Science Journalists Association of Australia Newsletter | 2 October 2020
Wilson da Silva is a freelance science journalist, editor, and a member of Science Journalists Association of Australia's founding committee.
What’s your current role and what does it involve?
I’m a freelance science journalist, writing for clients in Australia and overseas. Sometimes editors approach me to chase up an idea or a topic, and sometimes I propose stories. After spending nine years as editor ofCosmos, I now relish diving into a topic, boots and all, although I probably do more research than necessary. Nevertheless, I enjoy learning, and love getting to a deep level of understanding about a topic.
How did you get into science journalism?
It took a while! I always wanted to write about science, but couldn’t see a way in, so I focussed on becoming a journalist first. I landed a cadetship atThe Sydney Morning Herald, where I learnt the craft of journalism from the bottom up.
Later, I travelled to Canada on a working visa and eventually got a freelance gig with Reuters covering a big Olympic doping inquiry, which led to a permanent job as a foreign correspondent. I spent five years at Reuters, and enjoyed it immensely – the variety of work was extraordinary. While at Reuters, when there was a slow news day or I’d finished assignments, I’d chase science stories. I also started freelancing for magazines like 21C and Geo.
When the job of editor of21C – a futures magazine – came up, I got it and moved to Melbourne. That only lasted a year, so I was soon freelancing on business, science and environment forThe Sunday Age. I was offered a casual slot writing features and news for the computer section ofThe Age, and I went to town on that, writing features about cyber warfare, Internet TV, online scams, surveillance, artificial intelligence – every week was a big topic.
I also freelanced on science forThe Australian Financial Review Magazine, Science Spectra,The South China Morning Post, Black+White and a string of others. In my fourth year in Melbourne I got homesick, so moved back to Sydney to be the correspondent forNew Scientist; but it only lasted a year before I was approached out of the blue to try out for a reporter gig on Quantum, the ABC TV science series. I got the job and have, ever since, focussed almost entirely on science.
What does science journalism mean to you/why is science journalism important/what is science journalism?
I still believe in the old-fashioned values of journalism: that its purpose is to inform and educate civil society so citizens can make better decisions. And science journalism is a big part of that because, these days, modern society is not only utterly dependent on science and technology, but science and technology are also unleashing dramatic changes to the lives of millions, and to the planet itself. And yet, citizens do not have the time nor the expertise to fully appreciate the complexity and implications of science and technology.
Hence, the role of science journalists is essential; we act both as knowledge translators and honest brokers between science and society. That doesn’t mean we are captives to science, nor cheerleaders for scientists; at our best, we are sober analysts of the value of science and technology to society – describing it, detailing its promise and warning of its dangers.
What recent story or piece of work are you most proud of and why?
I was really happy with a piece I did on the human microbiome, which turned out differently to what I or the editor had expected. I came back from the research trip to Adelaide, looked back through transcripts and the research papers and slowly realised the story was ultimately about the benefits to human health from being exposed to wilderness soils. It ended up being called “The Good Earth” and was inAustralian Geographic (Nov/Dec 2019).
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy the freedom to choose when to work and what to write about, as well as the joy of discovery that science writing brings. One of the great things about science writing is that, even when you’re assigned a story that on the surface may seem pedestrian, after a bit of digging and talking to people in the field, you always encounter fascinating insights about life on Earth or the complexity of the universe.
No matter how much you write about a topic, you are always discovering more about it; and the more you write about science in general, the more you see how interconnected it all is. That’s very rewarding.