Lofty goals, poor reception for science journalism centre

The Science Media Centre of Canada aims to improve science reporting. So why are science journalists in Atlantic Canada taking a pass?

By Nicole Feriancek

The Science Media Centre of Canada aims to improve science reporting.

So why are science journalists in Atlantic Canada taking a pass?

By Nicole Feriancek

The staff of the Science Media Centre of Canada. - Back row: Lesley Evans Ogden, Media Officer (Vancouver); Emilie Delattre, Office Manager; Penny Park, Executive Director. Front Row: Ami Kingdon, Media Officer (Ottawa); Stéphanie Thibault (On Mac), Media Officer (Montréal). Photo: Science Media Centre of Canada
The staff of the Science Media Centre of Canada. Back row: Lesley Evans Ogden, media officer (Vancouver); Emilie Delattre, office manager, and Penny Park, executive director (Ottawa). Front Row: Ami Kingdon, media officer (Ottawa); (on Mac) Stéphanie Thibault, media officer (Montréal). Photo: Science Media Centre of Canada

Journalist Emily Chung writes about science and technology for CBC Toronto. She interned at the Toronto Star with science journalist Peter Calamai, and studied journalism while completing two chemistry degrees. 

Still, sometimes she just gets stuck. “It’s not that easy… to find experts at the drop of a hat on a topic you’re on a deadline for,” Chung says. “Sometimes you need that extra perspective or someone to explain a difficult concept.”

Chung gets that help from the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC).

“I use quotes sometimes that they provide in stories,” she says, “and I call them sometimes to connect with experts if I can’t think of any off the top of my head—especially on a topic that I find difficult.”

Chung says she used to just drop a story that was out of her comfort zone. But since the SMCC opened in September 2010, she uses it about twice a week.

Ten years ago a United Kingdom brainstorming session found a solution to the crisis of science reporting: a science media centre that would act as a clearinghouse for science research, and connect journalists with researchers. Canada was the third country in the world to launch a science media centre.

The SMCC is headquartered in Ottawa. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. As of October 2011, only 264 journalists from across the country had registered to receive its information.

Penny Park, the executive director of the centre, says, “We need people to know that we exist and that we’re here to serve, to make their lives easier.”

Park is an experienced science journalist. She began her career at CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks and went on to help develop the popular Discovery Channel television program Daily Planet. Now she is leading a five-person staff that runs the centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The centre offers a number of services, including science alerts, backgrounders and webinars. Journalists are required to register because some of the content is embargoed. Registration is free.

What can SMCC do for you?

Sign up as a registered journalist and get:

• Rapid Response – Call the centre and get feedback and advice on your science story, with resources provided within 30 minutes and sources found within an hour or two.

• Heads-Up – Sign up to be a registered journalist and you get a weekly email about topical science topics and events.

• Backgrounders – A two or three page article written by the centre on a complicated science topic. They are vetted by scientists and experts in the field for accuracy.

• Expert’s Comment – A “pre-interview” with a top scientist with quotes available for use.

• Webinars – Journalists from anywhere in Canada can listen to a presentation, ask questions and get feedback on a breaking story all without leaving their desk.

• Science 101 – An afternoon boot camp for journalists which teaches basic skills like how to read statistics, access risk, and analyze sources. Available on request.

• Journalism 101 – An afternoon boot camp for scientists which teaches what to expect if a reporter calls and how to give a good, concise sound bite.

“People here are passionately committed to what they do and believe that helping journalists get access to evidence-based information is absolutely paramount,” Park says.

In the centre’s first year it offered 225 science-related posts, including:

  • 112 media alerts
  • 75 expert comments
  • six backgrounders during breaking news stories

Peter Calamai, a co-founder of the SMCC, says the biggest threat to the centre is funding.

“Although the Science Media Centre of Canada is celebrating its first anniversary, its position is still precarious,” Calamai says. “It doesn’t have a great foundation. There are lots of people using it, but not everyone knows about it. It’s not a done deal. It’s not guaranteed.”

The Science Media Centre is a non-profit, charitable organization that receives funding from the public and private sector. It has controls in place to protect the integrity of the centre; no single donor can provide more than 10 per cent of the total budget. “We are a journalistic organization,” says Park. “We are not here to promote any particular point of view at all.” 

The centre has fundraised $897,680.93 since incorporation, but needs about $700,000 per year for operating costs, according to its 2010-11 annual report. The fundraising goal for the next year is $2.5 million.

The top two funders are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation.

When the Fukushima disaster struck Japan in March 2010, the centre rapidly posted backgrounders on its website, giving journalists information on tsunamis and radiation. The radiation backgrounder has registered more than 2,000 website hits since it was posted on March 14. The centre also found 18 radiation experts from across Canada to answer journalists’ calls.

Park says two aspects of Canada’s Science Media Centre set it apart from the six other science media centres now around the world. The first is the editorial advisory committee, which has seven volunteer members. They meet once a month and discuss things such as ethics codes, how to cover a big story and how to better connect with journalists.

The second is a research advisory panel, which consists of 19 elite scientists from different disciplines across Canada. Their role is to help recommend and develop a credible field of scientists who will make themselves available to the media. By June 2011, the centre’s web of experts had grown to 1,300 across Canada. It is still growing.

David Secko is a member of the centre’s editorial advisory committee and a journalism professor at Montreal’s Concordia University. He thinks Canada’s is already doing some things better than more established media centres in the United Kingdom and Australia. The difference is that Canada’s version isn’t run by public relations people, but by science journalists who understand the pressure of deadlines.

Secko is also head of  the Concordia Science Journalism Project and has had a long history as a science journalist in Canada.

“I see a lot of one-hit quick stories where the real science is lost,” Secko says. “The actual messy business of how it is created is not being explained.” He thinks the centre will become an essential tool for general reporters, whose workload is constantly increasing.

Peter Calamai, who helped found the centre and sits on the centre’s editorial advisory committee with Secko, echoes this sentiment.“This will create, hopefully, an independent, trustworthy body that tries to do some of the work for people who don’t have the time to do it.”

[pullquote]“I do get emails from them, but I haven’t found them to be really useful and I haven’t pursued what they’ve put out.”
John McPhee, The Chronicle Herald[/pullquote]

Calamai could be described as the grandfather of  Canadian science journalism. He reported science nationally — and  internationally — for Southam News from 1969-73, and again for the Toronto Star from 1998-2008. As well, in 1971 he helped start the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. “What the Science Media Centre does is help general reporters compensate for the lack of general knowledge they have in scientific matters,” he says.

Calamai and Secko are both thinking about the jack-of-all trades reporter who covers many topics and has short deadlines. They’re thinking of someone like Jennifer Blair.

Blair is a broadcast journalist in Calgary. She is not a science reporter but does occasionally cover science stories.  Blair decided to try the centre after hearing about it at a Canadian Association of Journalists conference in May 2010.

“I contacted their media line and they got back to me fairly quickly,” she says. They helped her find a local expert in obesity.

“It collates a lot of scientific information in one place from all over the world, in all different areas in science,” Blair says. “It helps me keep abreast of what the new developments are without me having to read all the different scientific journals. I don’t have time to do that.”

Tom Spears has been on the science beat at the Ottawa Citizen for 12 years. He says that while the number of science stories produced by Canadian news organizations is decreasing, science remains an important subject. “It tells people about real life truth and can stretch imaginations.”

Still, he doesn’t see that the centre has value for Canadian journalists. “This centre, I don’t even know what it does. I don’t know why they set it up,” he says.

The SMCC doesn’t just offer journalists access to any university scientist—it aims to hook them up with research leaders in Canada who are most authoritative on any given topic. Richard Wassersug is a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Dalhousie University. In the ’90s he was recruited by NASA to help examine animals born in space, to see if they were healthy.“I just tell reporters to phone Western as fast as possible. Or Queen’s,” he says, referring to universities in London and Kingston, Ont. “That way you get somebody who will be on the phone in 10 minutes. And you get their home number.” 

Wassersug is one of 19 scientists on the centre’s research advisory panel. He also worked as a science columnist on the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet for 10 years with Penny Park. He has been on both sides of science journalism – the journalist asking questions, and the expert answering them.

He says one of the roadblocks journalists face is the language of science. “So often the journalist walks away from the scientist thinking ‘I can’t report on that. That wasn’t even English. My readers won’t understand a word of what that scientist said.’”

Many areas of science are now so complex that general assignment journalists can find it difficult to determine the truth and act as a translator for the public. Wassersug says even seasoned reporters who understand science might not be asking the right questions.

This is why the Science Media Centre is important to him. It can help a journalist cut through the complexities of particle physics or any other complicated subject.

“It’s about more than just a sound bite,” says Wassersug.

John McPhee has been the health and environmental reporter at the Chronicle Herald in Halifax for three years. He worked at community papers across the country and has been with the Herald for 12 years. He’s new to the science beat and has no formal education in science. He would appear to be the centre’s ideal user, but that’s not the case.

“I do get emails from them, but I haven’t found them to be really useful and I haven’t pursued what they’ve put out,” he says.

He doesn’t find the information relevant because he covers mainly local issues and sees the centre as more of an international news service. He says most of his information comes from local sources, such as university media centres and government news releases.

“With the Herald, we write for a pretty general readership,” McPhee said. “And indeed a very small percent of our readership would be interested in hardcore science.”

Pauline Dakin is another journalist in Halifax who doesn’t use the Science Media Centre, but for different reasons. Dakin, one of the top science journalists in Canada, says a science degree is not necessary to be a science reporter.

“You need to know how to read a study, but that’s easy, you can learn that. The hard thing is knowing the right questions to ask, and knowing how to synthesize and interpret a lot of complex data. That’s a journalism skill.”

Find out more:

Science Media Centre of Canada http://www.sciencemediacentre.ca/smc/

SMCC 2010-11 Annual Report http://www.sciencemediacentre.ca/smc/docs/centre_ANNUAL_REPORT_FINAL_E.pdf

Concordia Science Journalism Project
http://www.csjp.ca/

A Guardian (U.K.) article about the SMCC http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/04/open-door-explaining-fukushima-crisis

There is interest in science in the Maritimes. At least three popular science segments air on the radio in Halifax—delivered by Bob Fournier, and Maryanne White and Richard Wassersug on CBC, plus Richard Zurwaski on News 95.7.

David Secko, the Concordia journalism professor on the SMCC editorial advisory committee, says the public needs science journalists to lead them through complicated issues. “I think we are always going to need this independent body of clear thinking people that can write well.”

Science is everywhere, he says. 

“Science is part of our lives. It’s in the economy. It’s connected to social and ethical debates. I think people need to know where to find digestible scientific content to be able to answer those questions, to be able to live their lives, to be able to know whether or not they think that their garbage should go to the trash heap or be used to create biofuels.”

Penny Park, the executive director of the centre, is optimistic.

“I think it takes a little bit of time. But what we’ve done in the first year with such a small team is pretty amazing.”

Updates                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Paragraph 13 corrected to say Peter Calamai is not retired. Originally written as “a retired science journalist and co-founder of the SMCC…” Changed: Dec. 5, 2011

Paragraph 26 corrected to clarify Calamai’s career. Originally written as “Calamai could be described as the grandfather of Canadian science journalism. In 1971 he helped start the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, and he has worked as a national science reporter for more than four decades. He was the Toronto Star’s national science reporter until retiring in 2008…” Changed: Dec. 5, 2011