Science communication in Canada (part 2)

Today I’m going to discuss science journalism. There’s not a lot of science journalism as the Science Day report notes,

In communicating science issues, the media fall far short. Science-focused stories rarely make the news in Canada, and when they do, often fail to adequately explain either the science or its significance. It seems that Canadian news editors and producers assume that the public considers science uninteresting or complicated. The European media, in contrast, appreciating that science can hold readers’ and viewers’ attention, routinely cover science news. Scientists, for their part, too often do not engage the world beyond their labs and institutes. When they do venture out, they sometimes fail to succinctly convey the gist or broader relevance of their research to the public, industry and government.

Contrary to the media’s assumptions, a surprisingly large number of Canadians share a keen interest in science. When conveyed properly, science news can capture the public’s imagination. And scientists are perfectly capable of conveying science to a wide audience.

I also found out recently that science journalism is not science communication; that field was described to me (by a member of the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia) as public relations and marketing. Interesting, non? I view science communication more broadly but I can understand why it’s viewed that way. First, communication departments are often charged with public relations, media relations, and/or marketing communication initiatives. (Note: I don’t know if it’s still true but 15 years ago people in communication departments viewed their roles as distinct from public relations and/or marketing communication. Personally, I always found the lines to be blurry.) Second, there is a longstanding snobbery about public relations, communication, etc. in the journalism community.

Getting back to science journalism, I think pretty anyone will agree that there’s not much coverage of the science scene in Canada. You’re not going find many science stories in your local papers or on the radio and tv unless you make a special effort. In terms of general science magazines that are not being issued by a government agency, only two spring to mind. SEED and Yes Mag for Children and unfortunately I’ve never seen either magazine on the news stands. As for broadcast programmes,  there’s SPARK and Quirks and Quarks on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio and Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel (a Canadian offshoot station of a US television channel). SPACE: the imagination station (another offshoot of a US television channel [Syfy] which focuses on science fiction and fantasy) does cover the odd science story but they insert the news bits between programming and I’ve never been able to discern a schedule. Please let me know if  I’ve missed anything.

I’d like to note is that the term science story also includes medical stories, health stories, and environment stories which members of the news media believe are of much interest to the general public (and even they don’t get great coverage). The consequence is that other sciences tend to get short shrift in the competition for news coverage when there are so few outlets.

I will have more next week on this. In the meantime, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a new event coming up on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm EST in Washington, DC. The event is titled, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Biofuels: What does the public think? If you’re in Washington, DC and want to attend, you can RSVP here or there will be both a live webcast and a posted webcast after the event, no RSVP required.

Finally, Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind) is digging deeper into the issue of entrepreneurship in Canada and how we can nurture it here. He also provides some resources that you may want to check out or you may want to let him know of your network.

3 thoughts on “Science communication in Canada (part 2)

  1. BaxDoc

    hey frogheart – as someone who was mostly a journalist but who occasionally also did bits of pr writing, I have to disagree with your use of the term ‘snobbery’ with respect to the relationship between the two. I don’t think it is snobbery to dismiss, say, the puff pieces that Genome BC puts out or the non critical, nay, breathless prose that companies hawking genetic ‘cures’ put out, implying that the end of cancers and all chronic diseases is night …
    PR, at least as it most often seems to appear, is more concerned with the appearance and hype than the reality ..
    OK, I sound mega grumpy about it all but I’ve read too many drug co releases and seen too much so called journalism quote bible and verse put out by corporations without doing due diligence. which is what science journalism is all about..
    but I digress.
    what I really wanted to say was that the problem is not the journalism but the money, the production, the editing, the people who pay. when you are not valuing actual analysis or journalism or someone who can sift through the information and are OK with reprinting a press releases .. well how could there be any decent science or medical journalism?
    hope my rant made sense ..

  2. admin

    Hi BaxDoc! Sorry for the drive through but I’m having one of those days … I take your point that puff pieces are produced by pr and communications professionals … you’ve named a sector (and subsectors) which are notorious for that kind of thing … at the same time, I do know that some pr and communications material is highly researched and made as accurate as possible given the fact that it’s being used for persuasion, education, or sales … in my opinion, at least some of the dismissiveness is due to snobbery … that said, there are many criticisms to be made of pr/communications professionals colluding with unsavoury individuals, corporations, and regimes (the junta in 1970s Argentina, for one) … those sorts of activities invite the dismissals and the contempt … thanks for pushing me to think a little further on the matter …

  3. Pingback: Science communication in Canada (part 4a); Italian nano « FrogHeart

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