My Science Experiment

OPINION | The Walkley Magazine | February 2010


A media scrum around Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating; correspondent Wilson da Silva is at top right

Wilson da Silva turned his back on political reporting to become science specialist, only to find the field fraught with its own politics. 



“WHY WOULD YOU chuck your career down the toilet?” my incredulous colleague asked.


I was in Canberra, working in the Parliamentary Press Gallery for Reuters, relieving another foreign correspondent who’d gone on his long annual leave. It was my third such stint from Sydney, always in deep winter when Canberra is least welcoming to those not so enamoured with the cold.

Over a beer, I’d told him that after almost five years with Reuters, and two before that as a staff journalist on The Sydney Morning Herald, I wanted to focus on science journalism, and was entertaining an offer of just such a job in Melbourne.


I’d long had a fascination with science, having studied geology at university, and had been doing a lot of science reporting out of Australia for Reuters. Not that I was the official science correspondent – there were only three out of 1,200 in the whole world, and the Asia region was covered by a fellow in Tokyo. But there were always good science stories to be found locally, and Australian scientists do excellent work that is valued internationally. So long as there was no other pressing coverage to be done, my bureau chief didn’t mind my unofficial science beat.

I can’t say I was surprised by his colourful reaction: in Australia, science journalism is looked down upon, and not seen as very serious.

Yet, I can’t say I was surprised by my fellow correspondent’s colourful reaction: in Australia, science journalism is looked down upon, and not seen as very serious. The pinnacle is political or financial reporting, especially in the exalted nirvana of the Canberra Press Gallery. And yet, having served long stints within its sacred halls, I found serious stories were often ignored, most reporters obsessed with the personalities of politicians or the minutiae of real or imagined political machinations.

Covering the 1988 NSW State election. Left to right: NSW MP Ernie Page, Wilson da Silva, journalist Tracey Aubin and NSW Premier Barrie Unsworth.

Often, the flood of reportage was more akin to coverage of a boxing match rather than reporting on the Grand Affairs of State. Business reporting (obligatory at Reuters) was more substantial and worthy in my experience, but hardly seemed to justify the cred (although lunch expenses were very generous). 


By contrast, science reporting was hard: one day you’d be writing about exploding stars, the next about stem cells; the day after, about the ozone hole – and you’d better not have missed that big story on swine flu or the hypersonic jet NASA is testing in the outback.


You had to become an instant expert on dozens of topics, be able to recognise a strong story from a beat-up, confidently counter the flacks selling you a miracle cure or trying to bury a story about a pharmaceutical product that’s been ‘temporarily shelved’. So why is it undervalued in Australia?

Science is at the core of many of today’s big stories, such as climate change, stem cells, carbon trading, tsunamis and pandemics.

It’s respected in British and American circles: scores of science writers have won Pulitzers across a rage of categories since the prizes were born in 1917, including Investigative Reporting, Breaking News, Local Reporting, Feature Writing as well as General Non-Fiction books. 


Foreign correspondents visit Johnston Atoll, a U.S. chemical weapons facility; Wilson da Silva is at left

And audiences love it. In Britain, the BBC and The Times are planning expansions of their science coverage: online traffic is telling editors that science rates highly with their audiences. In July, Times Editor James Harding told the World Conference of Science Journalists that his paper’s three biggest stories in the preceding year had been the election of Barack Obama, the global financial crisis … and the ignition of the world’s biggest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider.


“Science is absolutely essential to what we do … It clearly engages our readers,” he said, noting that the paper had expanded its science beats, adding a new ocean correspondent and a maths columnist, and had substantially boosted its science blogs.


This shouldn’t be surprising: science is at the core of many of today’s big stories, such as climate change, stem cells, carbon trading, tsunamis and pandemics. Science is sliding its way into everything from finance (peak oil) to police and court reporting (DNA fingerprinting).


In a sense, all reporting is becoming a bit more like science reporting; journalists who continue to dismiss science or fail to bone up on the basics are not only getting it wrong, they’re missing bigger and juicier stories. Knowing your science can be a backstage pass to where the stories are being made; or your ticket to catching out a politician or uncovering shady practices.

News executives often think of science reporting as arcane and not relevant to their readers: as if stories on collateral debt obligations or the Byzantine internecine battles within the Labor Party are relevant to the lives of readers.

Despite this, science journalism is under serious pressure in the United States, where CNN disbanded its specialist science, technology and environment unit and many metropolitan dailies have retrenched science reporters. But not because science stories don’t rate, but because the U.S. media industry is in such dire straits.


Cable news has lost its claim as the primary source of news-on-demand, something the Internet provides more efficiently and for free. Magazine house Time Inc shed 600 jobs while Gannett, America's largest newspaper chain, laid off 3,000 people. As The New York Times put it in a story on the travails of the U.S. media industry last year: “Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is, how many people will be left to cover it.”

Wilson da Silva reporting on military manoeuvres

But science reportage is booming elsewhere, especially in the developing world: in China, the Middle East and Latin America, new publications and programs on radio and TV are emerging, or growing audiences. One of the most popular TV shows in Sri Lanka is Macro World, and a science program in Romania has been attracting an average audience of four million viewers for almost five years.


Despite the economic slowdown in Western Europe, science reportage has held its ground. Not in Australia, where the picture varies depending on the personal preferences of editors and TV management.


News executives often think of science reporting as arcane and not relevant to their readers: as if stories on collateral debt obligations or the Byzantine internecine battles within the Labor Party were relevant to the daily lives of readers.


I recall and editor who found science an irritant: he said stories needed to be reduced to the lowest common denominator to be interesting to his audience. This was dismissive of the interests and intelligence of his well-healed readers, and only proved that the lowest common denominator was actually in the editor’s chair. 


Australians also have an intellectual life, and an interest in how the natural world works. They want more science in their news diet, as two large-scale CSIRO surveys have shown (they also want less politics and finance!). More Australians visit science museums than attend sporting events. Yet somehow, a myth pervades that science ain’t real journalism and people ain’t all that interested in it. 

More Australians visit science museums than attend sporting events. Yet, a myth pervades that people ain’t all that interested in science. 

This is disturbing, particularly at a time when science is increasingly essential in helping navigate our way through the shoals of complex societal decisions. Our stock of science journalists, and science coverage, should be expanding. All of us are more and more pressed for time, and yet many of the decisions we need to make – on stems cells, climate, mobile phone towers, and so on – require citizens to cogitate on complex issues without access to expert knowledge or the time to investigate the literature in detail.


That’s where science journalists are essential: sorting through the myriad of scientific papers and opinions and fashioning stories in an accessible, engaging way that tell audiences what they need to know. 


Reuters in Toronto, with bureau chief Tony Parry, and correspondents Wilson da Silva and Ann Brokcklehurst

Even worse than not covering science is to dismiss when it doesn’t meet political prejudices. Sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what The Australian does, particularly on climate change. Nine out of every 10 articles dismiss or underplay scientific concerns, undermine widely-accepted scientific evidence and often highlight minority opinions from scientists with little or no credibility among their peers.


Its editorials are even more ludicrous: reading them, you could easily form the view that man-made climate change is nothing but a conspiracy of a global cabal of left-wing scientists determined to de-industrialise society.


Which explains how The Australian was able to run an editorial in November 2009 that, matter-of-factly said of climate change, in an aside: “The science is not definitive (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 found scientists were 90 per cent sure we are experiencing anthropogenic warming)."

Even worse than not covering science is to dismiss when it doesn’t meet political prejudices. Sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what The Australian does, particularly on climate change.

Which is, of course, true. It’s also true that the science in not definitive on a range of phenomena, from the Earth’s magnetic field to HIV causing AIDS. Should we abandon safe sex until we know with 100% certainty that HIV causes AIDS? Or should we give equal time to the minority of HIV sceptics, among them scientists, who doubt that it does? 


Wilson da Silva (centre) observing spinal fusion surgery

In science, nothing is 100% certain. But you don’t need to be ignorant of science to know that: you’d have to have missed more than 2,000 years of philosophical thought, starting with Socrates circa 430 BC. Nothing in life is certain, and waiting to make decisions until all doubt evaporates is foolish. 


Climate change, like a lot of contentious science, does not conform to the old thumbnail rule in journalism that, in order to provide balance, you list the objections of an opposing side in any heated debate.


Science ain’t politics, where a witty rejoinder or clever spin can win the day; it’s a discussion based on evidence. And the majority view of the best scientists is driven by evidence: lots of it, all pointing in the same direction.


The 2,000 scientists who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represent the majority view of the best minds we have on the issue – that’s how they were chosen. If they something is 90 per cent certain, you can bet the farm on it. 

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of the Australian science magazine COSMOS, and a former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

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