With Science Under Attack, Should Journalists Enter the Fray? A “House of Commons” Debate
SAN FRANCISCO—“There’s no sitting on the sidelines today,” announces German science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt as conference attendees shuffle into the room with matching looks of vague confusion.
He herds them to the front of the room, where two groups of chairs face each other. The seats are separated by an aisle 3.96 meters wide—or exactly “two swords” apart, as per British parliamentary custom. As the chatter dies down, Kupferschmidt and his co-moderator, Peter Vermij of the Netherlands, take the stage.
They explain that the Third Interactive WCSJ House of Commons Debate, held on 27 October, is not your conventional session at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2017. It forces you to pick a side—literally. When moderators put forth “motions,” controversial statements about science journalism, audience members must sit on one of the two sides to show their agreement or disagreement. And then, the debate begins.
This year, each “motion” revolved around one big question: With science under attack, should journalists get off the sidelines?
Once audience members have chosen a side (sitting in between is strictly prohibited), the moderators run around with microphones and ask attendees to defend their stance. People can show support or distaste for a comment with a “Hear, hear!” or a “Boo!,” but applause is forbidden. However, attendees are encouraged to swap sides mid-debate if they have a change of heart. It allows people to “have a good time, but nevertheless discuss important things,” says Vermij.
If you missed the action, here are highlights from the heated (yet still jovial) WCSJ House of Commons debate.
Motion 1: All stories on wildfires and storms should also highlight climate change
“We just a had major fire here in California and hundreds of stories were written about it. If all of those stories contained a reference to climate change, the public’s logical reaction would be to perceive these stories… as propaganda.”
“If there is scientific consensus that the changes we’re seeing are caused by climate change, isn’t it irresponsible as an informer to not mention it?”
“I don’t think we should force the view that climate change should be a part of every story, but I do think we have a responsibility to raise that question.”
“We’re journalists and we’re human beings. I think it’s our job as journalists to make sure there’s a planet here to do journalism on.”
Motion 2: Science journalists should focus more on scientific consensus
“It’s really important to not give time to a side that is just making things up.”
“The way we cover science now, we paint it as black and white. We don’t show any of the gray areas, and that ultimately leads the public to have a distrust of science… We have to show the messiness and complexity of science.”
“I don’t see it as my job to win over Trump supporters.”
“If you’re talking about something like climate change where it’s 1% vs. 99%, you shouldn’t give equal weight to both sides.”
Motion 3: Science journalists should work to rebuild people’s trust in science
“It’s now primarily scientists’ job to rebuild trust in science. I want people to trust science, but sometimes science doesn’t deserve it.”
“Scientists are often pretty bad communicators…. The foundation of what we do is to inform the public about what science is and how it works.”
“Science journalists play a role [in people’s distrust] because we hype single study stories…. We need to give context for the story.”
“If science journalists do their jobs right, they will rebuild people’s trust in science. But to say ‘they should’ is not compatible with the role of journalism, which is to present things as they are.”
Motion 4: In the age of Trump, I am more likely to pass on a weak study that questions the safety of vaccinations
“I would have passed on it either way.”
“I would have gone from ‘no’ to ‘definitely no.’ I think you have to be conscious of the context in which your journalism is being taken.”
“In an age where knowledge of vaccines has become so politicized… I’m more likely to ignore a story like this even if it’s getting a lot of coverage.”
“There are so many echo chambers, so many people who are not getting access to quality journalism. So now there’s more of a need for use to tackle weak studies and show why they are weak.”
Motion 5: I would support my paper’s campaign against fossil fuels
“If we [Australian Broadcasting Company] did that as an organization, we would make ourselves very vulnerable.”
“As a journalist you have a moral obligation to present things that have an impact on people’s lives.”
“Our job is not to be advocates… No matter how strongly I believe in campaigning against fossil fuels, I don’t think that is the job of a newspaper.”
“I crossed over and back. I started to think about: would I support a newspaper’s campaign against the asteroid [like the one that caused a mass extinction]? And, I would.”
Motion 6: All journalists should walk in the next March for Science
“I think it all comes down to how you identify…. First I’m a woman, then I’m a journalist, then I write about science. So for me, the Women’s March was very important for me to go to… but in terms of the Science March, I wouldn’t go because I’m a journalist before a scientist.”
“We need your help. I’m saying that as a scientist… We are in this fight together, against the nonsense that people saying against scientists.”
“I used to be a scientist, now I’m a science journalist—but I’m also a human being. All of us in this room support science. If you’re willing to go to the Women’s March, why aren’t you willing to go march for science? You’re not going as a journalist…. You’re going as a human being who’s supporting science.”
Kelsey Harper is a senior at Johns Hopkins University who will graduate in May with her bachelor’s in chemistry. She is pursuing science journalism and has written for the JHU Newsletter and Brookhaven National Laboratory.