists, specifically himself and Peter Wilmshurst. The focus was on the need for legal reforms, especially for the reduction of costs in libel cases, and the ability of larger companies to bring libel cases against individuals, which was not the intended use of these rules. There are also gaps in the legislation with respect to online media.

Adam Wishart’s dramatic documentaries were to focus of the latter part of the ethics discussion, which is often a complex issue in his work. He feels that we should be doing more to address the way in which public money is spent on medical causes. This issues was the focus of his recent work with highly premature babies, discussing whether it is more worthwhile to invest in extending the lives of the elderly or helping babies that are likely to require extensive investment throughout their lives. Much of Adam’s work is considered to be too dark and gritty by mainstream media. A lot of questions were asked about the intricacies of obtaining consent to film and broadcast footage for these hard hitting documentaries and when and how it is safe to do so. Adam’s honesty in discussing these issues was admirable.

The great hall of Jesus College, taken from the Minstrel's Gallery where tea and coffee were served.
The meeting finished with a look at the future of science books, the media that started it all. Peter Talack looked at the rise of the narrative in science books and the importance of self-promotion through social media. He also mentioned the rapid rise in self-published books through online media. This was followed by Christopher Potter exploring the popularity of short stories, the need to beat online plagiarism through torrenting and a look at the evolution of complementation between books and other media.

The event was live-tweeted by @bluesci with the tag #nextgen11, it has also been storified here and several other blog posts have been put together here.

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