ABSW Science Journalism Summer School - session reviews, resources and coverage

Read all about the summer school in this storify account by ABSW Chair, Mico Tatalovic.

Find out what the Summer School student scholars thought about their experience in this piece by our sponsors Taylor & Francis Group.

The role of critical science journalism in the fake news world, Alok Jha, Science Correspondent, ITV 

Media Trends: Critical science journalism and building trust in the ‘fake news’ era by Tania Robledo Retana (Summer School Student Scholar)

People interested in science tend to think that facts are more important than anything else – but they are wrong. That’s what Alok Jha (@alokjha), science correspondent for the UK’s ITV channel, told the Association of British Science Writers Summer School. There, he talked about media trends. He pointed out that when it comes to having a positive effect on the population, the use of information is not just related to the facts, but instead, how the people will relate to them. 
Fake news and misinterpretation have happened as long as there has been news, Jha explained. But, previously, news mostly came via an anchor or reporter. The main difference is that now stories can be spread in seconds. Once they are viral, it is sometimes difficult for the public to track all the sources and verify how reliable they are. 

When facts are the essence of the news, how stories are written and targeted to the public can change their impact, Jha said. Therefore, journalists should know who they are writing for. If we know how to attract the public and present the information, it will be easier for them to trust and understand the facts. That in turn will probably give stories greater impact. 

Nowadays, the spread of information is more interactive and writers can get feedback from their readers and measure impact. Another way for journalists to know their audiences could be writing for specific journals or blogs that people will use regularly as their source of information.  

A question from the audience asked how a journalist can target their public if they don’t know which people will read them. Jha said that providing a story about how those facts or deeds affected someone’s life could help readers to put that information into a new context, which they can relate to.  
Jha cited Trump’s presidential campaign as an example. Most people thought he wouldn’t win, because he was promoting racism and anger among citizens. But he promised to solve the most common problems among American population, like the lack of jobs and economy. Hence, they related that information to their lives and believed that it would be possible for him to solve those problems for them in short term. So, they voted for him.

Since news is spread by the media, Jha highlighted different bullet points that should be important for every journalist, one of which is trust. Journalists should be reliable and able to challenge the ‘facts’, as well as offer different points of view, trying their best to be critical and objective. This will make it easier for the audience to be critical about all sorts of topics and question science. It is important that people do this the same way they question other things, since nothing – according to Jha – is completely absolute, not even science. 

Data journalism skills, Jonathan Stoneman, Freelance trainer in Open Data

Finding stories by ‘interviewing data’ by Tania Robledo Retana (Summer School Student Scholar)

The race for trending news is getting more complicated as the worldwide news feed changes every second, emphasised Jonathan Stoneman‏ (@stonepeople), an expert data journalist. Data can therefore be important to develop and differentiate a story, he told the Association of British Science Writers Summer School.

 Stoneman explained that data journalism is not the same thing as statistics. All the numbers in data represent stories, and it is important to know how to ask them the right questions. He recommended the use of some free databases. Governmental ones can easily be found on Google by just typing ‘free gov databases’. He also added that all databases need to be checked to make sure the information is reliable. He called looking for stories in the data sets ‘interviewing your data’, which involves three steps.

The first step is to group the information, for example as the biggest, the smallest, or by time and type of the events reported. The second step is filtering, which will narrow the information. That lets us know what is represented by those numbers, be it a group of women, men, children, regions, countries or states. And the final step is ‘pivoting’ the information, creating a ‘pivot table’ that represents the amount of time each event is repeated in the database. 

Stoneman then recommended the use of software like 3D maps that could be produced in Microsoft software to visualise that data. He showed one 3D map with the number of car crashes in London depending on time. It was impressive to see how the charts grew as the time passed, proving how a graphic representation can help to attract the public, and highlight the shown data. 

This was just the start of the story, Stoneman stressed. He should now go to the places where the crashes occurred, and research the reasons that lead to those numbers. All this work could produce an interesting breakthrough story, hiding under huge amounts of numbers that are just waiting for someone to discover them in one of these databases. And as some of them are available to download for free, developing skills that will unwrap databases could be one of the greatest sources of information for journalists – and not necessarily scientific journalists, but all kinds. 

Powerpoint Presentation by Jonathan Stoneman: Lightning introduction to data

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