Like politics, science is a field in which false news, so-called "fake news", thrives. Rumors about alleged connections between vaccines and autism, miraculous cures for chronic diseases, and the questioning of global warming brought about by human action, spread easily through social networks. Their impacts are the generalized disinformation of public health risks.
Faced with these and other challenges, communicators who are dedicated to science journalism in Latin America seek to strengthen themselves through networks and associations. These entities have worked toward the promotion of national and regional collaboration and integration in several countries in the region.
Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico are some of the places with active national networks of journalists and communicators linked to science journalism. They are among the associations that inspired the creation of the Rede Com Ciência - Rede Brasileira de Jornalistas e Comunicadores de Ciência (Network with Science - Brazilian Network of Journalists and Science Communicators), as the journalist André Biernath, co-founder and president of the network, told the Knight Center. The network was officially founded in February 2019, a year after its beginnings via Facebook.
A reporter for the magazine Saúde (Health) for almost 10 years, in 2017 Biernath took a vacation to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco, California, and from there came the impetus for the creation of the Brazilian network.
"I was curious, without knowing anything, and arriving there I discovered that there were several associations representing each place," Biernath said. "I even expected that there were associations in Europe and the United States, but what really caught my attention was to see that there were associations in countries that have socioeconomic and cultural characteristics and conditions more similar to Brazil, such as Argentina and Mexico."
Biernath then proposed to the 10 or so Brazilian colleagues at the event that they meet upon returning to the country to start a network along the lines of those of their Latin American colleagues. They started with a closed group on Facebook – which now has more than 600 members – and soon began to organize to face-to-face meetings once a month in São Paulo.
"The idea at the beginning was to be a more informal thing, but we began to realize that in order to establish partnerships, think about sponsorships and do everything we wanted to do, we had to formalize the group. It could no longer be just a Facebook group, because we could not grow from that," Biernath explained.
The general assembly, which in February elected Biernath as president of the network and also filled other posts, also established a board with positions focused on online strategies, partnerships and content, national integration and international relations.
These positions have to do with the priorities of Rede Com Ciência: to expand its reach in social networks; establish contacts and institutional partnerships to produce events and content; create a truly Brazilian network, expanding its presence beyond the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo axis; and establish contact with similar associations outside Brazil for the exchange of expertise and the production of transnational events, in addition to membership in the World Federation of Science Journalists.
Biernath said he was bothered by what he considered Brazil's "lack of representation" at the world conference he attended in San Francisco. "I saw some tables where there should have been a Brazilian journalist, because we could contribute a lot to the discussion," he said, using as an example a debate about the coverage of the zika epidemic, which was was partly focused in Brazil in 2015 and 2016. "Because there is no association, the good work we do here in the coverage of various events has been somewhat ignored," he said.
In addition to highlighting the work done in Brazil in science coverage, Rede Com Ciência has as one of its main objectives to improve science journalism done in the country and to help journalists and communicators who want to improve their work in this field. "Many of us have parachuted into the area," Biernath said, recalling his own trajectory, having started as a trainee in the magazine Saúde, without having had specialized training in science journalism from a university.
"When we come together to discuss and think about what we are doing, it helps to improve our individual work because we can think better about how we are doing it and how we can improve it, and we also have contact with work opportunities," Biernath said. "In a little more than a year of being an informal network, the amount of contacts and things that I've learned just from the fact that I created this group was already worth it, I think not only for me but for those who are there, too."
Valeria Román, co-founder of the Red Argentina de Periodismo Científico (RADPC, or the Argentinian Network of Science Journalism), said something similar to the Knight Center.
“Working in a network is enriching for oneself and for others, it improves the quality of one's work, and it also motivates one to move forward, to renew oneself, to be trained all the time, to know more,” said the journalist, who has specialized in science journalism since the mid-1990s.
Román is one of the professionals who in 2007 co-founded RADPC, also inspired by similar networks from other countries and even Argentinean networks in other areas, such as the Argentine Network of Gender, Science and Technology (RAGCyT), and she was the first president of the network.
As the Brazilian network aims to do, its Argentine counterpart promotes training courses for journalists and public events, such as the one that brought together representatives of civil society and the government of Mauricio Macri in the Congress of the Nation to discuss the financing of science in the country and shared tools on how to access public information about the national budget.
“To do an event in Congress also is a sign that as a network we support democratic debate and that also strengthens democracy,” Román said. “For me, working in a network is fantastic, because it makes you and everyone else grow, and also in some way, perhaps not so visible, so immediate, but there is a contribution of working in network for science journalism that can impact and that can really contribute to the scientific, social and economic development of the country.”
Among other contributions from RADPC in its 12 years of existence, Román points out that the network contributed to there being “a critical debate on the news related to scientific, environmental, technological activity.” Another contribution is the integration of journalists across the country: “In general, the journalists of Buenos Aires are very disconnected from the rest of the country. We set out to be a truly federal network, so we have partners in a large part of the provinces of Argentina, and somehow the network also helps us to know what journalists are doing in other parts of the country.”
This integration and this collective talk also helps to improve the quality of science journalism done in Argentina, Román said. “If you are in a group in which everyone is sharing 'look, I did this training,’ and we put it on our Facebook page 'such an associate did this' and 'another won a prize,’ then others are inspired to do more things, to train, to improve coverage, to apply for awards and scholarships.”
Today the network has about 90 members, who pay an annual fee of 400 Argentine pesos (about US $ 9). Members interact primarily through an email group and a WhatsApp group, in addition to a monthly meeting. “Being part of a group encourages us to continue with that role of science journalism. It is a group where a person meets their peers and discusses what they can do to deal with certain challenges,” Román said.
One of the challenges that the association highlights is the commitment to collaboration, one of the pillars of working in a network.
“It's one thing to talk, to comment on a topic, and another thing is to really commit and work and dedicate personal time,” the journalist said. “Not everyone wants to devote time to working in a network that perhaps does not have an immediate, visible, economic result today, for example. So, many times in a society as commercialized as ours, there are many people who do not devote personal time to collaborative work because they think that does not give anything back. But actually collaborating in a network of professionals, sharing the experience, sharing your time, doing activities for others does help you, it does make you grow.”
One of the main issues in Argentina today in relation to science journalism is precisely the appreciation of the work of professionals specialized in this area, Román said. “In the current media, the value of having a journalist who knows about science and health issues is not yet visible. It is very difficult to get full time positions in the media and also for new digital media to consider it,” he said.
“Many digital media, instead of hiring a science journalist and paying for it, prefer to use a scientist and have him write a free opinion piece, or sometimes doctors make opinions and that professional is actually doing covert advertising, that's why he writes for free. It is a great conflict of interest that is not addressed.”
For her, one way forward is “to make the importance of science journalism more visible to the owners of the media, whether digital, print or audiovisual,” she said.
These problems are also observed in Mexico, where the Red Mexicana de Periodistas de Ciencia (Mexican Network of Science Journalists) ended up leading to the start of a digital site. Los Intangibles is a project of Manuel Lino, cofounder and president of the network, which began in 2012 and was formalized as an association in 2016.
The country's National Science and Technology Council (Conacyt) has a fund for science and technology initiatives to which the network has requested funds for the production of news stories suggested by its members. With the money, Lino and his team produced the stories and put up the site that is dedicated to "stories of discovery and creation," as he told the Knight Center.
“At this time, just awhile ago, several media fired many of their members above all because it was announced that there was going to be a decrease in government advertising in the media, and then even people who were already there left. That's why we also thought it was very important to start generating new media,” he said.
The Mexican network brings together about 115 members who pay an annual fee of 1,000 Mexican pesos (about US $51). One of the main means of contact between members of the network is a WhatsApp group, a space of heated debates, but also of collaboration.
“In the WhatsApp chat for the network, we are constantly communicating with each other and questioning ourselves, then we fight, we are satisfied, we are in agreement and disagreement. In 2017, during the earthquake [which on Sept. 19 of that year left more than 350 dead], [the group] was very important, because there it was not about fighting but about sharing [resources for coverage], and this spirit of cooperation has been maintained,” the journalist said.
The network has as one of its main objectives to improve the training of its members and other professionals interested in the subject, and for this it conducts courses in science journalism and journalism in general in various regions of Mexico.
“There are many places in Mexico where it is not possible to think about science journalism, because science is not done in many places in Mexico. I am in favor of pursuing, promoting general journalism in these regions, but based in scientific knowledge and verified; to help journalists to be based in verified knowledge that science offers,” Lino said. “We have a very diverse public where there are scientists that want to learn to communicate, communicators, journalists of other fields, and a few science journalists.”
In addition to the courses, the network organizes the Hispano-American Forum of Science Journalism, which has already had two editions in 2017 and 2018 in Mexico City. The events were attended by journalists from Spain and Latin American countries and promoted debates and courses, which "were full,” according to Lino.
“We were talking with the people from the World Federation and we hope that the next forum is in some way a kind of meeting of the Latin American associations of science journalism,” he said. The date of the next edition of the Mexican forum will be decided at the general assembly of the network that will be held on March 29, when the new board will also be elected. “We are eager to get in touch with other Latin Americans because we do not compare ourselves with the work that the French or the Canadians or the Americans can do. We have our particularities.”
Lino believes it is too soon to assess the impact that the network may have had on science journalism done in Mexico, but considers it is possible to speak of impact on journalists’ work. “The network is beginning to support this individual work and to train people. We do not have a school or anything, but I can tell you that for example the courses we have given were full. There is a lot of interest within the scientific community and with journalists.”