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Sunday, 3 May 2009


Stories that matter to a changing world

Someone once said that in journalism you are only as good as your last article. Sit back on your laurels, in the face of financial constraints and fierce competition for column inches or air time, and you may find you no longer have a seat. Ignore the technological changes impacting on journalism and you could find yourself outwitted by a new generation of reporters. If you want to find out where science journalism is going and want to help shape its future, then read on.

Improving Standards

From 29 June – 3 July 2009, more than 600 science journalists will arrive at Westminster Central Hall in the heart of London for a week of workshops, debates, briefings, trips and networking/social events. Programme Director Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre hopes that debate will be the main focus of the Conference. “Our intention is to hone in on issues that are key to journalism, and in particular science journalism, rather than just become yet another conference on science. We want to see people disagreeing, we want to see difficult questions asked and we want to help journalists shape their future. We want journalists to go away with new contacts, new ideas, new skills and new enthusiasm for their vital job."Pallab Ghosh, President of the World Federation of Science Journalists describes WCSJ2009 as the only international conference organised by science journalists for science journalists. “WCSJ is not so much about news as about improving standards of science journalism. It is about science journalists organising our own international event on issues we think are interesting and important to our profession, such as how we should cover climate change and how we take advantage of the opportunities provided by new media. But most of all it’s for reporters and producers from across the world to get together and develop the culture of critical, hard-hitting journalism.

The programme

The main programme for the conference is now online with session summaries and speakers. More will follow over the coming weeks with details of lunch and breakfast briefings, satellite events, receptions and drop in workshops. Highlights include a plenary session of editors reflecting on the position of science reporting within media outlets. James Harding, the Editor of the Times, and Ian Katz, Deputy Editor of the Guardian, will join other key players in the media to consider the demand and place for science in a changing media landscape. No journalism conference could take place in the 21st Century without some discussion of the overwhelming influence of the internet and social networking.

The WCSJ New Media plenary invites experts such as Krishna Bharat (founder of Google News) and Ben Hammersley (Associate Editor of the new UK edition of Wired magazine) to consider where news reporting might be in 20 years time, all under the watchful eye of the BBC’s Nick Higham in the chair. For those who want a more hands on approach, there are workshops on journalism skills and new media tools. The Knight Science Journalism Fellowships Programme of MIT and Harvard bring their expertise to London, for those who are only taking their first steps into these forms of reporting. Drop in workshops on podcasting and other new techniques are also planned.

“Once upon a time our job was to translate and enthuse about science”, says Pallab. “Now it’s to provide mature, independent analysis of scientific developments that will shape the future destiny of communities across the world.”

To help achieve this, the list of speakers is impressive and includes the heavyweights of environmental policy Sir David King - Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford - and Professor Rajendra Kumar Pachauri - Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are on board for a plenary session that will set out a route map for reporting in the run up to the crucial United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen, this December. A Conference widely believed to be our final chance to find global agreement on tackling climate change.

A further plenary at WCSJ2009 brings together a panel of Government Scientific Advisers, including the UK and Ireland Advisers, Professor John Beddington and Professor Patrick Cunningham. Finally Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience, will chair a plenary on what philanthropy means for the future of science and humanity. This will feature Fred Kavli, Founder and Chairman of the Kavli Foundation and Mike Lazaridis President and CEO of Research in Motion.

Debating face to face not on ABSW-L

What of the issues that have raged on the ABSW discussion list over the past year? Embargoes in science reporting: Friend or foe? Features Richard Horton Editor-in-Chief of the Lancet and Geoff Watts of the BBC. Lack of scrutiny of press releases leading to inaccurate, ‘lazy’ reporting, Nick Davis who coined the phrase ‘churnalism’, in his book Flat Earth News, will be in conversation with Fiona Fox.

Need more freelance work? Meet the Editors, does exactly what it says on the tin with editors telling you how and what to pitch. What is all this Twittering and RSS feeding? New media is covered in both plenary, parallel sessions and workshops. Are the actions of CNN indicative of a wider problem in science reporting? Miles O’Brien formerly of the culled CNN science and environment unit will speak in a session that asks whether science journalism is in crisis? What ever happened to the ABSW awards? They are back in a short and sweet format with awards for life time achievement and best newcomer being made at the WCSJ2009 Gala Reception.

All sounds good but you still have a day job? Although the primary aim of the Conference is to allow journalists to step back from reporting, clearly science coverage can’t come to halt. A fully functional media room will allow you to file from the conference, breakfast and lunch briefings and press conferences will also provide stories on a plate – others you may need to seek out - perhaps egged on by a session entitled ‘Investigative science reporting: does it exist?’

So here’s the small print…

You will have to pay, something I know that journalists are not used to doing. No offence meant, I have never known a journalist not stand you a drink, but generally conferences are free as the organisers want you there to provide coverage for them. We don’t. We want you there to ensure lively, informed debate, fly the flag for UK science reporting, play host to the international science media coming to London and enjoy a few parties.

The full fee structure including day rates is online, but in summary: ABSW full members get the cheapest rate of any category at £225 plus VAT for the entire conference. This includes workshops, trips, receptions, breakfasts, lunches and more – and this is less than the actual cost of your food and drink! For ABSW associate members the rate is £335 plus VAT.

Speakers are still being confirmed and there may be some surprises yet. To keep right up to date visit the WCSJ2009 blog.

See you in Westminster if not before.

Sallie Robins
Co-Director WCSJ 2009
07733 330344