I've spent the last three days at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), where much of the debate focused on Death - mostly of traditional media/science journalism, but also as a result of climate change. I'll be addressing some of this Death in the following post, as well as giving some thought to elitism and, maybe, how it relates to Death (not quite sure how that will go yet).
Perhaps, to avoid instigating a suicide pact among science journalists, I'll preface the Death stuff with science blogger @EdYong's opinion on yesterday's "Future of Science Journalism" talk. He said to me, and I hope he won't mind me quoting him, "It was good to hear that it was all quite optimistic." Maybe though, this optimism was just a thinly veiled attempt to conceal our impending fate at the hands of bloggers and the Metro, as outlined in a few of the earlier sessions...
To elaborate, at least of couple of talks featured speeches by editors - notably John Rennie, formerly of Scientific American, and Wired UK's Ben Hammersley - arguing that science journalists are soon to be subjected to some sort of mass extinction. In the coming media apocalypse, it seems, only the journalists with the biggest pencils and flippiest notepads will survive.
Mediocre science coverage on blogs and in non-specialist publications, it is predicted, will cause this future extinction event. In light of this, bloggers got the sharp end of a few tongues, but some, including Yong, argued convincingly that good bloggers often do a better job than "proper" science reporters.
Meanwhile, we were warned, climate change will be wreaking global havoc e.g. intensifying heat waves similar to the one we're currently experiencing and adding substantially to the global Death toll. One delegate pointed out that we should be highlighting these sorts of climate-related catastrophes in our articles to try to drum up interest in renewable energies. I'm not so sure... I agree with the guy who said we should be highlighting all the good stuff instead - increased energy and food security, improved air quality and so on.
Possibly just as unnerving as the stench of Death was the faint whiff of elitism lingering around a couple of talks. On one occasion, Hammersley expressed a surprising degree of disgust for readers of the Metro free newspaper, available, as most of my readers will know, on any London tube train. I can't recall the exact phrase but it was tantamount to saying that anyone who reads that particular publication was a lost cause and would probably be incapable of understanding a decent science article. Yet several distinguished science journalists I spoke to later admitted to some regular underground-related Metro action. Anyone else dare to confess? I'm not sticking up for the Metro exactly, but the people who read it are not a bunch of idiots. And even if they were, why should we stop trying to engage with them?
The following day, whilst outlining the failings of the British press, Professor John Martin insinuated something along the same lines. Having described how he likes to spend his mornings breakfasting over high brow German newspapers, he went on to suggest that all science coverage should fit into the same mould. I winced as he invoked something vaguely reminiscent of science communication's arch nemesis - one-way communication - in saying that the public "needed to be educated". (For anyone unfamiliar with sci comm theory, the en vogue phrase is "engagement", not "education", which, in the eyes of the sci comm community, is pretty much like saying the public is stupid). Shortly afterwards, he complained about how the high level of media attention paid to animal rights campaigners had left scientists in a bad light. He then confessed that this had, in part, been due to his own and his colleagues' refusal to talk to journalists during the debate. Sigh.
Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't help our case in avoiding the aforementioned journalistic cull if leading scientists and magazine editors continue to view the public as cretins. And that's, I suppose, how elitism relates to Death.
Depressing, eh? The free champagne was good though.