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Can you RELATE to this? Research Labs for Teaching Journalists experience

Over the past two years a European Union project has taken 80 journalism students and early-career journalists for one-week courses visiting research labs across Europe.

I was lucky enough to take part in the last cohort of journalists sent to universities in either Paris or Bologna. I joined a group of four journalists travelling to the latter.

The RELATE (Research Labs for Teaching Journalists Experience) project promised to bring journalists face-to-face with cutting edge research and provide open access to some of Europe’s best researchers. All that journalists had to do in exchange was to write daily blogs about their experiences and submit a single piece of work (article, podcast or video) for publication (here's mine).

RELATE did deliver on its promise of contact with researchers (sometimes in excess, with some researchers really keen to talk about their work for a long, long time...). But what it failed to do was to offer any kind of on-site training whatsoever. Anyone can talk to (read: listen to) a scientist about their work, but a skill of a journalist is to know which questions to ask and how to do it.

Before the start of the course, the timetable promised interviews, press conferences, newsroom time and pitching advice, all appearing to be geared towards training young journalists how to get a science story published through real-life situations – from sourcing the information to seeing it through print.

The other journalists in my group were under impression we would be working in a group and receive more structured training by a professional, which we could then use to get real, new science stories out there. But when we arrived we realised we were all going to different research labs and would be left in the care of the researchers. There were no science journalists to train or guide our thinking or work.

The first thing the researchers taking part did was re-arrange the schedule so instead of a press conference or an interview, we were sent around different labs to chat to different students or scientists about their work, or sent on field trips to see experimental infrastructure.

The scientists often treated us a students rather than journalists. They sometimes insisted on explaining the minutiae of their work that would never make it into any journalistic report. For the ones among us who had some experience reporting, the week became a hunt for a story – what is new enough or at a late enough stage to be worth reporting on?

For those media students who had practically no experience reporting or even writing an article, the week was a didactic introduction to a field of research they might otherwise have experienced in an undergraduate science course.

There were some online ‘training materials’ – which might be useful more generally to any young science journalist but there was little time to consult this while at the project. We stayed at the labs most of the day and then worked for another couple of hours on our blogs back at the hotel.

In hindsight, the project would have been better described as teaching labs for science writers than journalists. We were told we should promote the work of the scientists. To be fair, they said we are not there to write press releases. But they also said we were not there as undercover journalists either – we were to accept that the work of scientists was worthwhile and amazing and to convey that to the public at large. It smacked of scientism and the 'public understanding of science' approach.

However, my grievances aside, I must admit the course was enjoyable and worthwhile. I got to visit a new, amazing city, and had free reign within the universities’ departments and many museums, making some good contacts. The scientists were friendly and some were doing fascinating work. I also learned a lot about Italy’s ongoing problems with its science system, including problems with funding and the availability of permanent positions for young scientists. There were huge student demonstrations against the proposed Gelmini reforms of the universities (you can read more about the protests and other experiences at my project blog).

The logistics were well organised and we had no problems with travel or accommodation, and we were provided with a small stipend to cover some of the costs. I also liked that the course brought together students from all over Europe, including countries outside the European Union, and at different stages of their career. What we learned from each other was as valuable as what we learned from the laboratories.

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