Science Journalism Is Booming

WFSJ News | 23 June 2007

The retiring WFSJ president Wilson da Silva speaking at the General Assembly

by Véronique Morin


THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY of the World Federation of Science Journalists was held in Melbourne, Australia, on 18th April 2007, during the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists. A quorum of 23 associations (out of 31 member associations) from around the world attended, participated and voted at the General Assembly.


In a meeting that lasted two hours, the delegates elected a new board, ratified their constitution for the first time and heard where the next conference would take place. They were also privy to summary reports about the flagship program, SJCOOP, of their federation as well as the state of it finances.


"The General Assembly was remarkable for its civility, congeniality and unanimity. Who could imagine that such a diverse group of individuals, representing a host of different countries - and cultures! - could reach agreement so quickly and easily? It says much about the value and strength of the World Federation that it can achieve unity among such a normally quarrelsome and contentious gang of journalists", reflects Jim Cornell, President of International Science Writers' Association, and founding member of the WFSJ.


President Wilson da Silva, editor-in-chief of COSMOS, gave a moving farewell as president, addressing the crowd with a few words in his native tongue, Portuguese, and in French, before continuing in English. He thanked the Assembly on behalf of the whole board. He stressed the tremendous advancement the Federation has undergone for the past 30 months.


“Let me say that as President, this has been an enormously satisfying time in which to serve. When we were elected in Montréal, the Federation was a virtual organization with no budget, no office, and no staff. (…) I am happy to say that we have made progress on all fronts,” added Wilson.


From a small surplus made at the Conference in Montreal, the Federation has successfully raised more than $2 million Canadian dollars. Details were given during the finance committee report. With this money, the WFSJ now has a permanent office in Gatineau, Quebec (Canada), two paid staff and a website.


Wilson da Silva underlined that more importantly, with these funds, the WFSJ now has a mentoring program, known as SjCOOP, in which aspiring science journalists are matched with senior science journalists. 3 groups of 20 mentored journalists each can now count on this program to receive ongoing support to enhance their skills. These groups are in English-speaking Africa, French-speaking Africa and the Middle East. The WFSJ is now aiming (if it is successful at obtaining further financial support) at extending its program to other developing regions of the world, in Latin America and Asia.


Wilson da Silva, who remains on the Board as Past-President, concluded his report by thanking the SjCOOP funding partners, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, the Department for International Development (DfID) of the United Kingdom, and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) of Sweden; the “committed individuals on the Federation’s Board and Committees who have donated their time and ideas, and have tolerated long teleconferences at odd hours”. He also gave special thanks to the WFSJ Executive Director Jean-Marc Fleury, and the assembly gave a round of applause.


Nadia El-Awady, Chair of the Program Committee, focused her report on the SjCOOP mentoring program (more details in an upcoming story).


The draft of the WFSJ Constitution submitted by the outgoing board was unanimously accepted for the first time in a general assembly. Elmar Veerma from the Netherlands was critical of the process by which it was accepted, which gave little time for delegates to prepare. But he later expressed his satisfaction after the following sentence of clause 4.3 was added: “Proposals to change or amend the Constitution must be circulated to member organizations at least one month in advance of a General Assembly.”


“I had not received any notice of anything. It shouldn't be hard to do that by e-mail, some weeks before the meeting. So I'm glad this is written into the constitution now,” says Veerma. Nonetheless, executive director Jean-Marc Fleury confirms that he did send a draft agenda to all members three weeks prior to the event. “Our members have to tell us if they change their email address, or if they do not receive our communications.” He pointed out that he was pleased that members present at the meeting unanimously ratified the Constitution. “This is a milestone for us. Now procedures are clearly stated and this should help avoid confusion in the future,” says Fleury.


Details of the new constitution can be found on the WFSJ website.


According to the Constitution each member association is entitled to one vote and thus associations have to select a representative to vote on their behalf. The election of the new Board, although proposed by the departing board members, is also subject to approval by the delegates by way of voting. Before the election, the Assembly had to hear first where the next conference would take place, since it is customary to elect a president from the host nation of the World Conference.


In a room that became very animated, Wilson da Silva announced that the United Kingdom’s bid had been selected as the winning bid to host the next World Conference. He congratulated Italy and the United Kingdom for the great quality of their proposals, either one promising a successful conference in 2009.


Julie Clayton, London Conference Director, took the stage to thank the WFSJ Board for selecting the UK as host of the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists. She indicated that 2009 will be the 200-year anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth as well as the 800th Anniversary of Cambridge University.


She promised that the Program of the London conference would be organized by journalists for journalists and that it would aim to be carbon neutral. She introduced Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Barbie Drillsma, Administrator of the Association of British Science Writers, and Mike Shanahan, Press Officer with the International Institute for Environment and Development, who are also members of the London team. She indicated that the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists would be held between March and September 2009.

The new WFSJ president, Pallab Ghosh, gives his acceptance speech

Some delegates expressed their fear that the choice of London, as the next venue, would send the message that English was the dominating language of the World Federation: “What really speaks against London is the fact that this will be the third conference in a row to be held in a Commonwealth country. In my opinion, this provides advantages to the members of the federation who speak English as their native language. In other words, this could be perceived as an Anglophone monopoly which would not serve the purposes of a world federation,” says Wolfgang Goede, one of the founding members of the WFSJ.


The new president, Pallab Ghosh, addressed some of these concerns during his acceptance speech: "Our next phase is to reconnect with out member associations and get their views on what we should be doing.” He also promised to involve Trieste (Italy) in the 6th WCSJ, and ensure that as many cultures as possible would be represented at the next conference. It was also pointed out that the Australian organizers had successfully brought 75 journalists from developing countries, and that there were delegates from all regions of the globe at the Melbourne conference.


Ghosh also took the opportunity to re-emphasise the primary goal of the federation, which is improving the quality of journalism in science reporting. He assured members that he was going to bring it at the forefront of his mandate: “My aim as President will be to work with my board and more importantly with our member associations to improve the quality of Science Journalism. The World Federation believes that that begins with better journalism. The best journalists aim to see through the spin, challenge the consensus, and question what the "experts" tell them”. One of Ghosh most well known line is that “covering Science is about journalism: stupid!”

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