Science Journalism in Latin America: Perils and Possibilities

By Barbra A. Rodriguez
Reporting on the #WCSJ2017 #LatAmSciJournalism and #EalyWorkshop sessions.

Shrinking news coverage at traditional media outlets. Public reliance on social media statements over information derived from science. The struggle to find scientist who understand how to talk in simple terms.

Science journalists who speak to the more than half a billion Latin Americans living in 33 nations share these challenges with global counterparts. However, they often contend with added roadblocks to reaching audiences and enhancing their professional development.

This fall at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in San Francisco, 70-plus Latin American journalists received a framework for their experiences from veteran colleagues during a #LatAmSciJournalism breakout session about the state of the profession in Central and South America and elsewhere. Many also attended a pre-conference #EalyWorkshop in Spanish designed to provide help for when they feel out on a professional limb while covering topics for editors who do not value science or face other struggles.

For instance, only three Latin American nations have a professional network that allows science journalists to meet and share ideas, noted freelancer Valeria Román. Two were formed this decade. “Even in Africa, with all their financial shortcomings, they have more science journalism resources in place,” said the co-founder of the Argentinian Network of Science Journalists established in 2010.

No Path of Roses

Underlying this reality may be a lack of a historical tradition in some countries of using science as a lens for evaluating news. “I always say that the situation of science journalism in our regions is linked to the history of science,” said freelance writer and author Federico Kusko. “In many countries like Argentina, science is not in the center of the discussions.”

Kusko was among four of the WCSJ breakout speakers to pursue science journalism training outside their homeland. In Uruguay for instance, the only specialty training available is at a pricey private university, said Daniela Hirschfeld. The science editor and professor at two universities called the few journalists who tackle science there a potential “endangered species” with a varied understanding of topics they cover. “Science is a mixture in their work, [done] with no background on science topics, jeopardizing the trust that science journalists have built within the last 30 years since the beginning of the science section at La Búsqueda (Uruguay’s main newsweekly, where she previously edited a section that has shrunk from three to one pages).”

Among recent topics she wished media in Uruguay had delved into: Climate change comments by U.S. President Donald Trump as well as brief coverage of an onshore oil deposit found in October [Stevenson 2017]. “There was no science news about it,” Hirschfeld said. “What is the implication…when most of the country is grassland that is used for agriculture?”

Successes were highlighted by speakers as well; they include the thriving science magazine, Muy Interesante, in Mexico, and a healthy science journalism community in Chile, where public workshops about science receive federal funding. However, in Chile and elsewhere, a brain drain [Knobel 2017] of scientists is occurring due to salary and other resource limitations, affecting what’s available for Latin American journalists to cover. And in the latest blow to print coverage of science, the Argentinian version of Muy Interesante shuttered its doors in October. “Most people in so many of our countries, well, they listen to the radio or they watch TV,” noted Colombian-American freelancer Ángela Posada. “So we need to go be aggressive in other platforms.”

Kusko of Argentina agreed, noting that more diverse routes exist nowadays to share science information. “You have to go and build your own audiences. You can do it in Twitter, you can do it in Instagram, you can write books….There are many ways — not only print — to expand your brand.”

However, session moderator Debbie Ponchner of Costa Rica, reminded attendees that reporters need to make sure they keep focused on retaining the integrity of science stories, while feeding the needs of new media to make content “click profitable.”

Building Journalistic Expertise

To help Spanish-speaking reporters build their knowledge-base and connections, the Jack F. Ealy Science Journalism Workshop was held before the WCSJ on October 25. The Fundación Ealy Ortiz A.C. in Mexico City, which has provided such workshops for 13 years, teamed up with InquireFirst to sponsor the event in San Francisco. It was designed to provide Latin American reporters with new ideas on how to develop stories in their countries and with the wisdom of experienced science reporters.

Speakers such as Kusko noted the importance of fighting the tendency of media outlets to prefer science “light,” such as in favoring profiles of scientists as statements of national pride. “We have to talk about fraud, etcetera, the things people don’t talk about,” he said. “We need to fact check scientists: ask, ‘Are those numbers real? Who are they by?’”

Attendees were also reminded of the advantage they have in covering places that are off the radar of journalists without Spanish skills — particularly when they have insider access. “The richness of the story is when you can show the face of the story,” said Ponchner, “and the local journalist is the one who can understand that better.”

At the same time, what Luisa Massarani, Latin American coordinator of SciDev.Net, called the “invisible nature of Latin American sciences” to many journalists means that cross-border opportunities are likely being overlooked. For instance, when Emiliano Rodríguez Mega researched Ecuador’s attempt to create an Andean research institute [Rodríguez Mega 2017], he found no reporters had touched the story. The second-generation journalist from Mexico developed an exclusive for Science about this effort collapsing at Yachay Tech University due to what he called university mismanagement. “[The coverage] had an impact,” he noted, “because they started doing audits.”

Speakers used examples like that to drive home the importance of Latin American science reporters seeing themselves as global journalists [Villagrán 2017]. Hand in hand with that perspective, noted Gerardo Sifuentes of Mexico, comes a need for all science journalists to share responsibility for covering cross-border challenges. “Climate change is everywhere. Animal migration — the birds don’t know borders. Viruses like avian flu — it’s everywhere,” said Sifuentes. “We must collaborate with each other in our countries to know what to do with that heritage we have in common.”

References and Relevant Literature

A.I. Roca (2017) #WCSJ2017 #LatAmSciJournalism, Storify, October 27

E. Rodríguez Mega (2015) Is America Latina Present in Science Journalism?, DiverseScholar, 6:7

E. Rodríguez Mega (2017) Plans For A Research Powerhouse In The Andes Begin To Unravel, Science, July 21

R. Stevenson (2017) Uruguay Sees Potential For First Onshore Oil Production, Newsbase, October 31

S. Villagrán (2017) Will We Overcome Our Own Barriers? The Challenge For Transnational Science Journalism In Latin America, WCSJ Student Newsroom, October 30

M. Knobel & A. Bernasconi (2017) World University Rankings 2018: Latin American Brain Drain Must Be Halted, Times Higher Education, September 5

The citation for this article is:
B.A. Rodriguez (2017) Science Journalism in Latin America: Perils and Possibilities.
DiverseScholar 8:3

Barbra A. Rodriguez is an award-winning writer with 20 years of experience covering the life sciences, health, sustainability, engineering, and other areas. She received a DiverseScholar Diversity Travel Fellowship to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Editor's note: DiverseScholar is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at . This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Last updated 28-Dec-2017,
Published 26-Dec-2017,
Report submitted on 12-Nov-2017