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