The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how essential science journalism is in times of crisis, and how science is intertwined with our lives and with daily decision-making processes.Credit: nuttapong punna/ iStockphoto/ Getty Images

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In many countries the scope for good science journalism are now shrinking due to the changing media landscape. A 2009 editorial in Nature asked what scientists could do to help. At the time, the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists was about to start in London and looked to some like a sort of “science journalism’s swansong”. Similar concerns were expressed in the editorial published in the same week in Science, along with an explicit suggestion: “Journalism and science organisations need to explore better ways to train reporters, scientists, and other communicators around the world in the substance and process of science writing. In doing so, it is crucial that the old-fashioned virtues of good journalism—accuracy, multiple sources, context over controversy, and editorial independence—not be lost in the enthusiasm for communicating content in novel ways.”

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how essential science journalism is in times of crisis, and how science is intertwined with our lives and with daily decision-making processes.

“Science journalism needs to adopt multiple roles, including providing context, bringing up lay expertise and engaging with the public,” sociologist, Silvio Waisbord, from the School of Media and Public Affairs of the George Washington University, in the United States, recently wrote. “Achieving these goals demands sustainable funding, suitable institutional structures, moderate levels of autonomy, training opportunities and professional cultures inclined to fostering citizenship”.

The European Research Council is deploying a first response in the form of a €1.5 million grant to establish a residency programme for science journalists in research institutions. A public call assigned the funding to the FRONTIERS consortium (Fellowship Residencies Offering science News professionals Tools and training for Independent and Ethical Reporting on Science), in which Milan’s Center for Ethics in Science and Journalism (CESJ) has a role, along with Israeli consultancy Enspire Science, Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and NOVA University in Lisbon.

The project is set to run from 2023 to 2027, and will offer around 40 fellowships to early-career, mid-career and established science journalists to spend 3-5 months with research teams, or work on their reporting projects at institutions of their choice. Universities and research centres conducting frontier research in any field of knowledge will be invited to join the programme, which will provide training on independent and ethically responsible science coverage and promote mutual learning between journalists and researchers.

The ERC chose to support a project based both on action and research, recognizing that the science journalism community deserves to establish its own ethical rules and best practices.

The programme is focused on frontier science: the investigation of questions that are new and have not yet been supported by established evidence. The narrative around frontier science oscillates between excessive enthusiasm and rejection of innovation. The evaluation of the outcomes also requires new tools, as the social and economic impact is more unpredictable than usual. All this requires a collaborative work between scientists and science journalists, one that protects and upholds the independence of journalism and its role as a watchdog.

To fully safeguard the independence of science journalists while increasing the chances of a fruitful collaboration with researchers (and with the scientific institutions that will host them as fully integrated fellows), the project will first work on a set of ethics guidelines and best practices. Both documents will be drafted with the help of a multidisciplinary advisory board, based on semi-structured interviews with the organisers and participants of the fellowship programme for journalists, and will be subject to revision during the deployment phase. Another research component is focused on developing and applying a set of measures of the impact of the project on the professional community and the society.

The consortium hopes to be able to show how institutional support, in terms of capacity building and lifelong learning opportunities, can improve the ecosystem in which many science journalists, who aim for the highest qualitative and ethical standards, are currently struggling.