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UBC Reports | Vol. 46 | No. 19 | November 30, 2000

Constructing the science journalist

It's time to train journalists to write about science and UBC's the place, suggests Assoc. Prof. Stephen Ward

Assoc. Prof. Stephen Ward, School of Journalism

The following is based on a lecture given by Ward at Green College as part of the series The Public Understanding of Science.

The media abounds with important news on science: a drug for a debilitating disease, a development in cancer research, the mapping of the human genome. Yet there are also stories about crop circles, extra-terrestrials and a single gene for happiness.

Junk science and serious science compete to gain the attention of readers and audiences in print, broadcast and now on the World Wide Web.

The need for accurate and responsible science journalism has never been greater.

Thousands of Canadians make decisions on what to eat, what drug to take and how to live according to reports they find in the media.

As baby boomers grow older, they demand more reports from medical science. At the same time, our society is struggling with complex issues raised by science, from gene therapy to genetically modified food.

Despite the urgency of these issues, too little is being done to improve science journalism.

One way to improve science journalism is to improve the education of journalism students. Yet journalism schools in Canada have not made science a major emphasis in their programs.

I think that UBC, with its strong research resources and its new graduate school of journalism, is an ideal place to begin a movement toward better science journalism.

The time appears to be ripe. A group of scholars are currently seeking to establish a science studies program at UBC -- a program that could link up with a science program at The School of Journalism.

I propose that a science journalism program be established at The School of Journalism and draw upon a group of philosophers of science, social sciences, natural scientists and scholars in the humanities.

The courses would be offered inside and outside the school to both journalism and non-journalism students at UBC. They would be taught by a network of professors from various departments.

The benefits for journalism students are clear.

Journalism students who want to be science reporters could graduate with a speciality in science studies. Students who don't plan to be science journalists could take several courses to enhance their science literacy.

In addition to courses on science and the communication of science, the program would be supplemented by fellowships and internships that would allow journalists to see science in the making by studying at scientific laboratories.

Scientists and science students would spend time in newsrooms watching news in the making.

The program could bring journalists and scientists together at informal meetings, conferences and workshops to increase their understanding of each other's work, and to discuss current issues.

Also, a science journalism program could help to establish a national science Web site where journalists find science news, experts on difficult topics and analysis provided by the major scientific organizations of Canada.

The program could lead to research on communicating science by an interdisciplinary team of media scholars and scientists.

There could be a distinguished lecture series on the public understanding of science, and funding for a science writer-in-residence at the School of Journalism.

The results of research, conferences and workshops could be published widely in many forms of media.

I realize that I am putting forward a proposal described in ideal terms.

Its implementation would require a large amount of time, money, planning and interdisciplinary co-operation. But the same can be said for any ambitious idea.

Now is the time for those who care about improving science journalism -- for the benefit of scientists, journalists, students and the public -- to start working together on such a program. There is too much at stake to settle for complaining about inaccurate science reporting.

If we do nothing, we will get the sort of science reporting we deserve.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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