Reporting on Science in South America: International Coverage Is Good, While Local Research Often Isn't Well Covered. (Science Journalism)
Leite, Marcelo, Nieman Reports
This year two major events suggest a coming of age for South American science journalism and for its achieving international quality standards. In November, the Third World Conference of Science Journalists will take place in Brazil. And earlier in the year, two Latino editions of the most traditional U.S. science magazine, Scientific American, were launched: Scientific American Latinoamerica is published in Spanish, printed in Mexico, and distributed in countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia; and Scientific American Brasil, written in Portuguese, is now available in Brazil.
What we might conclude from all that is happening is that there is widespread demand in South America for news and information about science and enough expertise in science journalism to provide it, as well. However, this is not quite the case. Here's why.
Currently, the Latino editions of Scientific American are hiring almost as many translators as journalists, if not more. (It is true, however, that the Brazilian publisher, Alfredo Nastari, has promised to fill the news hole with 5070 percent domestically researched stories.) The fact is that the science writing jobs on this continent are few and vanishing, and this means that young journalists do not have the incentive to choose the science beat and to put in the many extra hours of classes and readings required for such specialization.
A typical science desk of a South American daily newspaper employs two to five journalists, although two is more typical than five. At my newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo in Brazil, I am the editor, and I have an assistant editor and one reporter, down from three reporters in March 2000. This reduction in reporters is a result of cost-cutting forced by the continuing economic crisis in Brazil. Nevertheless, our small team remains responsible for covering the natural sciences and putting together a daily page (up to 50 percent of which might be taken by advertisement) in the first section, just after the op-ed, national and international affairs--a very prominent location in a Brazilian newspaper.
La Tercera in Chile, for example, relies on a staff of five science journalists. However, at that paper, these journalists might also report on such subjects as health, computers, environment and society. This mixture of expected expertise pushes them dangerously close to the broad category SMEERSH (science, medicine, energy, environment, research, and all sorts of other sh--.), so named by Dorothy Nelkin in her 1987 book, "Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology." One can hardly speak of specialization under such circumstances.
South American science journalists struggle hard to improve their background in natural sciences, but few opportunities are readily available. What makes this difficult is that in many South American nations (including Brazil and Chile), journalists are required by law to study journalism before going into the profession. Those who major in natural sciences and have a gift for writing are not allowed to join news staffs, and specialization courses are seldom available. In Brazil, it wasn't until 1999 that the Sao Paulo State University of Campinas (Unicamp) introduced a pioneering course of study in science journalism at the graduate level.
Often, South American science journalists in search of specialization go to a foreign country to study. I took this route twice in the past 13 years. In 1989, I went to Germany with a fellowship from the Krupp Foundation for internships in science media outlets such as Bild der Wissenschaft and Kosmos. In 1997-98, I went to Harvard as a Knight Latin American Nieman Fellow. Less than two years later I was lucky enough to get a mini-fellowship from the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT to attend a very productive one-week Genes & Cells Boot Camp put together by Boyce Rensberger. …