Journalists explore ways of improving science communication in Southeast Europe

The China Science and Technology Museum opened in Beijing in 2009

Organized under the patronage of UNESCO, the XIIth International Conference on the Public Communication of Science and Technology in Florence (Italy) on 18-20 April drew 670 participants from five continents and gave rise to a staggering 450 presentations.

One of the parallel sessions was organized by UNESCO’s Venice office. Devoted to science communication in Southeast Europe, the session offered an opportunity for the eight journalists from the region to outline the situation in their respective countries. Generally speaking, the journalists were critical of the quality of science journalism.

They regretted the fact that many newspaper editors tended to be sceptical about the level of public interest in science and thus reluctant to publish stories on science. Coverage was sporadic, with science news often appearing in an incongruous section, such as that on life and entertainment, which could also include articles on pseudoscience like astrology. Baris Altintas from Turkey and Mico Tatalovic from Croatia highlighted the need for more honesty in the mass media in particular. Some ‘science stories’ were little more than disguised advertising for alternative health remedies whose effects had been poorly researched.

It was felt that the media tended to prefer information on domestic research to international science, even though news of domestic breakthroughs was rare. Moreover, Julianna Photopoulos from Greece Observed that, even though initiatives to promote science in her country were proving popular with the public, such as science days and festivals or science cafés, these events were not necessarily being picked up by newspapers.

Ms Photopoulos cited the example of the popular Fame Lab International Competition. Sponsored by the British Council in a growing number of countries, including Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, the Fame Lab was originally launched at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom in 2005. Scientists are first trained in how to present their work in an engaging yet scientifically rigorous manner to the general public. They are then given three minutes to present their work, with the best presentation in each heat going on to the final.

Participants found that the lack of contact beween journalists and scientists – fuelled at times by mutual mistrust – compromised good science journalism and thus a democratic debate on the impact of science in society. Mario Scalet from UNESCO’s Venice office proposed the idea of a summer school in communicating science to the public targeting PhD students.

Other speakers advocated the idea of editing a guide for scientists on good practices. When it was remarked that journalists too needed training in how to present science stories , Serbian television presenter Ljubica Urosevic mentioned that the Science Promotion Centre set up in Serbia in 2010 ran regular training workshops for media professionals.

As science journalists encountered difficulties in obtaining information rapidly about new developments in scientific research, Mico Tatalovic suggested the need for a science news agency in the region to despatch press releases. He also recommended inviting ministries to produce press releases on developments related to the research they supported through the research budgets and grants they allocated to research institutes and universities under their supervision.

The session wound up with the journalists responding enthusiastically to the proposal by Mario Scalet and Rosanna Santesso from UNESCO’s Venice office to create a regional network of science journalists, especially as some countries in the region did not have a national association of science journalists, among them Serbia and Montenegro.

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