This year’s World Conference of Science Journalists sought to give more space to critical and investigative journalism and move beyond science cheerleading tradition, says programming co-chair Yves Sciama.
For one week in July, the quaint city of Lausanne, Switzerland — on the shores of Lake Geneva — became the world’s epicenter of science journalism. More than a thousand science writers from 83 different countries descended on the city for the 11th World Conference of Science Journalists, a gathering that has become a leading forum for journalists to reflect on the state of the industry, share tools of the trade, and ruminate about where the field is headed.
At seemingly every turn, Knight Science Journalism fellows past and present were making their presence felt; nearly one in every three sessions at the conference featured a KSJ affiliate as a moderator, panelist, or organizer. Perhaps no alumnus played a bigger role than Yves Sciama (’14), who as co-chair of the conference’s programming committee helped lead the effort to assemble a diverse, compelling lineup of panels and speakers. We asked Sciama about the challenges and thrills of organizing a global gathering of science writers. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
KSJ@MIT: What was the highlight of the conference for you?
Yves Sciama: I think this conference was very successful on many accounts, but one of the things that struck me was the presence — which I think was unprecedented in a World Conference of Science Journalists — of very high-level politicians. As presidents of the three organizing associations, Olivier Dessibourg (Swiss Association of Science Journalists), Fabio Turone (Association Science Writers in Italy), and myself (French Association of Science Journalists) had the honor of greeting the vice president of the Swiss government Simonetta Somaruga, French minister for higher education, research, and innovation Frédérique Vidal, and European commissioner for research, innovation and science Carlos Moedas.
In their speeches, all three insisted on the importance of science journalism for democracy, especially in a time where misinformation is so widespread. Simonetta Somaruga, for instance, said that in her view, having a healthy media is as important for a country as other essential infrastructures such as trains or an electric network. I think those are strong and welcome words that break from the too-frequent media bashing in fashion today.
KSJ: What’s the most challenging aspect of organizing the programming for a conference of this nature?
YS: One problem is that you issue a call for proposals and go to great lengths to grade those proposals fairly, but then you cannot just take the 50 best ones! That is because some of these proposals overlap — and when you look at the top proposals you realize that there are gaps, important issues just haven’t been covered. So you actually have to build some sessions from scratch, and reject some proposals that got very high grades.
Another problem is that you want all the important issues to be covered, but at the same time you still need the program to have a personality. You don’t want it just to be “warm water,” as we say in France. And then there is just the sheer difficulty of getting 396 proposals and only having about 50 slots.
KSJ: Were there any sessions that you were especially proud of?
YS: Well the problem as an organizer is that one misses many sessions, even more than ordinary delegates! One session that I was most sorry to miss was the keynote (The African Heart of Science) given by Uzodinma Iweala from Nigeria, in dialogue with Mohammed Yahia from Nature Middle East, which was reported to me as unforgettable. I am also very proud that we organized the first ever LGBTQ meet-up at a science journalism conference, and a session called “women science journalists unite” focused on gender equity issues. One session that I really liked introduced the audience to “Solutions Journalism”, a promising new trend attempting to break away from the disheartening coverage that we often produce.
KSJ: What are some things you hoped this conference would achieve? Did you succeed?
YS: Something we got right, in my view, is that we wanted to give more space to critical and investigative journalism, and break away from a science cheerleading tradition that is still strong in science journalism. We know there is room for many forms of science writing but we wanted to showcase science journalism with teeth, and I think that was a success, because we had a number of sessions relevant to that. Some were very hands-on, for instance on how to handle databases and access information; others were more “theoretical,” including a plenary by Naomi Oreskes, the author of “Merchants of Doubt”, which I had the privilege of moderating.
We also had sessions questioning different forms of hype we are exposed to. Those sessions were very well attended and got a lot of attention, which I think shows a form of shift in our profession — the “journalism” part of science journalism is strengthening, and that is a good thing.
What we were not very successful with was breaking away from the traditional panel model to invent new session formats. Despite a handful of interesting exceptions, most of our sessions ended up being panels, but at least I think the great majority were good!
KSJ: How important was inclusion and diversity in developing the speaker lineup? Do you feel you achieved your objectives?
YS: We were very close to gender balance both in the program committee and among the conference speakers (and 60% of conference delegates were women). For ethnic and geographical diversity, we did not have any formal objective, but we tried hard to make sure that there was diversity in almost every session — often by asking the organizers to make room for new speakers. My impression is that we got pretty good results.
I think however that although we are doing better each time, our conferences still have a long way to go before they achieve true diversity as far as ethnicity and geography are concerned. Of course, our task is not made easy by the fact that the development of science journalism in the world is somewhat correlated to GDP — the most important and powerful medias are obviously concentrated in the richest countries of the northern hemisphere. I will also say we ran into many visa issues with African delegates, sometimes journalists but sometimes high- level scientists, with many rejections.
KSJ: What was it like to see so many fellow KSJ alumni involved in the conference?
YS: We didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but I was impressed at how present KSJ was in this conference. Fabio Turone (’17) — who took care of the communication — and myself were on the organizing board; there were four alumni [Maryn McKenna (‘14), Ivan Carillo (’17), Jane Qiu (’18), and Sciama] on the program committee; [KSJ Director] Deborah Blum moderated the opening plenary of the conference; and there were countless fellows organizing, moderating or just speaking at sessions and workshops. I just don’t have the room to name them all! I do think it says a lot about the role KSJ plays in international science journalism today.