Twenty years ago, an international symposium was held at the Colegio de Periodistas de Barcelona for some of the most prominent representatives of the world of scientific news. These were times when the internet had not yet made an appearance and concerns in the group were different, but not so different from today. On September 28, 2011, the Esteve Foundation and the Scientific Communication Observatory (Observatorio de la Comunicación Científica; OCC) Barcelona repeated the event, this time with the internet and social networking being the main focus of debate.
The first of two workshops of the day dealt with the challenges posed by the internet to biomedical journalism and it was moderated by Vladimir de Semir, Director of the OCC. Connie St. Louis, from BBC Radio 4 and director of the Master of Biomedical Journalism at City University London, opened the panel discussion reflecting on what should be the role of biomedical journalism in the age of the Internet. According to St. Louis, in an era dominated by information communication, journalists need to regain their role of investigating and questioning the world. The profession must move from the usual official sources to the hard evidence, to facts that can be tested.
Pablo Francescutti, director of Group Communications Advanced Studies at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos de Madrid, presented data from a study of scientific news in Spanish television news, published as a booklet by the Esteve Foundation. Research suggests that television news devotes only 3% of its contents to biomedicine, with a special predilection for the dysfunctions of the health system, diseases with a strong dramatic component and to drugs in their broadest sense (drugs abuse, side effects, doping, etc.).
The first block of the day concluded with a talk by Ana Macpherson, a reporter for the science section of La Vanguardia, who belongs to that increasingly extinct breed of old-school reporters, whose function is still to go, ask and tell. Macpherson said that getting away from the desk and contrast sources is increasingly difficult within the profession, which is now expected to scrutinize the importance of the entire volume of information that is sent to the department. “Every week we receive in the mail 500 news items, without even having to ask for them, and we only have space to publish five,” said the journalist. In her view, the pressure for immediacy plays against the rigor and job insecurity, and is contrary to the specialization necessary.
The second part of the symposium, moderated by Gemma Revuelta, deputy director of the OCC, dealt with the question: is all the health news that is published newsworthy? The first to try to answer the question wasGary Schwitzer, director of website Health News Review. After analysing 1,500 articles on health journalism according to the ten criteria used by the website, he found that 70% of stories offer an unbalanced view, exaggerating the benefits and minimizing risks. An optimistic view is pushed even more in the United States, where health is part of the advertising market.
His colleague Holger Wormer
For his part, Paz Gomez, from the newspaper La Verdad de Murcia, explained why health crises are so attractive to the media. After highlighting 14 news values such as quantity, rarity, or proximity, he concluded that a crisis such as the recent bird flu met ten of these virtues and became, therefore, essential news. For Gomez, the journalist must face a health crisis with forethought, with a communication strategy and avoiding any alarmism.
Patricia Fernández de Lis, head of Público Science section, finished the round of presentations giving a warning to scientists and government agencies as well as scientific journals, which are increasingly interested in finding the eye-catching headline for publication. Even so, he did not want to reduce the responsibility of journalists, who currently suffer from a frightening lack of resources. His vision of the profession is inevitably pessimistic, in an era dominated by immediate impact and where the journalist’s job is limited to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Finally, Milagros Pérez Oliva, the ombudsman at El País, summed up the spirit of the day, which provided a forum for discussion for the more than seventy professionals from journalism and science communication that gathered in the Communication Campus Universitat Pompeu Fabra. In a transition phase towards a new model, Milagros wanted to welcome the Internet, rather than see it as a threat. It poses new challenges to the same problems that journalists have always faced, such as the verification of sources or the diffuse boundary between communication and information.
The speed at which information flows today has transformed the lazy journalist, now facing extinction, into an anxious journalist. The reporter lives in constant uncertainty about the reliability of what they can get with the pressure of time to verify or contrast the news, combined with the fear of not covering what is happening at the present time. Pérez Oliva concluded that the first loyalty of journalists is to the reader, not the company or to the source, and what the reader requires is a reasonable context, much more than concise data or false journalistic neutrality.