In a lead up to the main conference, Falling Walls journalism fellows from across the world participated in a workshop moderated by Mariette diChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin on November 7. The theme overarching the discussion was how reporters can navigate the field of science journalism in times of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.
The fellows broke the ice by briefly mentioning their current obsessions in reporting and some of the common strands that stood out were the role of citizen science in society, effective science communication for a new and younger audience, and how science and scientific facts play against the political landscape across the globe.
The journalists were then divided into groups of three to ponder on a list of questions that delved into sub-themes like the role of digital journalism, the importance and complexity of fact checking on the world wide web, the generational gap present in newsrooms, how science news can appear ‘above the fold’ in newspapers and the problem of false equivalence in science reporting.
Reporters also discussed how the problem of ‘fake news’ seems to vary from country to country. While for some nations like the United States, it feels like a new problem, government institutions in other countries have produced their ‘versions’ of news for decades. Fellows around the table agreed that even though each reporter’s approach and experience regarding the issue may be different, journalists should ‘never own the truth, but must always be searching for it’.
Most of the questions shortlisted for the workshop circled back to one controversial topic – the role of social media in news reporting, news consumption, and dissemination. The fellows were quick to outline some of the challenges such as the creation of echo-chambers on digital platforms, news saturation, bots that impersonate humans and are quoted in news stories, the accelerated push of ‘opinion’ disguised as ‘fact’ by influential leaders and the distribution control that has passed from newsrooms to the intermediaries, the publishing platforms.
However, wading through all the challenges posed by social media in reporting, one positive shone through – the decentralization of power enabled by the internet. Now, everyone has a voice. Protests sprouting from simple hashtags have the ability to move political discourse downwards, towards the people. The world has seen it in Congo, in Egypt and even in the United States.
As much as social media makes the transmission of misinformation easy, it also enables reporters to trace back evidence, holding the roots of such ‘alternative facts’ more accountable. Platforms enable data aggregation and transparency like never before, and just like the mantra for any good investigation is ‘follow the money’, journalists should now strive to ‘follow the information’.
As the session with Mariette diChristina drew to a close, the fellows agreed that they live in times when reporters must strive to re-earn the trust of their readers, so that fact prevails over fake news. Their arsenal for storytelling may have changed, but their challenging quest for truth and discovery must outweigh propaganda and misinformation.
Sonali Prasad is a science and environment reporter shuttling between New York and New Delhi. She has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University, New York. Previously, a Google News Lab Fellow in 2016, she is currently on a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship. She has written on a wide range of topics – from Japan trying to grow a coral island for military purposes to India’s plans of setting up the next Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).